'We mention Clay every day': 3 years after Pratt shooting, families try to help others
Axel Parks was just 8 months old when his father was taken from him, shot to death at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora three years ago today.
The boy has no memories of his dad. But he is learning about the kind of man Clayton Parks was.
"We mention Clay every day," said Abby Parks, Clayton's widow. "(Axel) asks where his father is."
Five workers and the gunman died during the mass shooting on Feb. 15, 2019. Another worker and five Aurora police officers were injured.
Parks, of Elgin, was the human resources manager for the facility. He was in a conference room with union chairman Russell Beyer of Yorkville; Josh Pinkard, the plant manager, of Oswego; Timothy Williams, union steward, of Aurora; and Trevor Wehner of Sheridan, who was working his first day as an intern for the human resources department. They were having a disciplinary meeting with a fellow employee when the man pulled out a handgun and started firing.
The gunman then left the room and shot co-worker Vicente Juarez. Next he fired at Aurora police officers as they pursued him throughout the building; he hit five of them.
Eventually, a Naperville police officer, part of a massive mutual-aid response, shot and killed the man.
Williams survived. Parks, Beyer, Pinkard, Wehner and Juarez did not.
At 21 and just three months away from his college graduation, Wehner was the youngest of the victims.
Bonnie Rich, Wehner's mother, said her son was killed before he could fulfill his dreams. He was awarded his bachelor's degree posthumously in 2019 from Northern Illinois University.
In his memory, the family created the Trevor Wehner Memorial Scholarship Fund. It has awarded scholarships to students from Serena, West Aurora and Oswego high schools, and Illinois Valley Community College. The fund is adding NIU students, and Rich hopes to expand the scholarship to other schools. Donations can be made at https://tmwscholarships.com/.
"As we come upon the third anniversary of Trevor's death, time passes, but not one second goes by that Trevor is not here in our hearts," Rich said. "The devastating loss of lives at Pratt on Feb. 15 is the tragedy that we live with for the rest of our lives."
Parks lives with it as well, raising the son her husband barely got to know.
Parks doesn't go into all the details when she talks to Axel about why his daddy died.
She recognizes "little pieces" of Clay in her son, such as his smile. "That's very cool for me to see," she said. They talk about what Clay liked, including fishing. Axel has a photo of himself fishing at the same spot on a lake where a photograph shows his father fishing years earlier.
Her last conversation with Clay was a silly one, she said, about fish tanks.
"I miss the everyday conversations with somebody that was just my best friend," Parks said.
Parks works with the Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee. She spoke last year at a ceremony at the Aurora Police Department, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a bill designed to strengthen the process of making sure people prohibited from owning guns don't get to keep them.
She keeps in touch with Wehner's parents and follows Pinkard's widow, Terra, on Facebook.
Parks said she is doing OK navigating life as a single parent. She praises her neighbors, who join her every year in putting up orange ribbons at their houses to call awareness to gun violence. A supportive family has been a blessing, she said.
To honor Parks and the other victims, the Aurora Historical Society is again displaying part of the impromptu memorial people set up at Pratt after the shooting. On display through February at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center, it features the five white crosses erected by the late Greg Zanis, who traveled the nation putting up thousands of crosses at the sites of tragedies.
The city will have a remembrance ceremony at 4 p.m. at the Pierce Center, with Mayor Richard Irvin, Police Chief Keith Cross and Fire Chief Gary Krienitz speaking. It will be streamed live on the city's Facebook page.
Parks, however, has no set plans for Tuesday.
"It's ... almost as hard as the first day," Parks said. She prefers to focus more on Clay's birthday on Feb. 26.
She also said people should not worry that mentioning her husband or the shooting will upset her. Abby Parks wants to talk about Clay.
"All of these men," she said, "it is important to remember them."