Three Mass Shootings and Two Vigils with One Hitting Close to Home

There have been three mass shootings across the country in the last week.

On January 23, 2019, a 21-year old man entered a Suntrust Bank in Sebring, Florida and killed all five people present, none of whom he knew according to news reports. His victims were all women: Cynthia Watson, Marisol Lopez, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon-Williams, and Jessica Montague. The alleged shooter is Zephen Xaver, who is currently under arrest for five counts of premeditated murder.  A vigil in honor of these victims was held on January 27, 2019.

On January 26, 2019, a 21-year old man from Livingston Parish, Louisiana killed his girlfriend, her father, and her brother at their home then drove to his parents’ house and killed them. His victims were: Summer Ernest; her father, Billy Ernest; and her younger brother, Tanner Ernest, 17 as well as his parents Elizabeth and Keith Theriot. His name is Dakota Theriot. He was arrested at his grandparents’ home near Richmond, VA and now faces five counts of murder. According to a comment I received (see comments below) the community did not hold a vigil in honor of these mass shooting victims. The first funeral was held on Saturday,  February 9, 2019, two weeks after the shooting occurred.

And on January 24, 2019, the third mass shooting occurred in my community.  In this case, a 21-year old man from Bellefonte, PA who graduated high school with my son shot and killed four people in State College, PA. The victims included himself, two men visiting State College from Ohio, and an 83-year old man who was killed on his 60th wedding anniversary. He also critically wounded a fifth person.

The shooter was Jordan Witmer, a 2015 graduate of Bellefonte Area High School who had just finished a 3-4 year stint with the US Army. The critically-wounded woman is Nicole Abrino, who was or may have been his girlfriend at the time of the shooting. The father and son were Dean Beachy (age 62) and Steven Beachy (age 19) from Ohio; they had attempted to intervene in the argument between Witmer before the shooting occurred.  George McCormick was murdered in his home after Witmer fled the scene at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar and Grille. After crashing his car, Witmer broke into the McCormick home in Ferguson Township and then shot and killed Mr. McCormick. Witmer then died by suicide.  George’s wife, Joann Shaw McCormick was unharmed; she had locked herself in their bathroom and called 911.

Abrino (age 21) of State College was shot in the chest and is currently in stable condition at UPMC in Pittsburgh. She has had two surgeries so far to deal with her injuries, and a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help her family pay for her medical expenses.

After the shooting, McCormick’s family reached out to the other victims with a message of condolence. Kristine McCormick Vahey, younger sister of George McCormick, offered her condolences to the other victims of this mass shooting, which was published in StateCollege.com:

“The family of George McCormick would like to offer our condolences to the Beachy family on the loss of their loved ones and prayers for Nicole Abrino and her family. We would also like to offer our condolences to the family of Jordan Witmer. While we don’t understand and may never understand why this happened, we know that the Witmer family is also grieving a loss.”

And, just like in Florida, our community held a vigil to honor these mass shooting victims.  I attended this vigil.  We came together to honor the first responders, the victims (including Jordan Witmer) and the families of this shooting and called for some actions to end this type of violence.

Picture of several of the vigil attendees at the Allen Street Gates holding candles at the vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in State College. In the background is a Penn State Police officer, the Engineering building, and the main gates to Penn State University.

The State College and Bellefonte, PA communities come out to honor the victims and first responders of the mass shooting in State College. Vigil hosted by Standing at the Gates for Justice, Third Way Collective and Ni-Ta-Nee NOW.

Due to the solemnity of the event, I did not create a video.  So that you get to an idea of what was said, I have culled several news reports of the vigil to obtain quotes from the speakers and some of the people who came to the vigil.  Here are these comments:

“In the wake of the violence that has taken four lives and left one hospitalized, we thought it was fitting to have it this week, honor those victims and remember their lives.” (quote from WJAC-TV)

”We enter into silence today, remembering the employees of P.J. Harrigan’s and the Ramada Inn and Conference Center. First responders, law enforcement and medical professionals. Nicole Abrino, the single gunshot survivor, and her family as they mourn and heal. Those whose lives have been taken forever: 19-year-old Steven Beachy, his father, Dean Beachy, and 83-year-old George McCormick, a longtime State College and Penn State community member. And Jordan Witmer, the Bellefonte grad who perpetuated the crimes, and his family as they make sense of what happened.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  • Ben Wideman, campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State and chief organizer of this vigil

“The violent loss of our friends and neighbors is all but unbearable. And so, God, we come today asking you to help us fathom that which is unfathomable.” (quote from WPSU Radio)

—Carol Thomas Cissel, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in State College

“I just feel a little lost, actually, because I don’t totally know what the solution is. We need a different way of expressing or dealing with issues, more sensible gun regulation but also mental health, but I don’t know totally what the answer is or what formula it should be.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

Michele Hamilton, President of Ni-Ta-Nee NOW, one of the co-hosts for this vigil

“I think certainly something like what happened this evening, to draw people together and say, ‘this didn’t just affect those families that were involved, but it affected all of us.’ This to me is actually the beginning of healing — allowing people to connect to each other and finding resources, whether it’s faith, communities, Tides or just one another, to band together and say ‘let’s support each other.’ The very first thing is to know you’re not alone.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  Tides Program Director Evelyn Wald (Tides is a local non-profit organization offering no-cost support to families coping with the death of their loved ones)

Yes, we all need to heal.  Here in Bellefonte, many people knew Mr. Witmer. My son didn’t know him personally but said he recalls that Witmer was well liked. At one time, Witmer lived about two blocks away from us. The community, his former neighbors and family state that they had no idea of any violent tendencies. All are hurting.  We can’t condone what any of these shooters did.  But we can mourn.

I agree.  We should never have to deal with any form of violence against others. Mass shootings or otherwise.  But we can come together to mourn and then work to reduce these kinds of incidents in the future.

Meanwhile, I think Patty Kleban sums up the thoughts of those of us who attended the vigils both here in Pennsylvania and Florida. She wrote the article titled, “In the Face of Tragedy, a Victim’s Family Responds with Grace”  After quoting Kristine McCormick Vahey, she eloquently ends her article:

Life is short, and we never know what we have beyond right now. Hug those close to you. Forgive your enemies. Show others grace and compassion. Perhaps by sharing our love, we may give others — and ourselves — hope.

picture of an empty seat at the table for Dr. Jones

An Empty Seat at the Table: In Memory of W. Terrell Jones

On Tuesday, August 19, I received a forwarded email from PSU Executive Vice President and Provost Nicholas P. Jones:

It is with deep sorrow that I’m writing to inform you that our colleague and friend, Dr. Terrell Jones, Vice Provost for Educational Equity passed away this morning.  Terrell had been on medical leave the last few months.  He will be greatly missed across the University not only for the impact of his contributions to Penn State, but also for simply the wonderful person that he was.  We will share with you the details regarding funeral arrangements as they become available.  Please keep Carla [Roser-Jones] and Terrell’s children in your thoughts and prayers.

This short note brought tears to my eyes and a great sense of loss. W. Terrell Jones was a civil rights advocate par excellence both in and out of work. He brought humor and caring to everything he did.

picture of Terrell Jones & Carla Roser-Jones

W. Terrell Jones (pictured with his wife Carla Roser-Jones). A Civil Rights advocate in and out of work.

I first met Terrell in the early 1990’s when I attended a meeting of the Centre County Advisory Council to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). Soon after that, I was appointed to this Council and served with Terrell up until his death. Until March of 2013, Terrell chaired the monthly meeting of the Advisory Council. His passion for low-income students of color, concern for community diversity and acceptance, and a love of knowledge was quite apparent.

He was a teacher, a counselor, a fountain of trivia on people and ethnicities across the country and around the world. And did his work—both paid and unpaid with a sense of humor and dignity. Here’s a sampling of his ability to teach with humor in the classroom; this is one of the many classes on race relations and cultural diversity that he taught over his 35 years of work at the Pennsylvania State University and one year at Lock Haven University.

On Thursday, August 21, I attended the bimonthly meeting of the Inter Agency Task Force on Community Activities and Relations in Harrisburg. According to the PHRC,

The task force is made up of [the] PHRC, the PA Attorney General’s Office and the PA State Police, working in conjunction with other state and federal agencies, community organizations, advocacy groups, local government and law enforcement agencies.  The primary function of the group is to quickly and appropriately address civil tension when conflicts occur, and to promote positive community relations among various groups in order to prevent tension.

The meeting was opened at 10:30 am by Tameka Hatcher, Program Analyst for the PHRC. We usually open these meetings by going around the table and introducing ourselves. This morning was slightly different. Tameka held up Terrell’s name plate and announced that he had passed after a four-month battle with cancer. She asked for a moment of silence and then asked Martin Kearney, Investigative Supervisor at the PHRC and me to say a few words about Terrell. We then placed the name plate at the table to honor our missing comrade.

picture of an empty seat at the table for Dr. Jones

An Empty Seat at the Table: In Memory of Dr. W. Terrell Jones

Here’s some of the accomplishments we talked about:

Local Ordinances

Terrell helped organize a community public forum on discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity about 8-9 years ago. Based on the feedback from that forum, the State College Borough decided to review their Fair Housing Ordinance that had passed in 1994 and decided to expand it as well as create an employment anti-discrimination ordinance in 2008. Working with the Centre County Advisory Council, Terrell and I worked with the town council to help craft the new ordinances that now contain the broadest anti-discrimination protections in the state. The employment ordinance includes marital status, familial status, family responsibilities, gender identity, and sexual orientation in addition to the state-level protections found in the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. The public accommodations and fair housing ordinance includes marital status, familial status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and source of income in addition to the state-level protections of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

Tension and Hate

Calming down communities when tensions rise due to religious, racial, gender, or LGBTQIA intolerance, vandalism, and/or hate speech was a forte for Terrell. He created trainings on racial equality, worked with groups to figure out how structurally and organically they could improve their communities to be more accepting and tolerant. He did this for the entire Penn State University community at all of the campuses, within Centre County and across the state. Working with Unity groups, the PHRC, and coalitions, he helped bring together people.

Statewide Leadership

At Penn State University

Seen as an expert on race relations and diversity, Terrell was often called upon to lead programs and organizations dealing with these types of issues. When he started his position as Vice Provost of Educational Equity in 1998, he created “A Framework to Foster Diversity.” According to the Centre Daily Times, this document is a regularly updated plan outlining Penn State University’s diversity and equity goals. As part of his leadership in this position, Terrell oversaw many different offices and commissions to achieve his vision of “an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.” These offices and commissions include:

Units and Programs

College Assistance Migrant Program
Educational Opportunity Center (Philadelphia)
Multicultural Resource Center
Office for Disability Services
Office of Veterans Programs
Student Support Services Program
Talent Search
Talent Search York
Upward Bound
Upward Bound Math and Science Program
Upward Bound Migrant

Commissions and Committees

Equal Opportunity Planning Committee
President’s Equity Commissions
Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equity
Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity
Commission for Women

And according to the PSU Office of the President, Terrell led other programs and events throughout his tenure at the University: “He served on the University’s Forum on Black Affairs for many years, and was its president from 1986-87. He also was chair of the Equal Opportunity Planning Committee from 1989-96 and Penn State’s Representative for the Global Sullivan Principles from 2000-2005.”

Community Leadership

As I previously stated, Terrell was appointed to and later led the Centre County Advisory Council to the PA Human Relations Commission for over 20 years. We met 10 out of the 12 months of each year and then held a family picnic for members every August. Our meetings brought together members of the community who act as the “eyes and ears” of diversity in the community. We gathered each month to discuss concerns about injustice and joys of acceptance of people of all backgrounds within Centre County.

Both of us also handled the Blue Pages phone hot line answering questions about unfair treatment and potential discrimination.  As appropriate we gave these individuals information on how to contact the PHRC to file a complaint and/or provided on other resources to assist them in resolving their issues.

Over the years, several different representatives from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission would attend these meetings so that we could pass on the news – both good and bad – to help the state monitor issues of inclusion and tension throughout the state.

We also had a good time, always looking forward to Terrell’s “main dish” offerings at our picnics. He fed us with fried turkeys, roasted pork, and tons of catfish over the years – all his own handiwork!

Terrell was also active in his local church – the Jacob Albright-Mary McLeod Bethune United Methodist Church. I understand that he was one of the leaders of this church, having served from 1990 until his death as a member of its Administrative Council. At the funeral, Reverend Kathleen Danley described his leadership by telling about her arrival at the church this past January. She said that members of the church seemed very tense or sad about their former preacher’s departure. Until Terrell arrived. She said with his arrival, the tension left the room and everyone felt better and got to work. Having that kind of presence is rare.

Leadership across the Commonwealth

Terrell also brought his wisdom and expertise to all corners of the Commonwealth. I asked Martin Kearney, the Investigative Supervisor for the Harrisburg Regional Office of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to put this part of Terrell’s leadership into perspective. Here’s the email he wrote in response:

You asked me about Terrell’s work with PHRC.  I have had the pleasure to have worked with Terrell for nearly a decade when he was Chair of the PHRC Advisory Council for Centre County.  Other colleagues, such as Homer Floyd, Kaaba Brunson, and Ann Van Dyke have known and worked with Dr. Jones for three decades or more.  I am grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him and his work.

Essentially, from the state standpoint, Terrell was key in helping make PSU a more welcoming place for persons of all protected classes, particularly but not exclusively students of color, in his career.  He kept the PHRC apprised of these efforts, especially in regard to academic achievement and safe learning environment for these students.  His work in the vineyard has borne fruit, but as we know, more labors need to be made to make education more accessible and affordable for students in need.

Terrell was active with the Pennsylvania Black Conference on Higher Education (PBCOHE) [he served as its President from 2008-2010], which attempted to get all universities in the Commonwealth, public as well as private, achieve equal education opportunity for students of color.  Our Commission was very active in this initiative as well and Terrell’s work helped to increase the numbers of students of color going to college and successfully graduate.  He was also key in helping to investigate and resolve tension situations related to race and ethnicity not only at PSU but on other campuses as well.  For instance, he led an investigation in 2007 at Bloomsburg University campus involving allegations of excessive force and misconduct by campus police toward African American students.  He conducted this investigation with skill, transparency and thoroughness, recommending better communication between students and police and cultural competency training for campus police.

Terrell’s presence in Centre County was well known, especially in his and the Advisory Council’s efforts in State College Borough’s consideration and passage of the Fair Housing (1994) and Human Relations Ordinances (in 2008), efforts of which you know so well (since you were so key in both of these), which had expansive protections beyond Commonwealth law for sexual orientation, marital status and family responsibilities.  Through the work of Terrell and the Council, relationships were built, to create a constituency that supported these ordinances.  It is notable that when the Fair Housing Ordinance was passed, there was [a large and very] vocal opposition to it.  The opposition to the expanded Human Relations Ordinance over a decade later was not only much smaller but much less vocal.  It was consciousness raising of our growing notions of equality, led by Terrell and the Council, that helped to foster this change.

Finally, Terrell not only knew issues of diversity and equality, he knew this state very well.  He pored over the bias reports that the Commission created, reported incidents of which he knew, but also added a historical perspective of these incidents for our state and nation.  In my dealings with him, I always walked away having learned something of value, lessons I carry in my work to this day and which our Commission carries on as well.

A place at the table for our Commission’s Inter-Agency Task Force is missing.  While none of us can fill this space that he leaves, his spirit and the knowledge he passed on will continue for decades to come.

The Farewell Tribute

At Terrell’s funeral on Saturday, August 23, the love for Terrell showed throughout the church. It was overflowing with people. The vestry was full. The room across the hall from the vestry was full. And those who couldn’t find seats in either of these rooms went downstairs to the reception hall. Fortunately all of us got to see the service since the church provided video access to the full service. I think the “Affirmation of Faith” affirms Terrell’s life-long passion for equity and justice. In part, here’s what was proclaimed

Affirmation of Faith by Canaan Banana (edited by Rev. Grey)

I believe in an almighty God

Maker of all people of every color and hue,

Who does not rank people according to their color or gender,…

Who provide[s] abundant resources for

Equitable distribution among all people….

[Who] overturns the iron rule of injustice.

From henceforth He shall continue to judge hatred, racism, sexism,

And every manner of dehumanizing exclusiveness and arrogance.

I believe in the properly placed spirit of reconciliation,…

The Power that overcomes the poverty, abject ghetto life,

Abject rural life, drug and alcohol addiction,

women and children abuse, and pimping, prostitution, and pushing in all of their forms.

And I believe in the … Resurrection of personhood

And equalizing justice, and equality…

Amen

 

Terrell, we’ll miss you at the table of equality and justice for all. You will be missed greatly. Rest in peace my friend.

 

Addendum: According to the obituary that appeared in the Centre Daily Times on August 21, the family has requested that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Albright-Bethune United Methodist Church, P.O. Box 153, State College, PA 16804 or to the Dr. W. Terrell Jones Scholarship Memorial Fund at the Pennsylvania State University, by visiting www.GIveNow.psu.edu/TerrellJonesMemorial.