Kent State, NIU, and Hope



Kent State, NIU, and Hope


Robert Brown


Robert Brown

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From 1968 to 1973, I was at UIUC in Champaign. It was a crazy time: The 60's, huge changes in America, war protests, and only recently the riots in places like Detroit and LA. Everything was in turmoil, exactly the opposite of the carefree 1950's.

Then came Kent State. I was in 7th grade when JFK got killed, and a senior in high school when MLK was murdered. Around the same time, RFK was assassinated, too. LBJ had been president, and I liked him. To this day, of all the presidents that have been in office during my lifetime, LBJ is still my favorite. Richard Nixon had taken over from Lyndon Johnson, and nobody trusted him or believed anything he said.

But there was Kent State. May 4, 1970. Four kids, minding their own business, just being college students, walking across campus like any of the rest of us, and they were dead. The sting of that tragedy has never left me, and probably never will. Last Saturday, Feb 12, 2011, I went to an NIU basketball game for the first time, along with my grandson who is 10. We played Kent State -- And the song "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young kept going through my mind. The players from Kent State would have been born about 20 years after the event, and I wondered how many people think about it when they walk around the Kent State campus. Maybe, by now, those who are closest to the place will have moved on to other things. Tragic as it may be, no one can relive the past or dwell on tragedies forever.

We moved to DeKalb in 2003, and bought a house only a couple of miles from NIU. The Holmes Center is clearly visible from our front window. I wanted to take some classes at NIU, since it was so close, and on my first visit to campus, I had an encounter with the police. I was trying to go to the NIU bookstore, went into a lot to park, found there were no meters, so I drove out what I had thought was a back alley. Except that it was actually a sidewalk, as it turned out, and I had to go bouncing down a curb to get back into the street. An NIU officer was walking by and he asked me why I was driving there, then was very nice about it when I told him what was going on. He gave me his card and said to call if I saw anything the police needed to know about, and I have wondered since then if he was one of the responders on Feb 14, 2008.

My daughter was in the Junction restaurant that day, when someone came screaming in that a gunman was on campus. She called my wife who called me at work. I listened in stunned silence when I learned what was going on, and I was devastated when I found out there had been fatalities. On the way home, down I-88 from the east, I saw the helicopters flying over NIU long before I got to Annie Glidden. As I drove north on Glidden and through the campus, toward home, I saw all the red lights that were still flashing all around Cole Hall. At home, I stared out our front window for a long time, watching the helicopters and trying to absorb the news, that we had by then: Five dead. Five destroyed lives, all for nothing. Shattered families, parents and relatives and friends in unbelievable grief.

That Saturday, it was freezing, and I went to Cole Hall just to absorb things. A lot of other people were there, too, just standing by the fence, some alone and some in small groups, just mostly thinking and looking. Nobody said anything about trying to understand; it was simply of matter of being in the moment and trying to come to grips with it all.

We watched the memorial service on TV. My three-year-old granddaughter was there that night, playing with her baby dolls, putting them in the toy crib and covering them up with blankets. My daughter and several of her also-college-student friends were there, too, and we all listened with reverent silence. It was a nice service, and I think the theme, "Forward, Together Forward" was an excellent statement. I have, and will always keep, one of the posters that you still see in many windows all over NIU and the area.

Later, in 2009, I did begin taking some classes at NIU, all in grad level math. The first one was SO hard; after 35 years out of the classroom, one could say there would be some cultural shock to work through. About a month into the class, I wondered if I was doing the right thing, trying to fit in as a part time student up against a system that is designed to challenge some of the best math minds there are. It happened that I went to the 4th floor of the library to do homework, and discovered there a banner reflecting on the tragedy at NIU (along with a perfect view of Cole Hall). For a long time, I stood and studied the banner, which has blocks, about a foot square, much like a patchwork quilt. One of the patches showed a tree, and seemed to be saying, "Let's keep on going." I decided I could do nothing about Feb 14th, 2008, but "keeping on going: was something I COULD do. So I did, and still am. Where it goes to, exactly, I do not really know, or especially care. Taking math classes makes sense to me and doing this fits into my life, so there I am, and there I will be until I decide otherwise.

I hope -- I really do -- that time will heal the wounds that are still so fresh. Countless people will forever carry the NIU tragedy in their minds. Just like Kent State, it will be a very long time until history blunts the pain. Yet, humans are able to pick up and go on. That is what we all need to do: Five people were lost to us, and we can honor each one of them by doing just that ... Carrying on.

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