A decade later, NIU campus recalls horror of shootings

By Jack McCarthy Chronicle Media

Five slain students are honored with their names inscribed on five red granite slabs in a memorial garden outside Cole Hall. (NIU photo)

A man carrying a shotgun and three pistols stepped onto a Northern Illinois University lecture hall stage at 3:06 p.m. on Valentine’s Day 2008 and opened fire on students attending an introductory geology class.

By 3:12 p.m. five students were dead, 21 were injured and the gunman — former NIU student Steven P. Kazmierczak — had killed himself.

“February 14, 2008 was the darkest day in the history of Northern Illinois University,” then-President John Peters wrote in the introduction to an official report on the shootings.

“On that day we lost five students – young people whose lives stretched before them with untold promise,” Peters added. “Twenty-one others were injured, some seriously. Their classmates in Cole Hall that day were shaken to their core and the entire campus was traumatized by an incomprehensible act of violence.”

The impact of Kazmierczak’s murderous spree echoes a decade later but in positive ways large and small as NIU hosts a series of commemorations honoring the slain and injured and those who helped.

Tenth anniversary observances began last Friday despite heavy snowfall that closed the campus. It was scheduled to conclude Wednesday, Feb. 14 with a ceremonial wreath laying at an campus memorial garden with the names of the dead inscribed on red granite slabs.

“We wanted to provide opportunities for all to remember those we lost, and to reflect on how we have moved forward since that day,” said NIU Associate Vice President of Student Affairs Kelly Wesener-Michael, who led a campus-wide committee to plan the commemoration.

Last Friday’s commemorations began with a community appreciation reception honored those who responded and helped heal the community and was followed by a outdoor candlelight vigil.

Other observances included a Saturday reflection walk and first responders’ recognition at last Saturday’s NIU basketball games and a Saturday concert of healing.

An exhibit continues through Feb. 14 at the Holmes Student Center in tribute to the resilience of the community and features items sent and donated to NIU from around the world following the shootings.

The five students, all undergraduates and mostly from the Chicago area, came from a variety of backgrounds and were working on programs ranging from anthropology and education to psychology:

  • Gayle Dubowski, 20, an anthropology major from Carol Stream, was described as “a bright student” who was also studying Russian and demonstrated strong performances in other academic areas.
  • Catalina Garcia, 20, an elementary education major from Cicero who was active in NIU’s Latino Resource Center and viewed by many as a creative, artistic person.
  • Julianna Gehant, 32, a 12-year Army and Army reserve veteran from Mendota, majored  in elementary education. A Sergeant First Class in an engineering unit, she served a tour of Bosnia.  She was described by an advisor as “smart, kind and conscientious.””
  • Ryanne Mace, 19, a sophomore from Carpentersville majoring in psychology. She intended to earn a doctorate-level degree and working in the field of counseling. “She was a good kid, funny and brilliant,” said her mother, Mary Kay, in NIU’s official report.
  • Daniel Parmenter, 20, a finance major from Westchester, played rugby and was an advertising representative for the campus newspaper. He was also a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

The five were also honored by the establishing of a Forward, Together Forward scholarship with five annual awards of up to $4,000 each for continuing undergraduates who “demonstrate strength of character as demonstrated through traits such as a strong work ethic, motivation, inspiration, a high regard for others, integrity and intellectual curiosity,” according to program standards.

Separate scholarships were also established in the names of Gehant, Mace and Parmenter.

Peters said the response of the NIU community, first responders, public officials and others ”

demonstrate(d) the power of a community pulling together in a time of tragedy.

“This collaborative spirit was evident in the swift action taken by the first responders. It was seen through the myriad ways agencies and universities from across the nation came to our aid. And it was most touchingly evident in the strength and courage our students, families, faculty, staff, alumni, and community shared with one another.”