Rozner: Northwestern's Phillips leaves room in heart for NIU shooting victims

 
 
Updated 2/10/2018 3:15 PM
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  • Jim Phillips, left, now the athletics director at Northwestern University, says he'll never forget the give students killed on the Northern Illinois University campus 10 years ago when he worked there. He plans to attend this week's memorial.

    Jim Phillips, left, now the athletics director at Northwestern University, says he'll never forget the give students killed on the Northern Illinois University campus 10 years ago when he worked there. He plans to attend this week's memorial. Associated Press/2013 file

No one ever anticipates the worst day of their life.

The shock is staggering, in an instant the evolution surreal.

Jim Phillips remembers that moment 10 years later as if it were now.

He was NIU's athletic director and an associate vice president, one of president John Peters' top advisers.

On Valentine's Day, Phillips planned to be home for dinner with his wife and children.

But just past 3 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2008, Phillips' heart was broken forever when five NIU students were shot and killed at Cole Hall.

"I remember hearing about it at maybe 3:16 or 3:17," said Phillips, now the Northwestern AD. "You hear there's a shooting and multiple casualties and you fear for the lives of every student on campus, you worry about all the people you're responsible for, like the student-athletes, the coaches, the staff and so many others.

"We couldn't track down everyone immediately. Technology was not nearly as good as it is today.

"Once the campus is secure, you meet with the president at Altgeld Hall and get the senior cabinet together, and get a briefing from the police chief, trying to get an understanding of what happened."

Five young people murdered while attending class, another 17 shot and many more injured trying to run -- or crawl -- for their lives.

The physical and psychological scars are permanent for those who survived, families eternally devastated by the loss of those who did not.

Their names are Daniel Parmenter, Catalina Garcia, Ryanne Mace, Julianna Gehant and Gayle Dubowski, and each year on Feb. 14 at 3:06 p.m., the NIU bell tolls for those five.

This year, Jim Phillips will be there to remember.

"The scene at Kishwaukee Hospital was something you just couldn't believe," Phillips said of that first night. "How was this happening at such a beautiful university, such a wonderful institution, a sacred place where everyone is safe?

"We visited with the families and a few of the injured, talked to the doctors and spent most of the night there. Left after midnight.

"I got home and my wife, Laura, was still up. Of course, the kids were asleep. I went into each of their rooms and hugged them. Not one woke up."

That's when the work stopped, the job stopped at the door and the adrenaline finally wore off.

And Phillips broke down.

"I just sat on the couch and cried," Phillips said. "I cried for a long time. I couldn't stop.

"The next morning they took us -- the president and the cabinet -- into Cole Hall. It was still an active crime scene so we couldn't touch anything, but it was the most horrifying thing I've ever seen.

"Blood everywhere, backpacks scattered, books all over. Like something out of a movie, not something you expect to ever see in real life. You keep thinking to yourself, 'This can't be real.' But the shock is very real.

"We all broke down again."

In the middle of it all was a job offer from Northwestern, an agreement that was essentially in place in the days leading up to Feb. 14.

The contradiction was too much for Phillips to process.

"What a range of emotions," Phillips said. "I loved NIU. I wasn't looking to leave, but it was a chance to go home and Laura and I were excited about being close to our families.

"And then we experience Feb. 14. A few days later I called (NU) president (Henry) Bienen and said, 'I just can't leave now.' His support was incredible."

Two weeks later, Phillips announced he was taking the job at Northwestern, but he wasn't ready for Evanston. He stayed at NIU another two months.

"My family and I needed to be in DeKalb with the people we loved and the community loved and the university we loved," Phillips said. "I'll be forever grateful to Northwestern for understanding that."

The  Northern Illinois University's Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden, designed by Arlington Heights-based HMK Architects &  Planners. includes sculptor Bruce A. Niemi's stainless steel "Remembered" flames as a tribute to five students who were killed in the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting spree in nearby Cole Hall. A reflection wall features the name of each student killed.
  The Northern Illinois University's Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden, designed by Arlington Heights-based HMK Architects & Planners. includes sculptor Bruce A. Niemi's stainless steel "Remembered" flames as a tribute to five students who were killed in the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting spree in nearby Cole Hall. A reflection wall features the name of each student killed. - Mark Black | Staff Photographer

But no matter where he goes, those five NIU students have never been far from Phillips' thoughts.

"I think a lot about the families who lost sons and daughters. You just don't ever get over that," Phillips said. "The senseless tragedy, the unspeakable evil.

"But it was also the coming together of a community against evil that would not prevail, that this horrific event would not define us, our community, our family and our future.

"We put our arms around the families and the victims. Evil would not have the last word. To experience that love of community has also stayed with me.

"That place means a lot to me, and any success I've had in my career, NIU is responsible for it. It made me a better person.

"Deep in my heart those families will always be with me and my family."

On Wednesday, Phillips will open his arms in DeKalb one more time.

His heart has never left.

brozner@dailyherald.com

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