#9 – Tom Bernard: Columbine 10 years ago, and 10 years after

Note from Dick Bernard:
On April 20, 1999 – it was a Tuesday – I was at a meeting in suburban Minneapolis. Driving back to my office after the meeting, on the car radio, I heard about some shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton CO. I didn’t know anything about Columbine, but I knew my son, his spouse, Jennifer, and my 12 year old granddaughter Lindsay, lived in Littleton. I tried to get a map location of Columbine on the then-primitive on-line maps, and the location which came up on computer turned out to be a few miles away from what turned out to be the actual location. I was soon to learn that Columbine High School was one mile due east of their home, separated only by a park and a few streets of homes in their subdivision. That afternoon, Jennifer called to say that Lindsay was okay. Later that week, I went ahead with previous plans to take a hiking vacation in Utah the next week, with a scheduled return stopover in Littleton on May 1 and 2. During the time in Littleton the four of us spend several somber hours in a rain-soaked line going up what had been dubbed as “Cross Hill” to view the crosses erected at the top of a dirt hill dedicated to each of the victims of the shootings. It was a powerful time. We reached the crosses at the same time as the celebrated TV preacher, Dr. Robert Schuller. I had huge respect for Dr. Schuller. Sixteen years earlier his sermon, Tough Times Don’t Last, Tough People Do, had saved my emotional life, literally.
The day after the shootings, my son Tom Bernard, wrote his immediate impressions of April 20, 1999. They appear below, with his permission, preceded by a short commentary written by him on April 19, 2009.
Here are his comments, the most recent, first:
Tom Bernard
Littleton, April 19, 2009

Ten years ago, our family walked with hundreds of neighbors to the hills surrounding Columbine High School. It was surreal and intense. Everyone that was touched by the event, so close to home, carries the hurt from it to this day. The shared tragedy brought everyone together for a short time, as we all wrestled with the magnitude of the days events. We needed each other, not to discuss, not to blame, just to see in a strangers eyes the same confusion and fear that we were feeling. We needed to know that we were not alone. Columbine was a shared tragedy like many before it, unique to the human experience. We can look back to grainy black and white photos of Lincoln’s funeral procession and see in the eyes of the mourners a very real and profound connection with ourselves. The deaths of Kennedy, King, Kennedy again, Lennon, The crew of Challenger, all the way to September 11, 2001, were common in their effect on society. For a moment, we all stopped yelling and rushing, ignoring and patronizing, judging and blaming. For a time far too short, we stood together quietly and accepted our shared loss. The lessons ignored in these tragedies is not contained in the event itself. The lessons reside in everyone around them. The quiet of the shared pain is quickly and inevitably replaced with yelling and rushing, ignoring and patronizing, judging and blaming. The community splinters into its preferred cliques, all smug and self assured that they are not the problem, its obviously the other guys. As time speeds by, the time of quiet community grows shorter with every passing shock. Columbine was story of youthful alienation, rejection, and social separation. It was the end for the casualties that day. And for the rest of us, it could be a new beginning, or it could be the beginning of the end.
Tom Bernard
Littleton, April 21, 1999

Today was anything but usual. The sun rose and was bright as ever, the sky was a brilliant blue, and the foothills to the west were coming to life in subtle greens. Puddles, our new puppy, woke me as usual, warm snout on my cheek. I rose slowly and went downstairs. The television was still on the same story, 8 hours later. Katie Couric was welcoming the new day from Clement Park, a short 5 minute walk from my front door. The long night had given the television crews plenty of time to sift thru interviews, footage and facts. The whole country (and most of the world) needed to know. I hoped to myself they were ready to listen.
Yesterday was April 20, Tuesday, senior skip day. I was locked into a 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. shift at Piccolos [the restaurant Tom managed]. Lunch was uneventful, very slow…Around 1:30 I noticed a group of employees standing under the television near the bar. I looked up. The trailer at the bottom of the screen stopped me in my tracks…”GUNFIRE AT LITTLETON HIGH SCHOOL…POSSIBLE HOSTAGES.”
My jaw dropped. I was not worried so much about Lindsay, she is still in Middle School. It was the area. I didn’t know which school it was at first…but my fears were realized. This was less than 1 mile from my front door. For the next two hours I paced, sat, tried to keep occupied as the story grew worse and worse. I tried to equate the situation with some past experience to make it easier to take. I found nothing to hide behind. This was new. This was bizarre. This was….
The next few hours were a blur. We had a busy dinner, the casual attitude of the diners upset me. Few people showed any interest in the news reports. I heard some reports and said almost nothing to anyone. A young hostess was laughing and joking around. She told me to smile and it will all be fine. I snapped a bit and said “I have too much on my mind…I will smile later, I promise!” She huffed a bit and walked away. The night finished and I went to pick up Lindsay at [sister-in-law] Julie’s house. I drove in dead silence. I could not bear the sound of another voice, and music was out of the question [Tom loves music and is a musician]. Lindsay was fine. She didn’t have much to say about the shooting. I doubt at 12 she really understands the magnitude of the event. We talked a bit and Lindsay went to bed. I sat up awhile and went to an AOL chatroom to talk, and listen, and maybe make some sense of it all. I met a couple of nice people in the room, and stayed up till 2.
As I said, today [Wednesday] was anything but usual. The stories, one after another, left me in tears. I knew these people. I did not know their names, but they live in my subdivision, shop in my stores, eat at my McDonalds. On a side note, last week I went for lunch at McDonalds and sat in a booth next to who I believe were the two killers and a friend.
The television was on nonstop coverage all day. President Clinton considered a trip here, but declined because it would be disruptive. Gov. Owens announced that all weapons bills before the legislature had been shelved indefinitely. The blood bank turned away 200+_ people and asked that they return another day. Makeshift memorials appeared everywhere anyone had been seen in pain. Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and at least 2- remote news feeds from various cities were broadcasting from Clement Park. I was still not convinced that anything would change.
About 6 o’clock, we decided to go lay some flowers at the memorial at Clement Park. The storm was moving in fast, wind and rain kicking up, and I had never felt so cold. The traffic was backed up, so we parked at a nearby restaurant and walked the ½ mile to the memorial. The lake was cold and angry, the sky dark and colourless. The people walked together, old, hippies, yuppies, trench coats, and jocks to the site of the memorials. Closer to the memorial there were news trucks from at least 15 cities, wires taped everywhere. I counted at least a dozen cameramen going about their business, and an equal number of well coifed anchors preparing to do their gig. I was not prepared to be there.
I read some of the messages on the paper chain surrounding the memorial. There was no anger, no hate, no blame, only hope and love. I saw a young girl, no more than 16, emotionally broken and crying on the shoulder of her friend. I saw a teachers car, covered with flowers, surround by students huddled and praying together. I saw students from 20 different schools, together in the knowledge that it could have been any of them. I saw, for the first time, hope.
[A writing apparently read by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb]
“No one can make sense of a thing like this.
No one can make the pain go away
All we can do is this:
Pray for those who have lost their loved ones
Hug your own child a little tighter
Hug another child who may not get enough love
Hug someone who is different from you
Teach your children to do the same.”

The storm is rolling in, pray for those who will never share the warmth of home with family again.”
Postscript from Dick Bernard, April 20, 2009:
The same day Tom wrote his account, April 21, 1999, I was at an all-day training session in a Minneapolis suburb with perhaps fifteen school public relations professionals. As I recall, the topic of Littleton did not come up until the end of the day when someone remarked that they were relieved that their assignment did not include the public relations nightmare that was Littleton (Jefferson County School District). There was agreement round about, until I mentioned that my son and family lived only a mile from the high school. It was at that moment that one of many learnings took root with each of us: there are no boundaries in this world of ours. The crisis at Littleton did not stop at school district, town, state or country lines. We were all in this together.
Shortly after the tragedy, someone from another state constructed simple large wooden crosses to remember the dead from April 20. The crosses were planted atop a pile of dirt just to the west of the school building, between Clement Park and the schools athletic fields, and became “Cross Hill”. The crosses themselves became controversial in that the builder planted crosses not only for the victims of the shootings, but for the two killers as well. By the time I walked up Cross Hill more than a week later, the two crosses for the killers had been cut down and removed. A message remains from that happening as well….