An open house and a rededication ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 12, marked the formal reopening of Cole Hall on the Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The building was closed after a gunman killed five others and himself nearly four years ago in a lecture room.
On a recent Monday morning, NIU Instructor Betty Corn was going over problems for her College Algebra class in the Cole Hall Auditorium, a familiar scene at a college campus.
But, before the start of this semester, no classes had taken place at this location in nearly four years. Not since Feb. 14, 2008, when former NIU student Steven Kazmierczakwalked into a geology class and began shooting. He killed five students and wounded scores of others before turning his gun on himself.
NIU Board of Trustees Chair Cherilyn Murer also chaired the board in 2008 when the shootings occurred. She says she’s always happy to open a new facility on campus. But she says this ceremony leaves her with mixed emotions.
“There’s a sorrow that will always remain. There’s a consciousness that will be prevalent,” Murer said. “But there’s also a joyousness to learn from our tragedy, to be able to dedicate a building in memory of going forward, and in memory of those who were there that day in pursuit of their education.”
This day might not have happened. After the shootings, services were held, scholarships created and a memorial planned and built nearby to honor the victims. Dedicated last year, its five granite panels curve around a silvery flame-like metal sculpture.
But there was a big disagreement about what to do with Cole Hall itself. NIU President John Peters says it was an emotional time for everyone. Some simply wanted to tear it down, to erase all sign of the tragedy that had taken place. But others said that would send the wrong message. Besides, thousands of students used the facility’s two auditoriums and --on a purely practical level -- it would be sorely missed. Peters remembers being unsure himself of what to do.
“I really did not know whether Cole Hall as it existed … could go on,” he said. “And we had a really good campus and community dialog on that, and about 70 percent of the people said the best thing is to repurpose it and to move on.”
It wasn’t necessarily a done deal, not with the worst economic downturn in a generation hitting Illinois along with the rest of the country. But with a wave of goodwill in the legislature and plenty of persistence, funding for Cole Hall eventually was secured.
Peters lauds the planners for not simply recreating the old hall, but completely rethinking its design. The building was gutted. A new auditorium replaced the old one on the west side. The other auditorium, where the shootings took place, has disappeared.
Part of that space has been replaced by a high-tech, interactive computer classroom called a Collaboratory. The rest of the space has been transformed into the new home of the NIU Anthropology Museum.
The exterior also was redone completely, adding a lobby across the front with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Now the Assistant Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Leslie Rigg taught in the old Cole Hall. She says the new look is breathtaking. Rigg says the new state-of-the-art classrooms are a huge improvement on the 1960s-era auditoriums. And though there is no plaque or other marker of the tragedy in the building, she says it nonetheless manages to pay homage.
“The granite that is in the memorial is used in the benches throughout the building. So it really flows,” she said. “So you go out the building and you’re following the granite, you’re following the lines of the foyer or the entryway, and it just leads naturally to the memorial.
“It brings the memorial into the building without actually having to have it in the building.”
Kendall Thu, chair of the NIU Dept of Anthropology is thrilled at having a new home for the department’s collection in Cole Hall. But he’s mindful of the reason why. As for having the museum on almost the exact spot where the shootings took place, Thu says that seems somehow appropriate.
“I call it the silver lining of a tragedy, and that’s really what it is,” he mused. “ It‘s step forward, but it’s a step forward with a link to the past, and I think a museum is a fitting tribute to that … because what does a museum do? We look at the past to sort of step forward.”
But it’s more than that. It’s also the restoration of a tradition, one that goes to the heart of the school’s mission. Lesley Rigg says almost every student took a class in old Cole Hall while at Northern. Rigg says that will be true of the new Cole Hall as well.
“In many ways, this building is a symbol of what you do when you come to NIU,” she said. “So, from an education perspective, this is a very special building for NIU, and it just feels really good to have it open.”