A day when I was in the grip of terror

Mary Lee Hagert

When I first heard the news of a mass shooting at a school on Feb. 14, I felt a familiar sense of unease. “Please,” I thought, “don’t let it be at the universities where my sons are students.”

Then when I learned the massacre happened at a high school and not a college campus, my reaction was relief, mixed with sorrow for the victims. What I didn’t feel was shock, because these tragedies occur with such frequency that we no longer find them surprising. One could almost say these events have become routine in the way the shooting spree itself unfolds, and the aftermath of memorials, psychological analysis of the shooter and calls for gun law reforms.

But I remember back when mass shootings were anything but routine. In fact, when an angry Ph.D. student shot and killed five people and seriously wounded another at the University of Iowa on Nov. 1, 1991, the universal belief was that it was an aberration.

What people couldn’t have known at the time was that the U of I shooting spree was an eerie preview of things to come — Columbine, Red Lake, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and now Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.



Although the U of I mass killing is all but forgotten now, I remember it well because I was one of the panicked family members waiting by the phone for information about a loved one.

The early news reports were vague, stating only that a gunman had walked into the physics building and there were multiple victims. My brother-in-law Jeremy was a physics major at the university, and we worried that he had been inside the building when the gunfire began. We feared he might have witnessed the shootings, or was injured or, worst of all, was killed.

This was before the days of cell phones and instant messaging, so we had to rely on calls using land lines to communicate with each other. It was a tense, scary time, as evening approached and there still was no word.

Finally, my mother-in-law telephoned to say she had reached him and everything was OK. But it had been a close call.

About an hour before the shooting rampage, Jeremy had a meeting in the office of his academic adviser, Dr. Dwight Nicholson, one of the victims. My brother-in-law may have been the last person to see Nicholson alive before the assailant murdered him as he sat at his office computer.



Loss of identity

Investigators said the 28-year-old gunman had just earned his Ph.D. in physics but was irate that his dissertation hadn’t been awarded a prestigious academic prize, which he believed would boost his chances of landing a job.

He purchased a handgun, wrote several letters outlining his grievances, including one to his sister in which he said goodbye, and then stormed the physics building and gunned down the three professors who were on his dissertation committee and another grad student. He also killed an administrator, and shot and paralyzed a student, before he killed himself.

Last week Jeremy reflected on the events of that day, explaining his college experience was forever changed following the slayings. “It’s always seemed to me the department was a mess afterwards, when I was student. I’ve always thought of there being a bit of a struggle to find the department’s identity, which had always been space physics, [which was the sub-discipline of the victims], after the shootings.”


How to proceed

Jeremy still lives in Iowa City and is part of the support staff in the physics and astronomy department. He said his colleagues “talk about [the mass shooting] now and again, unafraid to bring it up. ... The oak tree planted outside the department remembering the victims has gotten pretty tall.”

Now a new generation of kids is experiencing the same sorrow and trauma of mass shootings in schools. How will they recover, I wonder.

Grief experts would recommend they compartmentalize their emotions and not let them get in the way of living. That’s how my brother-in-law said he coped. The counselors also would suggest setting the experience aside rather than letting it paralyze them with fear.

Or maybe the right course is what the Stoneman Douglas students are doing — turning grief into activism by leading the charge for sensible gun law reforms and more funding of mental-health counseling programs for troubled individuals, so that 26 years from now we’re not still witnessing the anguish of students, parents and communities after a despondent, unhinged person with a gun kills students and teachers, while family members wait in terror for word about whether their loved one is a survivor, or a victim.


– Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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