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A decade later, NIU shooting survivors try to reclaim normalcy

Eric Mace and his wife, Mary Kay, say goodbye for the afternoon before Eric leaves for the afternoon at their home Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Petersburg. Their daughter, Ryanne Mace, 19, was one of five NIU students fatally shot by a gunman at Cole Hall in the DeKalb campus on Feb. 14, 2008.
Eric Mace and his wife, Mary Kay, say goodbye for the afternoon before Eric leaves for the afternoon at their home Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, in Petersburg. Their daughter, Ryanne Mace, 19, was one of five NIU students fatally shot by a gunman at Cole Hall in the DeKalb campus on Feb. 14, 2008.

CHICAGO — On Monday morning, Laurel Dubowski brought out the three full-size photo albums and a scrapbook, all the sympathy cards and letters people wrote in those early years. Her husband, Joe, estimated he was looking at 500 pieces on the dining room table.

It is a tricky exercise for the Dubowskis — taking in that outpouring of sorrow, sympathy and support while trying to move on from the day 10 years ago when a gunman dressed in black stormed the stage of their daughter's lecture hall at Northern Illinois University and killed her.

He killed five people that afternoon, wounded about 20 others, then turned the gun on himself.

"We're finally at the point in our lives where we have the house to ourselves and have a little time to go through it," Joe Dubowski said. "It's challenging because even though we still have it and haven't gone through it, this is like re-experiencing the whole thing again."

The couple planned to pare down the collection.

"I need to live in today," Dubowski said, "and is keeping all that going to help me do it? No."

Terrifying as they are, college campus shootings have become part of the grim narrative of anxious, contemporary life in the U.S.

From 2001 to 2006, shootings at or near colleges totaled 40, with 61 people killed or wounded, according to a report released in 2016 by the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. From 2011 to 2016, there were 101 college campus shootings, and the number of people killed or wounded was placed at 208, the report found.

"Based on current trends," the report stated, "the problem is likely to become much graver over the next decade." It concluded that enacting "meaningful reforms" are "imperative."

Joe Dubowski changed his career partly in response to the shootings that claimed the life of his daughter Gayle, a 20-year-old anthropology major from Carol Stream and four others who were enrolled in the ocean science class in Cole Hall on Valentine's Day 2008: Catalina Garcia, 20, an elementary education major from Cicero who was active in the campus Latino Resource Center; U.S. Army vet Julianna Gehant, 32, an elementary education major from rural Mendota; Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville, an honors student in psychology; and Daniel Parmenter, 20, a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst who worked for the school newspaper and played rugby.

Joe Dubowski had worked in software development into his 50s, although he had been interested in a counseling career for most of his life. After his daughter's death, he earned his master's degree from NIU with a specialty in marriage and family therapy.

The change, he said, was "precipitated more by what we went through and losing our daughter."

Dubowski said he only brings up his own experiences in grief when he thinks it can help someone process their own. Most of his clients don't know the circumstances of his daughter's death, he said.

He has navigated his own grief, he said, with the help of God, family, friends — particularly one friend who lost a son to a heroin overdose. Dubowski's education in counseling and his 2010 book on his family's experience, "Cartwheels in the Rain," also have helped. The birth of two grandchildren has also helped ease his pain.

"I'm trying to help others with their grief as best I can," added Dubowski, who said he has become a "grief magnet" to some people.

"If people want to talk to me about the pain that they're going through, it's because I have some credibility with them," Dubowski said. "I'm not going to turn away from them because of what I've been through."

The life path of Mary Kay Mace, mother of victim Ryanne Mace, also has shifted in the 10 years since the shootings. Mace, who moved to central Illinois from Carpentersville, has become an advocate for laws to prevent gun violence.

She has networked with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Everytown for Gun Safety. Mace supports background checks for people purchasing guns and laws to close loopholes in gun show purchases.

"I have no problem with anybody who is law-abiding and mentally competent having a gun," Mace said, "and I hope and trust they will be responsible gun owners and lock up their guns."

NIU occupies a prominent place in the disturbing history of campus shootings. Occurring 10 months after a shooting at Virginia Tech University that took the lives of 32 people and the shooter, the six-minute rampage inside Cole Hall became a reminder that perhaps campus shootings were less of an aberration than many wanted to believe.

It started when Steven P. Kazmierczak, 27, a former NIU graduate student from Elk Grove Village, kicked in a back door leading to the Cole Hall stage just after 3 p.m. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as a teen and harboring anger toward a school he felt had abandoned him, Kazmierczak started firing a shotgun and at least two handguns.

After emptying the shotgun, he stepped from the stage and walked up one aisle, firing at those who ran or ducked, according to a psychologist's 27-page profile of Kazmierczak. Witnesses say he turned and walked down another aisle, headed back to the stage and took his life.

His mother had died months before the shootings. His father has apparently since passed away. A sister did not respond to efforts for comment.

"When I think about the shooter," Joe Dubowski said, "the thing I think more about is his family. His dad lost a son and his sister lost a brother. Here are at least two people who probably haven't gotten the love and support that my wife and I did. That's a lot of baloney to me. My heart goes out to them as well."

For its part, NIU was offering a number of commemorative events to mark the grim anniversary, starting Feb. 5 with a museum installation featuring items that show the response to the tragedy and examine how the campus has rebuilt and recovered. On Friday night, the university organized a "community appreciation reception" and candlelight vigil, which the Dubowskis attended.

Those were followed by a "reflection walk," a recognition of first-responders at men's and women's basketball games and a concert. On the date and time the shootings occurred a decade ago on Wednesday, a laying of wreaths, moment of silence and tolling of bells occurred.

"We were very intentional," Dean of Students Kelly Wesener Michael said. "It's very personal to a lot of people. We wanted to provide a variety of opportunities for people to participate if they wanted to."

The emphasis throughout the NIU community is on the response in the hours, days and weeks after the shootings and on the recovery in the 10 years since. Wesener Michael and others said time has shown the community's resilience and hope.

"It has built a sense of community that didn't exist before," Wesener Michael said.

"I have a sense of clarity that there is purpose and meaning in everything that's placed in your life," she added. At the time of the shootings, she was a member of the campus' crisis response team. She said the outpouring of support was every bit as powerful as the evil displayed by the shooting.

"Looking back on 10 years, I truly believe that NIU is stronger and better for having gone through this," she said. "It's an amazing place where we embrace our students because of what we've been through and learned from this process."

Kim Richmond of the National Center for Campus Public Safety said mass shootings have prompted colleges to make numerous changes to prevent and mitigate violence.

Many schools now have a "behavioral threat team" that tries to identify students with troubles that might range from being disruptive in a classroom to having problems in a dorm.

While the primary objective is to help struggling students, she said, the team also aims to act as an early warning system, spotting those who might be capable of violence.

At the same time, she said, students and staff today frequently get training on what to do in case of a shooter on campus, from hunkering down to fleeing to fighting back, should all else fail. Every new shooting brings new wrinkles to consider.

"Whether it's Columbine or Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois or Sandy Hook, we learn from every one," Richmond said. "I would be surprised if every single police chief of a campus doesn't review their protocols and pay attention to the lessons learned from every new horrible thing that happens."

Patrick Korellis was hit with shotgun pellets in his arm and the back of his head when he tried to flee the auditorium. Doctors left the bits of metal in his body, and when the temperature gets cold, they still cause an ache.

Korellis, 32, is also easily startled when he hears a loud noise. When he enters a large space like a movie theater, he always looks for the exit. But overall, he said, he's doing OK.

The same appears to be true for many others who were in that room, he said, judging by the conversations they have in a private Facebook group reserved for survivors of the shooting.

"It's something we all went through, but we don't really talk about the shooting that much," said Korellis, now a Chicagoan who does computer mapping projects for Walgreens. "We became friends who can talk about other things."

In the 10 years since the shootings, Samantha Saba has declined to speak publicly about it out of respect for those who died.

That afternoon in class, she was two seats away from Parmenter. She was shot through the leg; another bullet shattered a bone in her upper arm, which still carries a metal plate. It was unclear if Saba would recover full use of the arm, but she did after surgery and several months of therapy.

Rampages like the one that occurred 10 years ago in DeKalb "are happening all too often," Saba said.

She spoke publicly now to give others hope by showing that survivors have been able to live a full life after such wrenching loss.

Saba returned to NIU the following fall, graduated in 2011 with a degree in psychology then worked at a crisis hotline for a while.

Saba got married in 2015, turned 30 in September and had a daughter in October.

Her small family splits its time between Florida and the northwest suburbs, she said. She doesn't really stay in touch with other survivors. She gets a little anxious in movie theaters but still goes, and she said staying at home with her new daughter is a dream come true.

"It hasn't always been easy," Saba said, "but I wouldn't change a thing about my life, and I'm thankful I was given a second chance that day."

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