by Mark McGowan
Words, said Barbara Peters, cannot diminish the grief.
Yet the words of Peters and her husband, NIU President John Peters, and of so many dignitaries and members of the NIU family, were what soothed the pain. Words of unity and courage calmed the anxiety. Words in song and prayer stirred our faith and renewed our hope.
“This past week, I have seen despair and I have seen hope. I have seen deep sorrow of the five victims’ families, but I have seen your courage, and I have seen your strength,” President Peters said. “Our tragedy has touched people in all walks of life and in all corners of the world. We are not alone. We are not islands, but bridges; bridges to each other and bridges to the world.”
Twelve thousand people, many dressed in Huskie cardinal and black, filled the Convocation Center for the Feb. 24 memorial service to remember the students lost Feb. 14 and to honor those who were wounded and shaken. Another 3,000 found seats in the overflow viewing spaces. Countless others watched on TVs around the nation and even in Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq.
Families, friends, faculty, staff, alumni and dignitaries, including Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, all came to pay tribute to “the memories of five beautiful young people who are not with us tonight,” Peters said.
To the right of the stage stood five flower-draped memorials to Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter. To the left of the stage stood the NIU Chamber Choir, who with Director Eric Johnson provided angelic harmonies.
Ribbons adorned every shirt. The arms of warm embrace enveloped every friend and loved one. The expression of “Forward, Together Forward” – and, indeed, that resolve to move forward – resonated from every pair of lips and from every soul.
“We are older today than we were yesterday, and in that we have lost a bit of our youth,” said Cherilyn Murer, chair of the Board of Trustees, “but we have gained wisdom and fortitude. Each person who has been touched by this will always carry a bit of it in their hearts.”
NIU was ready and eager to welcome students back to campus for the resumption of classes, Murer said.
“There is a quiet that has befallen our campus with each tear that has been shed,” she said. “We look forward to hearing their voices.”
“We are all in need of comfort now, but take heart. We will find it. We will find it in the eyes of our faculty and students,” added Judy Santacaterina, the adviser from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who spoke on behalf of the entire faculty. “We will continue to teach and learn. We will heal. We will prevail.”
Student Association President Jarvis Purnell talked of the “confusion, anger, sadness and disbelief” from the “event that has changed all of our lives.” Students are “frightened,” he said, “but not afraid to take action.”
“I’ve had the chance to experience something incredible: the Huskie spirit,” Purnell said. “Never stop believing in it.”
Durbin and Blagojevich spoke of the victims – “Heaven welcomed five souls,” the governor said – and of their plans to teach and work, of their military duty, of their musical talent, of the immeasurable pride they brought to their families.
Catalina, Dan, Gayle, Juliana and Ryanne are lost, Blagojevich said, but still loved. He urged the crowd “to capture some of their promise, their decency, their optimism.” Teach a child. Make some music. Serve your country. Hold someone’s hand.
“Their memory is a blessing because it compels us all to search for meaning,” Blagojevich said. “We are not to understand God’s design, but to live in it.”
“From that tragic moment on Feb. 14, America has been with you,” Durbin added. “This great university will rise from this sad event to be even stronger and ever more committed to changing the world for the better.”
President Bush sent his greetings and encouragement through Michael O. Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“May our sadness and grief not cause us to look downward, but to look outward,” Leavitt said. “When we are serving others, it heals us.”
And like the gentle snowflakes that started shortly before Thursday’s five minutes of silence and ended shortly after, Sunday night’s memorial seemed to bring the heavens into a building constructed for basketball games and rock concerts.
Eddie Williams, vice president for finance and facilities and chief operating officer, offered an invocation that begged God for “grace and mercy to help broken hearts; grace and mercy to uplift downturned heads; grace and mercy to heal all bruised spirits.”
“We pray that there will emerge from this place a collective response that will not be silenced, that will not be deterred,” Williams said. “We will not let darkness alter or extinguish our light.”
Indeed, as the audience rose to sing the alma mater near the end of the service, thousands turned on small flashlights that illuminated the arena like stars in a sky that no longer mourns but hopes.