By Dan Campana
My mind wandered while sitting in Cole Hall last fall.
As a Northern Illinois Newspaper Association board member, I sat in the long-since renovated lecture hall to support a NINA-sponsored seminar on watchdog journalism.
As someone who worked as a reporter in this community in the early 2000s and returned on Northern Illinois University’s darkest day a decade ago, I couldn’t help but think about all the horror and rebuilding associated with Cole Hall.
Although I’ve been to NIU several times in recent years through my work with NINA, there was a six-year gap between the two days I spent covering the 2008 mass shooting and my next trip to campus. I reflected on that visit in a column – reprinted below on the eve of the shooting’s 10th anniversary – which appeared in the July 2014 issue of Illinois Cops Magazine.
Reporters see ghosts.
Much like police officers carry with them the memories or visions of their cases and the victims involved, many reporters see the world through a filter of the stories they’ve covered. This can be especially true for media types who regularly cover crime and public safety.
It happens most for me while driving certain routes in and around Kane, DeKalb and DuPage counties: fatal crash there; helicopter went down in that field; that’s the house where so-and-so was killed.
The thought of these sad, often tragic, stories surface without so much as an extra thought to trigger it. My late-May trip to Northern Illinois University, however, was something I had contemplated.
Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find my report on NIU’s large-scale active shooter training held just after Memorial Day. It was my first trip back to campus since covering the 2008 shooting rampage which left five students dead. Training organizers understood what it would mean to hold this type of exercise where the reality of tragedy will never be totally forgotten.
I spent three-and-a-half years working for DeKalb’s Daily Chronicle in the early 2000s, which meant plenty of opportunities to interact with the college community. By 2008, I was working at the Aurora Beacon-News in its downtown office not far from the Fox River.
When the newsroom scanner crackled with the words “mass casualty” late that Valentine’s Day afternoon, my familiarity with DeKalb and NIU prompted the editor’s decision to send me to the scene. I arrived to find the campus, and community, turned upside down in a frantic scene that defied what I remembered from years earlier.
The cold, gray afternoon turned into a frigid night. I spent hours walking between Cole Hall and the media staging area, talking to students and others and piecing together a local story about an all-too-common national event.
I returned the next day, to stand with other media in a matted down snow pile cordoned off a short distance from the scene where investigators, university officials and, yes, even the politicians, showed up to survey what happened.
Fast forward six years to find me standing on the Neptune Hall lawn where that snow bank melted long ago. I crossed one of the bridges that carve a path to Cole from the northeast. A quiet, tasteful memorial to the students lost stands solemnly several steps from one building entrance.
Student left campus a few weeks before that May morning, which left Cole slumbering. Oddly, the silence around the area was reminiscent of the day after the shooting. The warm air and sounds of water flowing beneath the bridges provided the proper contrast to my last time there.
For several minutes I mentally overlaid the images of Valentine’s Day 2008 upon the scene in front of me. I purposely acknowledged the ghosts to fully grasp how much has changed over time.
Watching the training unfold later that morning I thought about what it must be like for some of those officers to train for a tragedy they’ve already experienced. Focus, speed and precision were words used to describe how well everyone involved had performed. This exercise was about preparedness and teamwork, but also to show how NIU continues to progress and write new chapters in its history.
Seeing it all firsthand proved to be a good experience for me. It won’t erase what I initially think the next time I step on campus, but it is reassuring to finally understand what moving forward has meant at NIU.