DeKALB – With oceans between him and initial reports of the shooting at Northern Illinois University, Reed Scherer longed for answers.
The most pressing question: Did the violence unfold in the lecture hall where Joseph Peterson, more a family member than a graduate student, was teaching?
Scherer, a geology professor, was on sabbatical in New Zealand. He heard about the Feb. 14, 2008, shooting at NIU while touring the nation’s Parliament room.
Scherer scrambled back to his apartment and, with limited access to information, found out the shooting happened in Cole Hall. As it was configured before its massive, $6 million renovation, the building had two equal-sized lecture halls: 100 and 101.
“There were quite a few hours before I found out it was Joe’s class, that he was injured, but that he was OK,” he said. “I had no idea the extent of the injuries. He’s like a family member. You can’t process it, and you’re desperate for more information than you can get. That’s the most painful part, when you don’t know what’s going on.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘I was the one who was supposed to be there.’”
Peterson is one of more than 16 survivors. He was on stage when a former NIU student entered through a side door with a shotgun and opened fire. Peterson was grazed on his arm.
Scherer said Peterson has gone on to earn tenure as a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Five students weren’t so fortunate. Gayle Dubowski, 20, of Carol Stream, Catalina Garcia, 20, of Cicero, Julianna Gehant, 32, of Mendota, Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville, and Danny Parmenter, 20, of Westchester, lost their lives.
Scherer said it took him about 4 or 5 days to get back to the United States, and that the shooting was big news in New Zealand before he came home.
What if it happened today, with the number of senseless shootings that have happened in the past 10 years?
“At this point, it wouldn’t even make the news on that scale,” Scherer said. “It’s a contagion that seems to have escalated.”
Coming together: ‘I wish that wasn’t the way it happened’
Michael Haji-Sheikh was teaching a course on semiconductors in the engineering building, about a quarter-mile from Cole Hall.
He said the campuswide warning system wasn’t in place yet, and that the text system “hadn’t really been tested.”
So he and his students got the news in a time-tested manner: bicycle courier.
A student who’d seen people coming out of Cole Hall with blood on them high-tailed it to the engineering building. The student feverishly told others what he’d seen, and once Haji-Sheikh made sense of it, he ran to the office of Mansour Tahernezhadi, dean of engineering, and they locked down the building before urging students to get away from the windows.
“If you’ve been in the engineering building, it’s nothing but a big fishbowl, with lots of windows,” Haji-Sheikh said.
As he recalls, they never got a communication of all-clear, instead first finding out from news reports it was safe to come out of hiding after about an hour.
He lauded NIU and law enforcement for advancements made since then, including the campuswide warning system, which features enunciators: disembodied voices that tell you when there’s a crisis. The text warning system is improved, Haji-Sheikh said.
He said he’s conflicted when he thinks about the fact that the NIU shooting isn’t talked about on a national level as much as other acts of violence.
“From the standpoint, I’m kind of glad we’re not being brought up,” Haji-Sheikh said. “From the standpoint of society, when you’ve had this many shootings, with five people dead, that it’s not a blip on the radar, it’s a sad state.”
After the violence, he was proud of the community at the university where he’s taught since 2002.
“There was definitely a feeling of everybody coming together,” Haji-Sheikh said. “I wish that wasn’t the way it happened.”
Recovering and rebuilding
When Scherer returned, he spent a year as associate dean of research and graduate affairs in liberal arts and sciences, and had a voice in the renovation of Cole Hall.
Whereas Peterson was on stage during the shooting, the lecture hall is now something of a downhill slope, with the educator at the bottom. The chairs swivel, and they turn and lock for collaboration with neighboring students. There’s all sorts of room, with wide aisles, to escape the room in case of emergency.
The Pick Museum of Anthropology is situated where the old lecture hall was.
“That’s not something we like to point out, but we didn’t want that space to be a lecture hall again,” Scherer said.
His daughter, Linnea, was attending high school in New Zealand at the time of the shooting, and he “accelerated” their transition back to the U.S.
After she studied graphic design her freshman year at University of Illinois-Chicago, Linnea transferred to NIU’s College of Business, where she got her accounting degree in 2016.
“She had a great experience at NIU,” he said. “She’s happy. She’s doing well. We’re happy.”