by Mark McGowan
Frigid winds whip the red and black cloths draped over the ends of the murals in the Martin Luther King Memorial Commons.
Yet the stream of visitors coming to look, or to leave messages, or to simply share in the experience, is not deterred.
What they discover is uplifting and heartbreaking and, ultimately, reassuring: We will get through this together – forward together.
There truly are too many condolences to read; they intersect one another in all sorts of colors produced by the numerous Sharpies made available. Some are in foreign languages. Some are passages from the Bible. Some are quotes from Gandhi.
“Stay strong.” “We will never forget.” “We are all in this together.” “We are strong. We are NIU.” “I’m sorry. I’m praying.” “God Bless NIU.” “Stay positive.” “Huskies Rise.” “Redefine community.” “Salukis support their fellow dawgs.” “Mourn today. Live tomorrow.” “Peace and love.” “Why? NIU ’84.” “NIU – sleep in heavenly peace.”
By the noon hour Wednesday, Feb. 20, the hundreds of autographs left since Feb. 14 have completely covered four murals, two each on the double-sided easels. Well-wishers have begun to fill in a fifth mural. There is still room under the red-and-white-striped tents for a fourth easel.
Some of their thoughts are not in words.
A couple teddy bears lie on the paved grounds of the Commons. There are roses and heart-shaped candles. There are ribbons, both real and drawn. There is a Huskie paw. There is a Huskie angel sketched in green. There are five red hearts, cut from construction paper and strung together with black yarn, with one word printed on each: “Today we are all Huskies.”
Someone has left stacks of booklets titled “The Way to Happiness.” Another man reading the murals wears the jacket of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. A lone TV news crew films the murals and seeks interviews.
“I wanted to see it,” says Joseph Verstynen, a graduate student in speech-language pathology. “Being a student here, it felt proper to come out and give my thoughts and respects. It’s very touching, very real. It’s unfortunate that it takes such a tragedy to get people to show such an outpouring of emotion, but it’s here. There’s a lot of goodness in people.”
Kimberly Johnson, supervisor of the supplemental instruction program in the ACCESS office, made her first trip to the murals Wednesday.
“Today felt right,” Johnson says. “There’s more time to read everyone’s thoughts, and to put mine up.”
She calls the memorials “moving” and “appropriate.”
“It shows the families of the students we lost that we’re backing them,” she says. “We support them in their time of need.”
Linda Stoklasa, a sophomore fashion merchandising major, passes by the mural for the first time Wednesday as she returns to her room in Neptune Hall.
She opens a Sharpie and ponders her tribute, but no words come.
“I can’t think of anything to write yet, so I’m going to come back,” says Stoklasa, who describes the surroundings as sad. “Thankfully, I have a big tree blocking the crosses from my window.”
The crosses, one for each of the fallen students, stand on the western bank of the nearby grassy hill that separates the Commons from the Neptune Hall area. Visitors who want a closer look at the memorial must risk a slippery climb up the icy slope, and there are hundreds of shoeprints and boot prints leading along the incline.
Flowers, U.S. flags, necklaces and ribbons adorn all five crosses; a pair of red-framed sunglasses hangs from Daniel Parmenter’s cross.
Around the crosses grows a snow-dusted pile of offerings: Countless floral bouquets. Stuffed animals. Candles. Angels, both porcelain figurines and a doll. A helium-filled red balloon. A red NIU baseball cap. A typewritten poem in a frame. A heart with angel’s wings and photos of the five: Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter.
Diane, a woman from Oak Brook with no connection to NIU, made the drive on this cold morning simply to express her sympathy in some way. The memorials, she says, are lovely.
Her friend Jim, shivering in an unzipped leather jacket, seems to have a stronger reaction. A lone tear streaks down his right cheek and freezes immediately in the bitter winds.