Broken down

It’s been a tough few days. I can’t find any other words to describe it.

Like so many nights lately, I worked late last Thursday and retreated to bed around 1 a.m. Friday But a couple hours later, a phone call woke me. The 3 a.m. phone call is an occurrence that, unfortunately, has become too common these last couple weeks as the school year has begun and students are settling on to campus.

One of our students was involved in an altercation at a bar. It continued outside. The student was punched and later died as a result.

The moment I received the news I was transported back to my crime-reporting days in K-Town. In my former life as a newspaper reporter, I covered two cases that were nearly identical. One was a high schooler’s New Year’s Eve party that went bad, and the other was a fight that occurred in a crosswalk outside a bar. Both involved alcohol and a single punch. The victims fell, hit their heads on pavement and died as a result.

After the phone call, I returned to our bedroom and broke the news to Kates. It was my day to take the kids to school, but Kates didn’t hesitate, coming up with a way to rearrange her morning schedule so she could take them. I searched for some clothes in the dark, dressed as quickly as I could and headed to the campus to convene with our crisis team. The seven of us who were in that room that morning, along with a few others who played significant roles in other areas, will not forget that morning for a long time. It has left a profound impact on us.

In so many ways, it was like the sudden death of Coach all over again. We are a close-knit, pride-filled campus and community. And one of our own was taken in a violent way he didn’t deserve.

When I arrived in the conference room, the university president was just ending his phone call with the student’s family. Details of the altercation were still coming in from local law enforcement, but we had to begin laying the groundwork for our communication with the rest of the campus community. As we talked through the facts, I began drafting the university statements and the news release. Two male suspects, who had no affiliation with the university or our town, were in custody.

We coordinated with the police department and put out our news release around 6 a.m., and within minutes I began getting phone calls from TV reporters who wanted to go with the story on their morning newscasts. Social media was picking up steam, too, as our student body had begun to learn of the tragedy and were posting on the deceased student’s Facebook page. Within the hour we also alerted our students and employees of the death.

We scheduled a meeting at 8 a.m. with university leaders and a 9 a.m. meeting with student leaders. But before that, at around 7, we took a break to go to our homes, see our families and catch a shower or breakfast, if possible. … I arrived at our house just in time to see Kates setting Faye in her car seat and pushing Phoebe out the door. Seeing them, under the circumstances, meant everything to me in that moment. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged Phoebe so tight. … I took a quick shower, put on a new set of clothes and headed back to campus.

We reconvened for the meetings with university and student leaders and relayed the facts of the case to them, empowering them to take the facts back to their staffs and classrooms and squelch some of the rumors that already were swirling. … The meeting with our student leaders was especially emotional. By all accounts, this student was engaged, well-liked and had a bright future ahead of him. After all, witness accounts of the altercation said it started when he tried to defend some women the suspects were bothering.

I spent much of the rest of my work day Friday fielding phone calls from media, arranging interviews and updating the university president through a stream of text messages. … A mid-afternoon gathering was scheduled in the student union for people to share memories and discuss their feelings with one of our counselors. Students, faculty and staff members packed the room. The tears and laughter flowed as one of our counselors guided the crowd through their emotions and invited them to share what they were feeling.

I made it home again for supper and snagged a brief nap on the couch while Phoebe played cheerfully next to me. By 8:30 that night, I was heading back to campus for a candlelight vigil that the students had organized.

We’ve had vigils on the campus before, but none as emotionally stirring as this one. As the crowd swelled around the memorial bell tower in the center of the campus, I joined some of the university administrators lined up under a tree at the edge of the lawn. The president arrived, saw us and walked down the line, shaking each of our hands, looking into our eyes and saying words of thanks for our work – something he does so well.

The real gut-wrencher came when the deceased student's fraternity brothers appeared in the distance, walking two-by-two from their fraternity house toward the bell tower, lit candles in hand. I get chills just writing those words and imagining the image again now. … As the vigil began, the music fraternity sang a somber tune. The president and campus minister offered some remarks. The music fraternity sang another song. Soon, it was over, but people just stood in their places, holding their still-lit candles, not knowing where to turn next. …

The days that followed were a blur. We attended the football game Saturday. And on Sunday afternoon I took a three-hour nap on the couch with Faye, falling asleep to a Cubs game. One of my favorite pastimes.

There were more meetings this week as we continued to take the pulse of the campus. A Monday afternoon meeting with faculty was particularly emotional. … And today, the seven of us who were part of the initial crisis response spent a couple hours over lunch in an emotionally-charged debriefing session with a couple of the university counselors. The tears flowed as we took off our work faces and let go of all the emotions we piled during the previous seven days.

Ask me how I'm feeling, and I'm likely to say, "I'm good!" I'm doing my thing and life keeps moving, but deep down I know I'm not good. Something terrible has happened.

But I've had these experiences before, and I'm coping. And I'll reset when I'm able.  

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