Never Forget

Article Published: Sunday, April 20, 2003 - 12:00:00 AM MST

Columbine survivors plan quiet reflection

No public event to mark 4th year
By Dave Curtin and Mike McPhee, Denver Post Staff Writers

The fourth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre will pass quietly today - the first time there has not been a public ceremony commemorating the 13 people slain and 23 injured on April 20, 1999.

As the families of those murdered and maimed by two suicidal classmates continue to heal, they are at once troubled the day could be forgotten and comforted that there will be no media fanfare.

But mostly they have dreams about what they want April 20 to symbolize.

"I hope people don't need a ceremony. I hope they remember the way they felt that day," said Dawn Anna, the Columbine volleyball coach whose daughter Lauren was murdered. "I hope they remember how it impacted their lives, how they were going to make changes - the commitment and recommitment they made to their children, their wives and husbands. That's what those 13 lives should mean.

"I want people to take a piece of those children and that teacher with them in their zest for life, love and humankind."

She said she will spend the day quietly helping her 13- month-old granddaughter McKenna Lauren hunt for Easter eggs out by the backyard pond, where "Frogzilla the monster frog" magically reappears every spring - one of Lauren's favorite springtime miracles.

"I can go into a restaurant and a waitress will tell me out of the blue how that day changed her life," Anna said. "People tell me they changed jobs so they could spend time with their children. That means the world to me."

Survivors such as Anna have demonstrated human resilience by honoring their children while working to defeat evil in their own way.

Anna worked tirelessly to wipe away the stigma of the old library, where her child and nine others were executed, by helping raise money for an atrium on the site.

Cassie Bernall's family opened an orphanage in Honduras in their daughter's name last month. Daniel Mauser's parents raised money for a school and library in Guatemala in their son's name.

Through books, a ministry and inspirational speaking, Rachel Scott's family continues its effort to carry on the example of compassion detailed in her diaries.

"It would be nice if people would be extra kind (on April 20) and take Rachel Scott's philosophy and begin a chain reaction," said Connie Michalik, mother of Richard Castaldo, Rachel's lunchmate four years ago. He suffered eight bullet wounds and remains paralyzed from the chest down.

"I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction," Rachel had written.

Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis invited families into the school today for private reflection, but few seemed compelled to go, preferring instead to visit their children's graves or mourn privately.

Next year, there may be a public observance when a $3 million memorial in Clement Park west of the school is unveiled, they say.

"I think there will always be a remembrance of some sort about Columbine," said Rachel Scott's mother, Beth Nimmo, who doesn't plan to go to the school today. "I don't think it will ever be forgotten."

She said her family will visit Rachel's grave and spend a quiet day at home. She said she hopes April 20 becomes an annual reminder of the lessons learned from the massacre.

"After Columbine, people were so connected with their children, school, church and community, but after a period of time, it's easy to lapse back to the old way of doing things," Nimmo said.

"I hope April 20 always reminds us to do that. I would like to see us hold onto those qualities as a nation," said Nimmo, who traveled to Erfurt, Germany, in 2002 to console families in a school shooting in which 17 people died.

Tom Mauser said he hopes it becomes a day when people decide to improve themselves - even if in a small way - like his son Daniel, who strove to overcome his shyness by joining the debate team.

There have been lessons learned and lessons lost in the past four years, said Mauser, who became a gun-control activist to honor his son.

He said he thinks Columbine and other school shootings have made kids more open to talking about what's going on in school. "And I think it has caused parents to take a closer look at what's going on in their kids' lives," he said.

However, he said, he fears that Columbine has raised the bar for what troubles people when it comes to school violence, noting the relatively slight media coverage of a shooting at Ranum High School in February and a shooting in New Orleans that killed a student and injured four this past week.

Four years after the massacre, the families are finding their own paths to healing.

The Mausers said they are honoring Daniel's memory by raising money for the Guatemalan school and library, and by trying to change Colorado gun laws. In 2000, Tom and Linda Mauser adopted a now-3-year-old girl in China; the girl joins their 17-year-old daughter, Christine.

"When you love someone so much, it's not a matter of getting over it. You don't get over it. But it doesn't mean your life doesn't go on; it just means you have a real empty spot in it and you go on by honoring them in what you do," Mauser said.

Richard Castaldo's mother, Connie Michalik, said she prays for a cure for spinal cord injuries.

"Every day I look at how difficult his life is," she said of her son, who uses a wheelchair. "I don't think I will ever get over that - how difficult that day and those boys made his life."

Castaldo, 21, a student at Arapahoe Community College, works with PeaceJam, a youth organization that links youths with Nobel Peace Prize winners. His music appears on a new PeaceJam film.

Anna said this year has been the hardest for her, now that she hasn't had the distraction of focusing on raising money for the atrium.

"When I was raising money, it seemed important not to wear my pain on my shoulder," she said. "I felt people didn't want to see a crying mother sobbing in front of a microphone. So I thought I would deal with it later. Now, later is here."

Linda Sanders, widow of slain teacher Dave Sanders, said it has been difficult, but she is beginning to move on.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about my husband," she said. "Sometimes I don't know if I'll ever get through it."

Her stepdaughter - Angela Adkins - married last summer and gave birth recently to Damian, a sign of family renewal.

"If you don't move forward, you get stuck in a bad spot," Adkins said.

"The anniversary is easier to take this year because it falls on Easter, the holiest of days for Christians," said Donald Fleming, who lost his daughter, Kelly. "Easter is always a happy day; it lessens the sadness."

For Dawn Anna, the date - April 20 - is not what's important.

"That's a day someone else had chosen," she said. "I'd rather focus on all the other days."

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