A Legacy of Character

Part Two  “Character in Action”

“There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle.”
- Robert Alden

In the hours, days, and weeks that followed February 14, NIU experienced an outpouring of love and support from friends both near and far. From the deep shadows of our grief, there emerged a comforting circle of humanity, cupping its hands around a flickering flame.  Some we knew; many we did not. Through word and deed, they lifted us up with a simple message of hope: 

You are not alone.

People of character inhabit a world where the needs of others come first.  Today we celebrate those groups and individuals who stepped forward with acts of courage, compassion and caring.  All of them demonstrated “character in action.”

Courage at the scene

For many who responded to the chaos in Cole Hall, being there was a responsibility for which they had spent countless hours in preparation.  Their professionalism on that terrible day will never be forgotten.  Still others – students, faculty and staff – stepped forward with great courage to tend to the wounded and provide comfort in those first confusing moments.  Most have never been named – yet we remember their contributions and celebrate their character with gratitude. 

Condolences & Encouragement

Expressions of condolence and concern poured in from across the country and around the world.  Church services, prayer vigils, massive gatherings on other campuses – too many to name, too important to ever forget.  We learned on that dark night, and in the numbing days that followed, how many shared our pain.  Messages of encouragement flooded our senses – signs in store windows, ribbons on coats and cars, inspiration on billboards and lighted marquees – impossible to miss, immeasurable in its impact.

Counseling

When the call went out for volunteer counselors to assist in the first weeks after resumption of classes, we aimed high hoping to find as many as 300 trained professionals willing to give of their time.  Three hundred counselors, we reasoned, would put one in each classroom during those difficult first days back.  But would it be possible to find that many willing to interrupt their lives and professional responsibilities?  

From throughout our region and across the country, nearly 600 volunteer counselors streamed onto our campus.  They listened, encouraged and supported all who sought help, reminding us again that we are not alone.

In the weeks that followed, counselors of a different sort helped reduce our stress without speaking a word – 15 trained “comfort dogs” and their handlers traveled here from Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts and a dozen states in between to share the priceless gift of unconditional acceptance and love.          

Donations

Over the past year, thousands of people have given of their time and talent to help our campus heal.  And from the beginning, they have also donated material things:

Volunteers making red-and-black ribbons had exhausted supplies from local stores when two large boxes appeared without explanation.  Inside were 120 spools – enough for volunteers to make 30,000 memorial ribbons over the next three days.

Another manufacturer sent 1,000 Beanie Babies for distribution to students at campus counseling centers.

Area restaurants sent food and drink to several campus offices where staff were working around the clock in the days and weeks after 2/14.

Without being asked, more than 1,600 people sent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to the NIU Foundation to establish a scholarship fund in honor of those who died. 

And from the DeKalb Community Foundation came the gifts of 260 individuals who donated nearly one hundred thousand dollars for construction of a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives on February 14.

Students Helping Students

NIU students were among the first to reach out to those in need: 

They organized vigils, kept fellow students informed through social networking sites like Facebook, and volunteered for countless tasks related to our recovery efforts. 

A formal expression of student concern came earlier this year with the formation of a group called “Huskies United.”  More than a hundred NIU students comprise that group, which has pledged its support for fellow students across the country when violence or disaster strikes their campuses.

Members of the NIU football team harnessed the power of symbolism by adopting a simple gesture of care and support:  At the beginning of the fourth quarter, many teams signify the importance of that final time period by raising four fingers.  This year, our football team raised five fingers to remind each other of that which we can never forget.

Help From Afar

Help came in many forms in the days following February 14. It also came from many places, both near and far:

From our friends at Virginia Tech came invaluable advice, wise counsel and warm comfort.  Faculty, staff and students from Virginia Tech reached out in every way imaginable during our darkest hours, and we will never forget their generosity.  Forever joined by tragic circumstance, NIU and Virginia Tech continue to forge bonds of mutual support and comfort.  “Hokies For Huskies” saw thousands of members of the V-Tech community holding a candlelight vigil for NIU.  And when Virginia Tech held its own anniversary observance, “Huskies For Hokies” came together in a similar show of solidarity for its sister campus across the country.

NIU currently holds a tangible example of that union in our Founders Library:  the Amish-made “Comfort Quilt,” designed as a symbol of healing for all who seek to transcend violence at their institutions.

And from a middle school in Westmont, Illinois came a priceless gift:  Several years ago, the sixth, seventh and eighth graders there had raised money to purchase the American flag that flew over the Pentagon during the September 11 terrorist attacks.  When they heard of our tragedy, those children voted to send the flag to NIU, where it continues to reside in Founders Library. 

The world of sports also remembered NIU:  The Chicago White Sox wore NIU baseball caps throughout spring training last year, and donated those hats to an auction that raised money for the Forward Together Forward scholarship fund.  Later, the White Sox invited President John Peters to throw out the first pitch at their Opening Day home game. 

Help From Our Own Community

No one in our DeKalb-Sycamore community was untouched by the events of February 14. From the earliest moments that followed our tragedy, local friends and neighbors mobilized to assist us in countless ways:

They baked and delivered thousands of cookies. They sewed quilts, held blood drives, sponsored grief counseling workshops, made meals, launched balloons, held fundraising events, and opened the doors of their health clubs, spas and restaurants for free to NIU students.

The annual DeKalb/Sycamore high school basketball game became a sea of Huskie colors when both schools chose to wear red and black in support of NIU. 

Area churches offered dinners and other assistance to international students who had no place to go during the week our university remained closed.

And from the first minutes following our tragedy to the present day, NIU has been aided in countless ways by first responders, doctors, nurses, counselors and therapists from DeKalb and Sycamore, including our wonderful friends at Kishwaukee Hospital and Ben Gordon Mental Health Center.

Throughout our community, bonds formed through tragedy remain visible through a unique display of friendship. 

Huskies on Parade put dozens of individually designed Huskie dog statues in front of businesses, schools and agencies throughout DeKalb-Sycamore.  DeKalb and Sycamore High Schools jointly own one such statue, with each school decorating their half of the Huskie.  The winner of each year’s annual cross-town football challenge will take possession of the dog – yet another permanent display of Huskie pride from a university community drawn closer together by challenge.

In ways too numerous to mention, our host communities have strengthened their claim to NIU, holding us close in the warm embrace of caring friendship.

Close

A great writer had this to say about challenge:

“When we walk to the edge of all the light and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen:  There will be something solid for us to stand on, or we will be taught to fly.”

We have experienced both outcomes this year at NIU.

We have indeed found something solid to stand upon:  The love, faith and character of people who care about us and about each other.

And we have been taught to fly:  To soar above the Earth on wings of hope, held aloft by the power of love.

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