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Remembering Thurston Pt. 2: Survivors Cope, Prosper, And Reflect

AP/Register Guard

Yesterday, we revisited the Thurston High School shooting of May 21st, 1998…which saw the deaths of two students, gunman Kip Kinkel’s parents, and the wounding of more than two dozen classmates. In today’s segment, we look at how some survivors of the bloody incident have moved on in the 20 years since.

In 1999, Kip Kinkel was sentenced to four counts of first-degree murder and 26 counts of attempted murder. For many victims’ families and survivors, Kinkel’s nearly 112-year sentence without parole brought some relief. But the echoes of Kinkel’s attack still resonates to this day.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Jolene Leu (Cosby) who contended with survivor's guilt after many of her friends at her table were hit by Kinkel's bullets.

“I am still defensive about school shootings and I’m still affected when I hear about one,” says Jolene Leu. 

For Leu, the shooting – or rather its ripple effects – changed her career path. She recalls the deluge of media on the working-class community of Springfield, especially the long row of satellite vans lining the street outside Thurston High.

“Reporters will literally walk up to you, camera-in-face and everything, and start talking to you rather than asking if you want to be talked to.

"Then I – about a year later – was set up by my boyfriend’s mom to help another out-of-town reporter cover the trial. He wanted me to cold call survivors, and introduce him before handing him the phone.  Rather than asking them if they wanted to be interviewed.

"I was not okay with that.”

Those experiences made Leu change her mind about becoming a journalist. Now a mother of three still living in the area, Leu finds a therapeutic joy in her photography….a business she started five years ago.

“I do weddings and my favorite part of weddings are always the toasts, because they’re always the most emotional or the most funny. And you get the best natural reactions during the toast.”

In trying to move on, Leu has done her best to gird herself whenever she and her kids go to see fireworks or concerts, or any crowded place where loud popping noises can erupt at any given time. But she says her first real scare was when doctors informed her that her first child’s due date was May 21st...five years to the day of the Thurston School shooting. She was relieved when the baby arrived May 23rd, instead.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
The Thurston Memorial consists of two markers, a symbolic fence, trees, and benches, to provide a reflective, meditative experience for visitors. It was dedicated in 2003, five years after the shooting.

“In hindsight, it might’ve brought a little more joy and peace to the day, rather than remembering the day so tragically every year,” Leu says with a faint smile.

The legacy of Thurston has continued…in school shootings that include Columbine, Sandy Hook, and more recently, Parkland, Florida.

The March for Our Lives movement – which surged nationally in the weeks following – inspires another Thurston survivor, Betina Lynn.  She spoke at the Eugene rally in March.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
March for Our Lives organizers in Eugene, Oregon, March 2018.

“I ask all of you here today to commit to this fight, to speak up, to put pressure on other members of our community, to run for office, to not back down in the face of opposition!” (CHEERS, FADE UNDER)

Lynn works as the Executive Senate Coordinator at the University of Oregon. She was shot in the lower back by Kip Kinkel, with another bullet striking her foot.

Nerve damage from that wound still affects her physically, and she still deals with PTSD from the Thurston shooting. But she finds joy and comfort in a four-legged friend.

(LAUGHS) “My beautiful little varmint Bacardi, who is part beagle, part corgi. And serves as both pet and sort of companion animal, sort of an emotional support animal.”

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Betina Lynn with her companion, Bacardi.

That emotional support was lacking back when Lynn was still a student. She says as much as she tried, she had a hard time feeling welcome back in the halls of Thurston High.

“I would walk down hallways, and everywhere I was walking, I would consistently have people staring at me.  Not a lot of chatter or whispering, but people just staring at me and waiting for me to pass. 

"It was very bizarre and very uncomfortable, like I was no longer part of my high school.”

Betina recalls when her history class showed a video on the Vietnam War.  She was prepared to hear gunfire and see violent content.  What she didn’t anticipate was hearing popping sounds outside the building during the viewing.

“My teacher stopped the video, looked at me, and said, ‘I hope that’s not what I think it is.’  And I left that class scared and triggered, and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I found a hallway, and cried for a while. 

"And then I eventually found my way to the principal’s office, because I wanted to talk to somebody.  The principal tried to convince me it was a car backfire, and was very dismissive of my experience. That was it.”

Lynn transferred to another school her senior year, and graduated.  She has since joined an online group of mass shooting survivors that’s helped her find a sense of support and acceptance. And she’s even inspired a new generation of activists, back at Thurston.

“20 years down the line, we’re still deluding ourselves. Today that changes.  Today we demand sensible gun control…”

Thurston High School junior Rio Samaniego talks at a walkout earlier this year.

In this phone video shot March 14th, Thurston High School junior Rio Samaniego talks to a group of classmates on campus, representing March for Our Lives. He says Betina Lynn’s story – and others – bring up vital issues of gun control, school security, and mental health. 

But Samaniego says the school and Springfield community seem ambivalent about the tragic events of May 21st, 1998.

“The way that they’ve chosen to remember those people doesn’t necessarily inspire us," he says.  "It’s not something that tells us these people had lives. We just see two tiles on the memorial outside. That’s pretty much it. 

"That’s why I’m interested in hosting a vigil actually, on the anniversary of the shooting to make sure that people do remember the people who had lives there, who were changed.

"We don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should.”

Some survivors say they’ll go to Thurston High on the 20th anniversary to remember those who died or were wounded.  A few say they’ll hold more private ceremonies, including one survivor who came off the operating table, rose to their feet, and literally reached for the stars.

Credit YouTube.com still
The DSCVR spacecraft is launched February, 2018. Thurston shooting survivor Tony Case helped design scientific components for it.

Announcer: “4..3…2….1…0…and lift off!"

“I’m currently at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. We build scientific instruments for spacecraft.”

20 years ago, Tony Case was rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital with three bullets in his back and one in his leg.  His intestines, lungs, and appendix were hit, and he’d lost a lot of blood. At one point, the doctors weighed amputating his leg.

Credit Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Tony Case at work.

“Thankfully, my surgeon was on the side of “Let’s not amputate, and see how it goes,” grins Case. 

"So, he left the leg on, and I can still run, I can still bike, I can still ski, and I can do all of those things with very little impediment at this point. I walk with a little bit of a limp, but, most of the time it’s not even noticable.”

Case lives in Massachusetts now, where he continues to develop technology for space vehicles. He’s witnessed many of his projects launch from Cape Canaveral. He’s currently a team member on the Parker Solar Probe, which launches in July.

“We are building an instrument, much like other instruments that make measurements near Earth, but we’re building it out of new materials that are able to get extremely hot, and we’re flying very close to the sun’s surface in order to measure particles in a new environment.”

Credit Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
The Parker Solar Probe (conceptual rendering)

Case says he doesn’t dwell much on the Thurston shooting, or the motivations of Kip Kinkel on that day.  But he does mark the occasion with those who helped him survive.

“I’ve actually become really good friends with the surgeon and anesthesiologist that worked on me.

"And every May 21st we at least send around an email between my parents, me, my doctors, all of us just sort of saying “thank you” to the doctors mostly, for giving me a second chance at life.”

And while Kip Kinkel’s parents were among the first victims, their memory – and names – survive in a way friends think they would’ve appreciated.  Every year since the shooting, the Bill and Faith Kinkel Scholarship is awarded to four qualified students who study foreign languages.  Gladys Campbell and Rae LaMarche are former Spanish teachers who helped organize the scholarship.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Rae LaMarche (left) and Gladys Campbell (right), two former foreign language teachers who worked in Springfield Schools, and have been active with the Bill and Faith Kinkel Scholarship.

“I would read a short description of the formation of that scholarship in honor of these Spanish teachers that died in a horrific event,” says Campbell.

“It does allow us to remember two good friends, good friends of students," adds LaMarche. "They were beautiful people, they were great people.”

“You know if you saw them, you were like, immediate friends," says Campbell. "They were just kind and open.”

Credit Joe Leong / Findagrave.com
Bill and Faith Kinkel, outside their rural Springfield home.

Nearly 70 scholarships have been awarded to date, totaling roughly $35,000. 

But Campbell adds the scholarship’s funds are dwindling. Many teachers who used to contribute through payroll deductions have retired. Springfield educators hope to keep the scholarship alive, to further the mission – and memory – of Bill and Faith Kinkel.

Copyright 2018, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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