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5 years after NIU shooting, different lives come from loss

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Every time he was falling asleep and heard the house creak, Eric Mace thought it was his daughter, Ryanne, coming back to their Carpentersville home from a date.

It always was followed by the heartbreaking realization that it couldn’t be her.

Mace’s daughter was one of five students killed Feb. 14, 2008, while sitting in an oceanography class in Cole Hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak entered the room shortly after 3 p.m. and opened fire, killing Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace and Daniel Parmenter. He left 21 others injured and then took his own life.

At 3 p.m. today, as it has done for the past five years, the NIU community will honor those five by laying memorial wreaths at the Forward, Together Forward Memorial Garden next to Cole Hall.

Remembering his daughter isn’t something Eric Mace struggles with. His family’s move from Carpentersville to Lake Petersburg a few years ago provided the escape they needed.

“We had to get out of the house,” he said. “That was where Ryanne had grown up for a large portion of her life.”

He also was bothered by children in his old neighborhood who would play outside, screaming as loud as they could. Mace described it as irritating before he lost his daughter, and maddening afterward.

“I went out there and screamed back at them,” he said. “If they are not hurt, they should stop screaming like that. ... Kids are going to be kids – but I needed to be not in that situation. It got to be too much for me.”

The shooting sent numerous people down unexpected paths. Joe Dubowski, who lost his daughter, Gayle, earned a master’s degree at NIU in Applied Family and Child Studies. He graduated in May 2012 and is training to be a counselor.

“I don’t know if I would have a career as a therapist if I didn’t go what I went through, in losing Gayle,” Dubowski said. “I had to learn to acknowledge my feelings a lot more. Rather than try to suppress pain in my life, I had to acknowledge it. I became more self-aware and more sensitive to the feelings and motivations of people around me.”

Others affected by that day, including Harold Ng and Gary Parmenter, have reached out after other mass shootings to those now in the same devastating situation.

Ng was wounded when shotgun pellets grazed the back of his head during the NIU shooting. He has reached out via email to those affected by other tragedies.

“I want to be there for individuals who have been through something as traumatic as that,” he said.

“You just feel so sorry for all of those families that don’t know the impact of how grief is going to change them, and you wish you could be there to comfort those other families,” said Parmenter, whose son, Daniel, died in the NIU shooting.

The shooting has caused lasting anxiety for some. Sam Brunell, who was in Cole Hall when the shooting occurred but was not injured, said she has a hard time sitting still in large, crowded rooms, and sounds such as fireworks or a vehicle backfiring can trigger memories of the shooting.

After the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting in July, Brunell swore off movie theaters. Those make Ng nervous, too, and it took months before he was able to handle the violent content in video games and movies.

Still, Brunell said he believes the shooting put her on the path she was meant to travel. She switched her career focus from journalism to public administration, and now works at NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies.

“You might as well live life to the fullest, and if for some reason something happens to you, you’re remembered in a good way,” Brunell said.

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