So when the text arrived on my phone on Tuesday afternoon, April 30, from my son Liam — “I’m safe” — I was confused. I called him immediately, and he told me there had been a shooting in a classroom building but he was safe in his apartment off campus. He didn’t know much more. I immediately got online via my iPhone and read what was known about the shooting at UNC Charlotte, which wasn’t much at the time.
The news of two deaths, multiple injuries and the arrest of the shooter started spreading that night. But my son was safe, and I uttered that prayer under my breath. My phone started exploding from inquiries about Liam from those who knew he attended UNCC. Another horrible tragedy, but somehow — thankfully — there hadn’t been more deaths. The why of that would come later.
As I pulled into the parking lot of my office early Wednesday morning, a text came through. It wasn’t 8 a.m. yet, but a Waynesville mom told me she had heard that Riley Howell was one of the victims. My son’s friend, a kid I had watched play soccer and whose mom and dad I know. Liam’s cohort from freshman ROTC.
Another friend confirmed with the family that it was true, and I made the call to my son. It wasn’t my child, but it was one of ours, a child of this community I call home. I felt like I was getting ready to gut punch Liam. He was shocked, in shock. I offered to come to Charlotte, but he and his roommates — all kids from Haywood County — would deal with it. He would attend the vigil and get home straight afterward.
As the story unfolded, we found out about the bravery Riley exhibited that afternoon, how he took the shooter down and saved lives by sacrificing his own. It wasn’t luck that only two victims died. Around the country and the entire world over the next few days, newscasters and reporters re-told the story while parents Thomas and Natalie Howell, with stoicism and dignity, answered the volley of questions and made it through the interviews, all the while grief-stricken as they face a life ahead that will never be the same.
And now, two weeks later, we remember Riley with a foundation started by his parents to help others dealing with senseless violence. A fitting tribute. I remember Riley — and I can’t help but smile when I do — as the soccer goalie who ran full speed at oncoming strikers, daring them to continue toward the goal, usually winning the test of wills and physical dominance. That memory fits — sadly — with the story of his confronting the shooter, fits neatly with all the stories I’ve heard since from those close to him about his attitude toward life: kind, selfless, and strong, as heroic in his everyday life as he was that fateful afternoon in Charlotte.
And then there is the aspect of this that leaves me furious. According to NBC News — which only considers shooters with an intent to harm during the school day or a school event in its list of mass school shootings — there have been 41 school shootings since 2013. That’s simply too many opportunities for young people like Riley to become heroes — but at what expense. We must find a way out of merely accepting that this is the kind of society in which we live.
And so I give thanks again for the safety of my family, hope with all my heart that Natalie and Thomas and their family can put their life back together, and pray that I live to see the day when school shootings are part of the ash heap of history.
The Riley Howell Foundation
To help the families and survivors of violence cope with the aftermath, visit www.rileyhowellfoundation.org and support the work of this fledgling foundation.