10 years after NIU shooting: 'Time doesn't make you better, it's what you do with that time'

 
 
Updated 2/12/2018 1:31 PM
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The news from Northern Illinois University on Feb. 14, 2008 traumatized many and shattered the families of five students killed in a classroom shooting.

"To survive the first 10 minutes was a monumental task," remembers Eric Mace, who with his wife, Mary Kay, lost their only child, Ryanne, 19, who grew up in Carpentersville.

Yet, 10 years have passed. The families of the victims and others who were in the classroom have found a measure of peace in scholarships and other tributes to the victims. And they are determined to move forward in their honor.

Parents of Gayle Dubowski: 'Time doesn't make you better; it's what you do with that time'

Their strong Christian faith has helped Joe and Laurel Dubowski of Carol Stream cope with the death of their 20-year-old daughter, Gayle, who was killed 10 years ago during the Valentine's Day shooting at Northern Illinois University.
  Their strong Christian faith has helped Joe and Laurel Dubowski of Carol Stream cope with the death of their 20-year-old daughter, Gayle, who was killed 10 years ago during the Valentine's Day shooting at Northern Illinois University. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Faith, support and understanding, not time, healed the wounds for Joe and Laurel Dubowski after their daughter, Gayle, was killed during the 2008 Valentine's Day shooting spree at Northern Illinois University.

"Time doesn't do anything to help you feel better. It's what you do with that time," said Joe, 61, who became a student at NIU after his 20-year-old daughter was killed there. He earned his master's degree in 2012 and is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in grief counseling. "Having gone through that healing helps us to think of our daughter without the pain."

A graduate of Glenbard North High School. Gayle Dubowski inspired scholarships, a music award and donations to a Ukrainian orphanage after she was killed in the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University.
A graduate of Glenbard North High School. Gayle Dubowski inspired scholarships, a music award and donations to a Ukrainian orphanage after she was killed in the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University. - courtesy of the Dubowski family

Gayle was one of five killed in NIU's Cole Hall when a gunman entered an ocean sciences class and began shooting. Catalina Garcia, 20, of Cicero; Daniel Parmenter, 20, of Westchester; Julianna Gehant, 32, of Mendota; and Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville also died.

In the decade since then, the Dubowskis have watched friends of Gayle, who would be 30, marry, have children and build careers. They've come to realize their daughter was on a different path.

"She made it to heaven before she turned 21," says Laurel, a substitute schoolteacher and piano instructor. "She wasn't meant to live past that time. God didn't have a plan for her beyond then."

Instead of asking, "Why Gayle?" the better question is "Why not Gayle?" Joe says, as he holds hands with his wife of 35 years in their Carol Stream home. "We got to have our daughter for 20 years."

After every mass shooting in the past decade, the Dubowskis relive "the sadness of realizing how many other parents are going through what we went through," the father says. The two wear pins made of two hearts with a hole in the center, which a school official gave them. They tie ribbons in NIU's red and black on trees for Gayle's birthday and fly an NIU flag. Inspired by Gayle's ability to focus on the positive, Joe wrote a book titled, "Cartwheels in the Rain: Finding Faith in the Wake of the Unthinkable."

NIU presents an annual scholarship in Gayle's name. She was majoring in anthropology, and the anthropology department offers a grant in her memory. A talented singer and piano player, Gayle is the inspiration for a music award at Stratford Middle School in Bloomingdale. Donations to the Gayle Dubowski Fund for Youth help children in a Ukranian orphanage.

"Many people tell us they changed their lives because of Gayle," her mother says.

The Dubowskis found it difficult but eventually worked through their anger to forgive the gunman. "By being angry and bitter, you're not hurting anyone but yourself," Joe says. The pain from that day still elicits tears, but the Dubowskis say they are moving forward because they can't change the past. The dad calls the process "letting go of the hope of a different yesterday."

They've even started to celebrate Valentine's Day again, thanks in part to their role as grandparents of their son Ryan's 7-year-old daughter, Savannah.

"God has been with us," Laurel says, noting that relatives, her "church family" at Chicago Church of Christ, and friends have been very supportive. "God blessed us with another little girl to take care of and help us heal."

Parents of Ryanne Mace: 'A monthly date with my long-lost little girl'

Ryanne Mace
Ryanne Mace

When Mary Kay and Eric Mace sent their only daughter, Ryanne, off to college at Northern Illinois University, they offered advice such as "Don't walk by yourself after dark."

But at NIU's Cole Hall, Ryanne encountered a different danger. A 19-year-old sophomore, Ryanne was killed by a gunman who opened fire in her classroom on Feb. 14, 2008.

Exactly a month later, Eric snapped a photo of a hawk in memory of his nature-loving daughter. He now goes out to take nature photos on the 14th of every month, keeping the collection in a file called Project 14.

"Initially, the project was created as a way to escape the heartbreak of Ryanne's death. Now, it is like having a monthly date with my long-lost little girl," Eric explains. Mary Kay has become a dedicated volunteer working for laws that might keep weapons out of the hands of people with mental illnesses.

When she saw the rebuilt Cole Hall with its state-of-the-art computer lab, she immediately thought about how the wide aisles and swinging seats would make it easier for students to flee a crazed gunman.

The couple moved from Carpentersville after Ryanne's death and now live next to a lake in downstate Petersburg, near Lincoln's New Salem State Park.

The 10th anniversary of the shooting doesn't seem right to them.

"I hate to use 'anniversary' because that sounds like something good," Eric says. "We live with it every day," Mary Kay says, noting that she has scrapbooks started after Ryanne's death that have been around for more than half the time that Ryanne got to spend on this earth. "It's been far too long since I've been able to hug the best thing to happen to me. Where would she be now? What would she be doing now? I'm always wondering what might have been?"

Making sure Ryanne isn't forgotten is important.

"She was funny and fun to be with, very bright, a little quirky. Eric and I laugh quite often when we think of her," her mother says, giggling at the memory of that time they were looking for a place to eat on vacation and Ryanne saw a sign and suggested, "How about Grease Monkey?" not realizing it was an automotive shop. Ryanne's smile stays with them.

"It was painful for us to go to the first baby shower of Ryanne's friend, but I was happy for her. The last thing I wish on any of the students who got out of Cole Hall is to feel survivor's guilt. I'm thrilled for them," Mary Kay says.

What does upset her is "political cowardness" that results in "thoughts and prayers" after mass shootings but little action to prevent them, the mom says.

Ryanne wanted to be a counselor, and the scholarship in her name goes to students, who, like her, study psychology.

"She had work to do, and now that she's gone," Eric says of their daughter, "that doesn't mean the work has gone away."

Wounded by NIU gunman, Patrick Korellis speaks out for gun control. 'I felt I needed to speak out'

A reserved guy by nature, Patrick Korellis once wasn't the type to want to be in the spotlight, much less seek it out.

But in the 10 years since he was shot by a gunman in class at Northern Illinois University, Korellis -- who still has shotgun pellets lodged in his left arm and the back of his head -- hasn't turned down requests to speak to reporters or make public appearances.

The Lindenhurst native, 32, said it's because he feels a duty to advocate for gun control and offer his support to fellow shooting victims.

Korellis, like many of the other 21 wounded and the families of the five slain students, found himself in the glare of national attention in the days and weeks after the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting. He started becoming more comfortable expressing himself at the emotional anniversary memorial the first year after on campus, he said.

His watershed moment, he said, was the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children lost their lives.

"Those were first-graders and kindergartners. I can't imagine what was going through those kids' minds," said Korellis, who lives in Chicago and works as a GIS analyst at Walgreens headquarters in Deerfield.

"I felt like I needed to speak out. I decided I want to use my story to try to help save lives, to try to prevent these things from happening."

Patrick Korellis who still has shotgun pellets lodged in the back of his head and his left arm after a gunman burst into an oceanography class at NIU 10 years ago, stands in front of the "Forward, Together Forward" Memorial Garden outside Cole Hall on the NIU campus. Korellis has become an outspoken gun control advocate.
  Patrick Korellis who still has shotgun pellets lodged in the back of his head and his left arm after a gunman burst into an oceanography class at NIU 10 years ago, stands in front of the "Forward, Together Forward" Memorial Garden outside Cole Hall on the NIU campus. Korellis has become an outspoken gun control advocate. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Korellis said he has connected with survivors of shootings in Newtown; Columbine High School in Colorado; Aurora, Colorado; and Virginia

Tech. After the October shooting in Las Vegas, he offered to lend support to a fellow Walgreens employee there, he said.

He has reached out to legislators and met U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin three times, he said. The two appeared together at a news conference advocating action on gun control after the June 2016 massacre at a night club in Orlando, Florida.

"The more I do it, the easier it gets," Korellis said.

Connecting with other survivors is about the shared sense of having lived through something that most people can't quite understand, he said.

"I will never forget touching the back of my head, blood running down my hand," he said. "My life was flashing -- I thought of my mom, my dad and my brothers. Just thinking, 'This is it. I'm dead.' I started crying. I didn't think I was going to make it out there."

Instructor Joseph Peterson, who was shot at NIU: 'If you can get away, get away'

Courtesy of Joseph PetersonJoseph Peterson continues to teach, now as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. This is a photo of him doing field work, which he said is a sort of natural habitat for him.
Courtesy of Joseph PetersonJoseph Peterson continues to teach, now as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. This is a photo of him doing field work, which he said is a sort of natural habitat for him. -

Joseph Peterson lived the horror that college instructors imagine in their worst nightmares -- a gunman bursting into his classroom, killing five students and injuring 21 more.

Peterson, at the time a Ph.D. student teaching an ocean sciences class at Northern Illinois University, was shot in the shoulder.

Ten years later, Peterson is using that terrifying experience to help teach workshops about how to prepare for campus shootings. "It has been fulfilling and rewarding," said the 36-year-old professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Peterson gives workshops in partnership with university police throughout Wisconsin, mostly for university staff members but also for some student groups. There is no set response formula -- much depends on where gunmen are positioned and how many weapons they have -- but there is one main piece of advice, he said.

"If you can get away, get away," he said. "If you can hide and barricade in a room, do that. If you have to stand and engage, then engage. It's about survival. And a lot of that is instinct."

What people care most about can be a powerful motivator in times of desperation, Peterson said. For him, it was thinking about his wife of six months as he was running for his life.

"I thought, 'I'm not going to do this to her,'" he said. "I'm not going to leave her behind. I'm not going to let this guy do that.'"

And yet, Peterson struggled for some time with guilt for surviving when others did not.

"I felt there was something more I should have done," he said. "Being in that situation, we have a tendency to, as instructors, to kind of feel like we're responsible for everything that happens in a classroom. And there are some things ... that are not in your control."

Peterson said there were incorrect reports he was the first person shot, and some even said he'd been killed. Because of the heavy media presence and the advice of loved ones, Peterson chose not to talk much in public at the time.

"I wanted to collect my thoughts," he said. "I wanted to think about teaching, and what just happened."

The first year after the shooting was the toughest, but finishing up the ocean sciences class with his students and going to counseling helped tremendously, he said. He doesn't have any long-lasting effects from the traumatic event but still doesn't like students popping into his classroom unexpectedly, he said.

Law enforcement officers helped him make peace with his instinct to save himself, he said.

"They told me that if I had gone back into the room, that would have made two more targets if I picked somebody up," he said. "And then what?"

Jillian Kowalyszyn, who escaped: 'I went through a lot of hell'

It took Jillian Kowalyszyn five years to get through the horror and grief of having witnessed a mass shooting as a student at Northern Illinois University.

The journey was rough and required lots of introspection and counseling, said Kowalyszyn, 29, of Algonquin. The support of her husband, Paul, whom she started dating two years after the shooting, was crucial. The couple had a baby girl in October.

"Finally (after five years) I was like, 'I have to move on,'" Kowalyszyn said. "I was like, 'I can't stay in this stigma that you were in a school shooting and you have to be sad every day.'"

Jillian Kowalyszyn holds her daughter Brady, 3½ months, at their Algonquin home. Kowalyszyn was in an NIU classroom in 2008 when a gunman killed five of her fellow students and injured 21.
  Jillian Kowalyszyn holds her daughter Brady, 3½ months, at their Algonquin home. Kowalyszyn was in an NIU classroom in 2008 when a gunman killed five of her fellow students and injured 21. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Kowalyszyn, then Jillian Thomas, was sitting in the middle of the auditorium-style classroom on Feb. 14, 2008, when the gunman entered from a door by the stage and started shooting. She ran and didn't stop -- not even as she called her father -- until she made it to the library, safe with only a scratch on her knee, she said.

She knew she was lucky to be alive, and yet she was broken mentally, she said.

"I was 19. I thought I knew everything," she said. "But in reality, I was a kid. You go through this awful event, and it really changes who you are."

Kowalyszyn lost sleep, lost weight, lost hair. She had night terrors and survivor's guilt.

The free counseling offered by the university was a blessing, she said. "For some of the others, they don't want to talk about it at all," she said. "For me, talking about it has always been a step in this journey of healing."

The shooting changed her view of life and made her more empathetic, said Kowalyszyn, who works as varsity girls basketball coach at Maine East High School in Park Ridge. She is also part of the athletic department at St. Edward Central Catholic High School in her native Elgin.

"Any loss, any death or even a car accident of a loved one ... when somebody goes through something, I have so much more understanding of how grief is."

"I don't think people understand how deafening grief is, and how hard going through grief is," she said. "Now what I hope is that people realize that when they are not OK, it's OK to ask for help."

Jaime Garcia, brother of Catalina Garcia: 'Everybody has lost a little bit of themselves'

For 10 years, Jaime Garcia has relished the chance to remember his youngest sister Catalina, a 20-year-old student shot and killed by a gunman who burst into a classroom at Northern Illinois University.

Catalina was fun, outgoing, always smiling. She grew up in Cicero and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She was the youngest of four siblings, but never was spoiled. No one ever said a bad word about her, not just after death but in life, too. She was loved.

What he's never been interested in doing, Jaime Garcia says, is talk about the gunman. What matters to him and his family is remembering Catalina and the other four students who died.

Jamie Garcia, 35, of Berwyn holds a photo of his sister Catalina, who was 20 when she was shot and killed by a gunman when she was a student at NIU in 2008.
  Jamie Garcia, 35, of Berwyn holds a photo of his sister Catalina, who was 20 when she was shot and killed by a gunman when she was a student at NIU in 2008. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

"For me, there is no space to do both," said Garcia, of Berwyn. "You either celebrate the lives of the individuals that were tragically lost, or you talk about the individual (responsible)."

After Catalina's death, the family sought comfort in each other, Garcia said. "(My parents) really rely on one another. I think their relationship has been strengthened in that way. They have family, close friends and church members to support them."

For Garcia, the initial shock and disbelief morphed into anger in the first years after Catalina's death in 2008, then gave way to healing that will never be complete, he said. "Everybody in my family has lost a little bit of themselves that you can never get back."

Mass shootings always dredge up painful feelings. The massacre in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was harrowing, he said.

"You can put yourself in the shoes of those parents and those children in a way that few people can."

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