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Exclusive: NIU President Reflects on 2/14

NIU Media Services

Northern Illinois University President John Peters stayed in his position at the school longer than he had planned so he could reach this day: the fifth anniversary of the shooting in Cole Hall, where five students were killed and 21 others were injured. 

On February 7th, Peters sat down with WNIJ's Susan Stephens to talk about his memories of that day, the five students he got to know through friends and family, and how the school has changed since then. 

Part 2 of WNIJ's interview with NIU President John Peters about the 5th anniversary of the campus shootings, including the question that plagues him and what the government's responsibility is in the violence debate.

Here is the full transcription of Susan Stephens's interview with Dr. John Peters on the fifth anniversary of the classroom shooting at Northern Illinois University:

Stephens: There are five students, five Huskies, who would have graduated by now, been out in the world, living their lives. What do you want people to remember about them?

Peters: One of the interesting things, from my point of view, is how you get to know people in a crisis like this as individuals, that you didn’t know before. I think I knew Daniel Parmenter before I met him at some event. I think he was doing some work at the Northern Star, but I didn’t know these young people as individuals, as I try to get to know so many students, but can’t get to know them all.

Jessica Cabe, an NIU Senior who came to campus the year after the Cole Hall shooting, offers her thoughts on what that event means to Huskies today.

It’s one of the best parts of being a college president. So when you go through an event like this and learn so much about their families and about them -- Who were they? What were their majors? -- as you are getting ready to talk to the press early on. But then, when you hear what their friends say about them, what their instructors say about them, what their parents say about them, they become almost part of my family that are no longer with us.

Daniel Parmenter was just a fun-loving young man who proved to be a hero, who everybody liked. He would have gone on to great things, been a great sales representative or public relations person.

And Ryanne Mace, who was such a good writer and cared about people. I wish I could for each one of them hand them their degree, as I do for so many of the students.

Catalina Garcia, such a beautiful young woman with high aspirations for a first generation Latino student. Her brother of course, Jaime, is here with us as well.

And Juliana Gehant, who was an adult student, older student, who served our country and came back to get her education.

Gail Dubowski believed in her faith. She had a strong faith. She loved music and she brightened everybody’s life.

We learned those things about them in the process of grieving and then healing. To me, they are larger than life figures. They personify the NIU student. They are diverse. Some are first generation. They were involved. For me anyway, I feel like I know them. It’s hard for their parents and loved ones. Each year, we talk to them, they are doing a little bit better, but they never get over it. It’s an interesting phenomenon, because we got to know them as people after this tragedy.

Stephens: What do you hear from the people who were injured?

Peters: On occasion. It’s five years out. And almost all of those students are gone. I can’t give you the numbers, just a very few, some have remained in the area. I expect that after the memorial, we always have a private gathering of all the parents and students and support people. I am amazed at how many come back and make a reconnection. I ran into a couple of them at the Orange Bowl. They were obviously smiling. They are all moving on with their lives. I look forward to hearing them, to hear their stories. They have jobs, some have gotten married, I want to hear about their lives and stay involved with what they are doing.

Another interesting thing about it is many individuals come back who were here at that time to make that connection, to reconnect at that time. Not a sense of obligation. It’s a sense of reconnecting with what happened and how we got through. It was a very formative part of their life.

Stephens: Where did you go for help? How did you process this?

Peters: Oh, well, in the early days and hours, and weeks, and maybe even the first months, you really don’t have time to process when you are dealing with a tragedy of that magnitude. And uh, but very early on, something came over me. I needed to get out and I needed to talk to students. And I would look at them and they would tell me their story and express their grief and I would tell them to be strong. And they would look at me with a look like “you be strong.” I got strength from that. It was a very interesting phenomenon.

The other thing that happened, it became very clear to me… I don’t talk about this too much nationally, but I have been talking more about it because, isn’t it unfortunate that more and more of these things happen almost every day or week? And I get called and asked for advice from presidents or from people who head organizations, and my advice is, whether you like it or not, you are going to be the spokesperson for what your community is feeling. So I felt that my role was to express to the world what we were feeling, what the students were feeling about this horrible event at NIU. That’s how I dealt with it. The pain is still there, for all of us who were here. But every year we learn to deal with it a little bit more.

Stephens: There’s a scar that gets torn open every month or two, with shootings in public places. What does NIU’s experience have to offer whoever is the latest victim?

Peters: I wish there was some magic formula, or a set of five things you can do. I think the message is that life goes on eventually, but you have to pause to honor those who fell, who were injured, you do have to listen very, very carefully to the needs and fulfill the needs of people when you go through it, take care of their needs. It’s old-fashioned, but I think these large organizations that are pretty impersonal, you have to treat it as a family matter. This was a very personal matter. Someone came into our house and did violence. Did violence to members of our family, so you have to be familial about the way you approach it. Try and do the right thing, knowing that you can’t ever make this go away and that people will criticize how you do some things. But do the best you can, try to do the right thing and take care of people, and eventually we will all come together  and move on.

Stephens: Early on, you pledged to not allow an act of violence to define the university. How have you done?

Peters: I said it, but I didn’t do anything. It’s what NIU people did. I think they listened to it and lived it. They didn’t let it define us. The institution is in an incredibly strong position and place relative to the horrible economy and the gridlock and the insanity that is surrounding public institutions and public higher education and life these days. Here we are moving on, doing good things in spite of economic difficulties. We are healing, attracting great students and great faculty, and we even did things like going to the Orange Bowl.

Stephens: In the “One Year After” speech, you said something that stuck with me.  We’ve been given the bittersweet gift of perspective. It was a chance to know what’s important and what’s not. What stopped being important to you that day?

Peters: I have always been very task oriented when I came here 13 years ago. I had a vision about how I thought this great institution could be burnished and take the next step forward. You do all the things you do to get the intuition’s name out. So I was involved in a lot of those activities, programmatic activities, raising funds, building buildings. And uh, I enjoyed that tremendously, and it makes a difference, you have to have that. What re-centered me was our basic role here. And that is educating the next generation of citizens.  Teachers and poets and physicians and engineers, all that we do. But try and educate people how they can be successful in society, to be better community members, to be better citizens. So that became the most important thing. Give the best education and best educational experience you can to our students. It’s very hard to do. It was always there with me, but that really highlighted it’s the individual that counts. Some students wonder, gee, how they got in, or wonder if they can make it. We have to make sure that every one of those students has a chance because for a lot of them, quite frankly, NIU is their chance for a good life. And that’s everything. Career, the way you relate to tragedies, how you work with people who are diverse.

Stephens: How did being here for the fifth anniversary play into your decision to move on this year as president of NIU?

Peters: I will tell you something, tell your audience something, because it’s local. I fully intended for 2008 to be my last year because everyone knows I believe presidencies are finite. You come in, you do it, you do the best you can, but they don’t need to be lifetime jobs. I thought 8 years was a good number, that you accomplish what you can. 2008 came and I couldn’t leave. Personally I couldn’t leave. I was too committed. And for whatever reason, you need some stability during a crisis like this, and that starts at the top. And so, I in my mind said I really need to see this thing through, until I was comfortable that we had achieved those things we had talked about. We wouldn’t let this thing define us and we were going to heal. We are in the position now where it’s five years later. We will never be completely healed. There’s scar tissue, I like the way you put that, but we are moving forward.  And so it was yes, absolutely a key ingredient to my decision. Now it was time for me to step aside and hope we get a great new leader, president and take this thing, this NIU, this Northern, to greater heights.

Stephens: When  were you able to start your day without February 14th being the first thing you thought of?

Peters: A long time. That’s the other advice I give people. This is not  going to be over for you in a year. It takes a long time. And to think every day, 2/14, oh, a couple years. But there’s not a day that goes by that it isn’t in some way in my mind. There’s not a minute that goes by, 24/7, 365 days a year, when my ear isn’t tuned to the events on campus and my concern for the health and safety of our students. So it never goes away.

Stephens: Where were you when you first heard about it?

Peters: I was in my office, at my desk, it was sunny, and I got a call at 3 or whatever it was, from Dr. Eddie Williams who was in charge of our crisis management team. That we have a shooting on campus and that we don’t know much right now, we’ll get right back to you, but there’s an active shooting and we will immediately commence our crisis management group. And I walked into my office in the conference room and waited for everyone to assemble and tried to get as much information as I could. So I was here.

Stephens: What’s unanswered for you from that day?

Peters: Well, the only thing that’s left unanswered, and we did a Herculean job of trying to answer the question, “why would someone do this?”  And we tried as best we could. And the answers are not completely satisfying. They are highly speculative, as they are in these cases, as we try to figure out each new episode what was in the minds of the individuals who do this. Sandy Hook! What was in the minds…we will never know.  This is very frustrating for rational people, educated people. We want to know why! That remains the unanswered question. I‘ve kind of learned to live with it and I think about it, I pick it up every now and then. I read what I can about the individuals who are so troubled. I try to figure out how we can prevent it and how we can get people help. That’s the only question that for me that is not completely answered.

Stephens: What can society do to make this stop?

Peters: The one thing that Sandy Hook did, I think it took the horrific thought that young innocent people of a tender age were so brutally harmed, has focused attention on how can we prevent this violence. What are the root causes of it? And I know that it always goes to certain things, it’s very predictable. Is it gun control, too many guns? But it’s really much more complex than that, isn’t it? It really is a societal issue. I suppose those, our historians, our cultural historians, would argue that historically, we have settled a lot of our disputes in violent ways. Historically! A lot of societies do that. It’s in the culture a little bit. Add to that the complexities of a modern world. Add to that some of the economic issues that we face. Add to that that we as a society have not grappled with how you deal with mental illness. When do you identify it, how do you intervene? What therapies are available to people? And then I suppose the culture of how you settle disputes. And some people will talk about violent video games and people will talk about too many guns. I think the answer is all of those things. I think we need a good national conversation on the nature of violence in our society. That’s a long term thing. I don’t know if we will ever get there. There are hundreds of millions of guns available. There are many young people that go untreated for their mental issues. We have far too many people solving their problems with violence, domestic violence. It’s ubiquitous in the newspapers. It’s getting so that, you know, our episode was in the papers for a long time. Now episodes like that are two day stories. Isn’t that a sad commentary on the times in which we live?

Stephens: Pulling from your experiences as president and as a political science professor, what’s the government’s responsibility?

Peters: I think the government is responsible for setting the tone for reasonable regulations. For provision for health care, for mental heatlh care, for reasonable regulation. I believe in the second amendment. But for regulation of who can have guns, for education in the schools. For privacy laws that both protect privacy and at the same time protect society. When do you have to report you have an individual who may be a threat and who do you have to report that to? We all work on security. Every day I get three of four emails from companies that have text alert systems and security systems. That’s an answer of a sort, but you’re always one or two episodes behind in this. Now the issue turns to should we have guards in schools. Maybe, maybe not. That’s a role for government to have these discussions. It’s complicated because you know of our federal system. You have local people who see one thing, state people who see another, and then federal law. That’s why I am glad we are finally having a national debate. And I do hope that President Obama in his State of the Union address that’s coming up as we tape this interview, I hope that he takes the broader view of this, as I have attempted to do, not just focus on one or two things because I think that’s what it’s going to take.

Stephens: You will be standing out there in the cold again, the fifth anniversary at the memorial site. What do you want to tell the people who gather there?

Peters: To me, it’s always a very precious moment. Because I feel this obligation to speak for the families and our five kids who perished. To say something they would want me to tell the audience. Boy, that’s hard to do. This will be the fifth time. And this one is special for me too, because it’s my last. This is, in a sense, my last public expression. So it weighs heavily on me. I am not a poetic person. I wish I could find the words, and I haven’t got them yet. But the theme to me is we are all moving on, see. I’m moving on, the students are moving on, faculty move on, the parents will move on. They’re still here. They’re still out here as an inspiration to those that will come. So I am trying to find the words to do that. Maybe there’s a speech writer who will help me. No, that’s a very personal thing that will come from the heart.

Stephens: One pleasant thing is the scholarships.

Peters: This year, we gave the 20th, can you believe that, Forward, Together Forward scholarship. And we gave it to four women and one man this year, they are incredible stories. One thing about being a president who is leaving in a few months, I tell people what they should do in the future. I would like to see a brochure highlighting what those scholarship winners have done with their lives. Some of them are four years ago, five years ago, and they’re out now. What are they doing? Have they fulfilled both the promise and the hope of that scholarship, that they would carry on the name of our five? I will be interested in seeing that. But it’s a renewal. I am so appreciative to all of the individuals who gave to that fund, large and small, thousands of gifts, so we could offer these every year. And every year, all that they can, the parents of the five victims show up.  And I am always stunned with the connection they make with these recipients. You know what they’re thinking.

Stephens: How will you observe the sixth anniversary?

Peters: Probably come back and melt in the crowd. Observe it from the gallery rather than the stage. Of course, being president, one of the wonderful things is you can pretty much deicide what these are going to be, within reason. The new president has a bit of a challenge to understand the depth of feeling on this issue and then figure out what sort of traditions are best. You know these traditions can change, over time they do change. And so we will have to wait and see.

Additional: I have to write two kinds of books. If I get to it, I have so much to do. One would be a more administrative book about complex organizations and higher education, and it would be fairly humorous because I have experienced a lot of strange things. But I can’t write that kind of book and talk about February 14th. So I am probably going to write another kind of book about that experience, recounting some of these stories but kind of wrapping other things around it. And that one I will probably write first. Of course, neither one will be particularly well read. 

Susan is an award-winning reporter/writer at her favorite radio station. She's also WNIJ's Perspectives editor, Under Rocks contributor, and local host of All Things Considered.
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