The outpouring of aid and sympathy Northern Illinois University received in the wake of a deadly shooting on campus should remind those struggling with the tragedy that they "are not islands, but bridges" to each other, the school's president said at a memorial service Sunday.
In honor of the five students killed in the Feb. 14 shooting in a crowded lecture hall, five bouquets of red and white flowers were placed on the stage of the Convocation Center, where the memorial was held. Outside the arena, school officials had posted a banner reading, "Forward, together forward."
"This past week, I have seen despair and I have seen hope," NIU President John G. Peters said near the start of the service. "I have seen deep sorrow of the five victims' families, but I have seen your courage and I have seen your strength."
An hour later, the service ended with audience members asked to turn on small flashlights they were provided. The lights in the arena were turned off while a choir sang the school song.
Tears poured down the cheeks of Elizabeth Darrow, a 21-year-old studying education, behind her glasses as she made her way out of the arena with two friends. She said the memorial brought the shootings home for her.
"It made it more real," she said, sniffling and wiping the tears away. "It helps to process it. It's a reality check."
Going back to classes
Classes are to resume Monday for the first time since the shooting, in which NIU graduate Steve Kazmierczak opened fire in a classroom, killing five people and injuring 17 before committing suicide.
Early in the service, a photo of each of the slain students was projected on screens around the arena as their names were read aloud. A choir sang the hymn "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
Thousands of people attended, and overflow viewing areas were set up around the campus, about 65 miles west of Chicago. The memorial was also simulcast to NIU gatherings across the country and in Iraq.
"For all of those who seek healing, your presence here tonight wraps us in a warm embrace and reminds us that we are not alone," Peters told the students and members of the faculty, staff and community in the audience.
"We are not islands, but bridges — bridges to each other, and bridges to the world," Peters said. "In the days and weeks ahead, let our message to the world be one of hope, let it be one of healing and the indomitable Huskie spirit. In the end, that is how all of us can honor the memories of five beautiful young people who are not with us this evening."
‘Heal and return to this university’
School officials hoped the service would help the campus move forward, a sentiment echoed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who urged those present to help one another as they sought "to heal and to return this university to its proper place of higher learning."
Blagojevich talked briefly about each victim: Daniel Parmenter, 20, remembered by an adviser as a "gentle giant"; Catalina Garcia, 20, who wanted to be a teacher; Gayle Dubowski, 20, a gifted musician; Ryanne Mace, 19, who wanted to be a counselor; and Julianna Gehant, 32, a military veteran.
"Now they are lost, but still loved. Their memory is a blessing — not just because of their spirit and intelligence, their love and their laughter, their curiosity and their friendship," Blagojevich said. "Their memory is a blessing because it compels us all to search for meaning."
Others who spoke during the service were DeKalb Mayor Frank Van Buer and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who said he was speaking for the entire Illinois congressional delegation.
Illinois' other senator — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama — sat onstage during the proceedings but did not make any remarks. Afterward, he met quietly with the family of at least one victim.
The school asked faculty and staff members to return last week for training in how to help students adjust to the changed atmosphere at NIU, which enrolls about 25,000 students.
In addition to about 550 counselors expected to staff each classroom, academic department and dormitory, the student counseling center is extending its hours indefinitely.
Plans for a permanent memorial to the victims are still in their infancy. No decision has been made on the future of Cole Hall, but it will be closed for the rest of the semester.