Northern campus tries to heal at vigils

By Paolo Cisneros

DEKALB – Twenty-four hours after a gunman killed five and sent more than a dozen others to area hospitals Thursday, students at Northern Illinois University struggled to come to grips with the new reality of life on their shaken campus.

The normally bustling community of nearly 25,000 students was described by many as a “ghost town” Friday afternoon as students grieved the losses of their friends and classmates.

“There’s hardly anybody here,” said sophomore Sarah Bennett. “It’s sick. It’s so quiet, and everyone you see is crying or really upset.”

Junior Natalie Calcitrai works in a university residence hall and said soon after news of the shooting broke, residence halls on campus emptied out as the vast majority of students traveled back to their homes.


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NIU holds vigils over weekend

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“I probably saw two faces last night,” she said.

For the students that remained on campus, paying their respects and searching for closure meant braving the frigid temperatures to place flowers and light candles on a makeshift memorial on the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commons.

Six white crosses sat atop a snowy hill, the base of which was crowded with onlookers. Many struggled to hold back tears as they watched the shadows of the crosses grow longer with the setting sun.

“It’s my hometown,” said Michelle Orminski, a longtime DeKalb resident. “It’s people that we know; it’s the people that surround us every single day. It’s unreal.”

Across the commons, visitors signed messages of support on a large message board that read “We are NIU” while others embraced one another, all the while wondering how such a tragic event could have befallen their quiet campus community.

“I’ve grown up here since I was six,” said Suzie Geisler, a DeKalb eighth-grader. “Things are going to change. People are going to look at this city differently.”

A large crowd packed into the Newman Catholic Student Center for a 7:30 p.m. vigil before heading down the road to fill a banquet hall in the Holmes Student Center.

Many were forced to sit on the floor or stand in the aisles of the dimly lit room as thousands listened and wept while speakers touched on the legacy of the victims and the importance of uniting the campus and moving forward together.

“Yesterday, this place of joy and learning and creativity was transformed for one ugly moment into a place of fear and sadness,” said university president John Peters. “Yesterday, we had five friends: happy, generous, interesting and intelligent people who were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson took the podium to urge people to utilize their faith in God as a crutch during such difficult times.

“Our hearts are made heavy by an act of terrorism, which has stunned us, but it must not stop us or paralyze us with fear or blind us with anger or disgust,” he said. “We can’t let one gunman kill all of our spirits. We must not merely mourn, we must march and fight back. Don’t dare give up on God.”

The theme of the evening’s events was the need for students, faculty and members of the community to unite as concerned members of society who have, in some capacity, invested in the university.

“The one thing that is strikingly apparent to me is the strength of the Husky spirit,” said student association president Jarvis Purnell. “I am confident we will overcome this as an NIU family.”

As the service came to an end, members of the audience held candles aloft as a sign of solidarity and support as they hugged friends and family before marching outside to place roses on the memorial.

“It was a very healing service tonight,” said Scott Tracy, a class of 1977 alumnus and father of a current university freshman. “I have a lot of faith in God, but, quite frankly, stuff like this doesn’t make any sense. God is there somewhere, but you want to see where.”

Others agreed that the night’s memorial services helped heal a campus so deeply shaken.

“I feel a real deep connection to this school and town,” said former DeKalb resident Joshua Dresser. “I’ve watched everything go down, and it’s weighed very heavily on my heart. I think it’ll be in the back of people’s minds forever. It’ll strengthen the bond of people on the campus and people in the town and help them become one.”

As the night grew colder and the crowds began to disperse, the campus became quiet once again. Students headed back to their dorms, unsure of what the immediate future held for the university, but certain that life must go on.

“No matter what, we have to overcome his,” said sophomore Nate Gilbert. “This is still Northern. It’s still home.”