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Remembering the dead

Published April 16, 2000 at 11:32 a.m.

Daniel Rohrbough's family pose at a backyard swing built over the section of sidewalk where the 15-year-old Columbine High School student died on April 20, 1999. Danel's mother and stepfather, Sue and Rich Petrone, in front with their dog, placed the sidewalk behind their home as a memorial to Daniel. His stepmother and father, Lisa and Brian Rohrbough, stand behind them.

Daniel Rohrbough's family pose at a backyard swing built over the section of sidewalk where the 15-year-old Columbine High School student died on April 20, 1999. Danel's mother and stepfather, Sue and Rich Petrone, in front with their dog, placed the sidewalk behind their home as a memorial to Daniel. His stepmother and father, Lisa and Brian Rohrbough, stand behind them.

For the young people of Columbine who survived their wounds and for the families of those who didn't, it has been a year of grief and gratitude, pain and promise, healing and hope.

Some of them talk openly about their experience, others guardedly. And some prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Here are some of their stories:

Cassie Bernall

The teddy bear was old and worn, but it brought comfort from half a world away.

After 17-year-old Cassie died, a German teen-ager sent her family a letter and a package.

"She mailed us a little old, tattered teddy bear her dad had given her when she was a little girl after something bad had happened in her life, and it had given her comfort," says Brad Bernall, Cassie's father.

"I was just amazed at how far and how wide this tragedy struck people," he says. "It went way beyond the state and nation — it went global. ... The whole world grieved with us. None of us were alone in this."

"I would just like to say thank you to everyone for all the prayers. I know the prayers are working because I have experienced tremendous healing over these past months, and I've seen my wife and my son come a long way."

Later this spring, the family will travel to Honduras to open an orphanage, the Cassie Bernall Home for Children.

Steven Curnow

He was the youngest Columbine victim, just 14 and a freshman when he died. He dreamed of becoming a Navy pilot.

Steven loved soccer and Star Wars, and his death prompted other fans across the country to buy extra tickets to last summer's Episode I: The Phantom Menace in his honor.

His mother, Susan, and his older sister, Nancy, have been raising funds for a new library at Columbine. His father, Robert, has been serving as a judge for student debate and forensics competitions.

Corey DePooter

In the days following the tragedy, people talked about Corey's bravery.

His family and friends believe he was killed trying to shield other students from gunfire. They recalled him as a kid who embraced life fully, with joy, without fear.

Corey, 17, and a junior, worked at the Raccoon Creek Golf Course near the school, operating mowers and raking bunkers.

Rachel Joy Scott

Rachel's words and visions have lived long past her death. Her family is making sure of that.

After she died, her family found her vivid art and haunting writings, work that revealed a teen-ager who thought she was living her last year.

Her parents are sharing her story in speeches, Internet sites, magazines and a forthcoming book, hoping to inspire others.

Rachel's last journal entry was a picture drawn just 40 minutes before the shooting began.

"Rachel stood for her faith," says her mother, Beth Nimmo. "She represented love and compassion and reaching out to other kids in her school, kids who fell through the cracks. We're trying to pass that along to kids, to also stand for faith."

He father, Darrell Scott, has been traveling the nation telling his daughter's story. He helped create The Columbine Redemption, a foundation designed to honor victims by leading people to Christianity.

The foundation also is spreading the word through a monthly magazine, Rachel's Journal, and online at www.thecolumbineredemption.com.

A second family site, racheljoyscott.com, had received more than 134,000 hits through early April.

Simple gifts from strangers also have lifted the family.

On April 20, Nimmo was among the frantic parents crowding into Leawood Elementary School near Columbine, waiting for word about their missing children. A man loaned her a cell phone so she could call Rachel's grandparents in Indiana.

Nimmo broke down during the phone call. In the following days, Rachel's car at the school became a shrine. Among the flowers, notes and stuffed animals: the phone Nimmo had borrowed.

"That man put that phone on Rachel's car and said he couldn't use it any more after he saw us break down and cry," she says.

John Tomlin

For 10 months after John died, members of the Foothills Bible Church where the family worships brought dinner twice a week.

"Some people added special touches, such as little notes on each package," John's mother, Doreen, says. "I remember on a dessert, someone wrote, 'You can eat dessert first.' That made us smile."

Some gestures from strangers showed that they'd read about John's passion for life — his red Chevy truck, his desire to join the Army, the summer he spent building a house for poor people in Juarez, Mexico.

Children sent letters and drawings, one showing John driving his truck up a hill.

"They brought smiles to our faces," his mother says.

Three homes, financed by Chevrolet in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, have been built in John's memory in Mexico and another in Denver.

John did not die in vain, one Sterling woman wrote his family. Because of John, her son accepted Christ and wants to join the ministry.

"That God has taken such a bad thing and brought such good out of such wickedness — I know that happened in my heart," Doreen says. "But to see it so close, I consider us very blessed."

Lauren Townsend

Dawn Anna, Lauren's mother, recalls one special package that arrived in the mail. Inside was a letter from the mother of a 5-year-old boy.

"He couldn't write, so he had his mom write the letter," she recalls. The boy had heard about the shootings and wanted to do something to make the family feel better.

So he took some colored tissue paper and wrapped his gift: three pieces of hard candy, a package of gum and a small container of scented shower gel.

"Here's this little guy who can't even write," she says, her voice cracking with emotion. "And he's saying, 'I'm going to make a difference,"'

And he did.

If there is any lesson to be drawn from the pain of Columbine, Lauren's mother sees this gift as its emblem.

People can make a difference, every day, one act at a time.

"You tend to sit back and go, 'Hey, I don't have the resources to be a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King,"' she says. "I can't be that big. I'm just little old me."'

"The urge is then to do nothing, because you can't do something huge."

Rick Townsend, Lauren's father and Anna's ex-husband, also recalls wondrous gifts from strangers.

Like the time he and his wife, Sue, came home and found that their lawn had been mowed. No one had been hired to do it or been asked. Someone had simply noticed it was overgrown and taken care of it.

Sue will retire at the end of this month. She had planned it for this year because her daughter and Rick's son will graduate this spring from college. With Lauren the only child left in college, the Townsends figured they'd have enough money for Sue to retire.

Only now there's no Lauren.

One lesson Dawn Anna hopes people draw from Columbine is that parenting is an active verb.

Kids need limits, she says. They take it as a sign that a parent cares.

If her kids closed the door to their room and stayed alone too long, she says she would open it and find out what was wrong.

"I hope this doesn't sound too Pollyanna-ish, but you know what Columbine has taught me?

"It's that people are so good and so caring and so giving. It would have been very easy for us to shut our front door and stay wrapped in our pain.

"But what the world has shown us is that people are good and kind and loving.

"The world is good. It is changing. It's not doomed.

Contributing to this report were staff writers Karen Abbott, Tillie Fong, Deborah Frazier, John C. Ensslin, Joe Garner, Tina Griego, Hector Gutierrez, Rebecca Jones, Holly Kurtz, Dan Luzadder, Lisa Ryckman, Bill Scanlon, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, Jean Torkelson, Kevin Vaughan and Brian Weber

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