City takes college attack personally

February 17, 2008 2:46:01 PM PST
Northern Illinois University is a beacon among the cornfields to young people from surrounding communities that stretch into the outskirts of Chicago, about 60 miles east. Familiar faces are many on the campus of 25,000, where students who have followed the paths of high school classmates before them travel home with friends on weekends.

The proximity amplifies the sorrow felt beyond DeKalb, a farm town fast becoming a bedroom community, after a shooting rampage Thursday by a gunman who killed five students and wounded 16 others before committing suicide.

"It's a personal attack on anyone who's ever been affiliated with Northern," said Elaine Goodwin, a retired professor who wiped tears from her eyes after a church service Sunday. "There's a loyalty. There's a pride in being part of NIU."

Such solidarity in the face of tragedy has become one of the few, and unfortunate, traits shared by the Illinois university and Virginia Tech, where student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people last April before killing himself.

Virginia Tech's sprawling Blacksburg campus is more than three times NIU's size, covering about 2,600 acres, and about 75 percent of the 23,000 undergraduates hail from Virginia. More than 90 percent of NIU students are Illinois residents - many from suburban Chicago - and nearly 40 percent of undergrads leave the 755-acre campus for home each weekend.

Still, the two campuses are now indelibly linked and reaching out to one another for help.

After the Virginia Tech shootings, NIU students spent hours stringing together rosary beads for students in Blacksburg, Monsignor Glenn Nelson, director of the NIU Newman Catholic Student Center, said at a service Friday.

After Thursday's shooting, Nelson said, he received a call from his counterpart in Virginia.

"He said, 'I know what you're going through,'" Nelson said. "We didn't know them. They didn't know us, and yet we're bound forever."

Closer to home, dozens of businesses throughout the DeKalb region - from restaurants to real estate agencies - bear signs of encouragement posted within hours of Thursday's attack. "We're with you NIU" and "Our thoughts and prayers are with you," some read.

Days later, residents still wore gear bearing the school's Huskie mascot and donned lapel ribbons in the school colors, red and black.

"They're half of us; they're half our community," said Mary Wyzard, a DeKalb resident who works as a computer lab supervisor at the campus and helped organize a special Sunday church service dedicated to the victims.

In fact, only about a third of the school's 18,000 undergraduates live in campus dorms, officials said, while just as many live in off-campus housing throughout the county. And the 43,000-resident city can seem eerily quiet when school isn't in session.

"It's very vacant when the kids are not here," said Surray Williams, a 27-year-old NIU graduate from Chicago who now lives in nearby Cortland. "The community supports that school 100 percent. And the school is built around the community."


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