Local Parishes

Turning the tables on tragedy

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

LEAWOOD — CNN’s televised coverage of the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech slayings featured a young woman walking through a room filed with memorabilia from the tragic event.

A voice-over explained that the student was one of only four from the German class to survive the carnage of that day unscathed.

As the camera zoomed in, the young woman picked up a pencil drawing of the 32 victims. Her finger skimmed across the sea of faces and pointed to a beautiful girl with long straight hair and a captivating smile.

“This is Nicole White,” she said. “She sat next to me, and I would credit her with taking bullets for me.”

As they watched the CNN report that evening, Curé of Ars, Leawood, parishioners Mike and Mary Ellen McGeehan, were both shocked and deeply moved. To them, Nicole was a niece, a dear friend, a godchild. Now they could pin another name on her memory — a hero.

“It confirmed something we had suspected from the beginning,” said Mike. “She saved a life that day.”

The moment also served as a culmination of an emotional few weeks for this couple. To commemorate the anniversary of their niece’s death, the McGeehans had organized a lie-in — one of 85 demonstrations scheduled across the county to honor the Virginia Tech victims and to peacefully protest inadequate gun laws.

More than 50 people gathered for the event, most of them Curé of Ars parishioners, friends and neighbors.

The day was beautiful, warm and sunny. Mary Ellen, who wore a pin displaying a picture of her beloved niece, said, “She gave us this day.”

Curé of Ars pastor Msgr. Charles McGlinn, though out of town, was there in spirit.

“I would be a part of it if I were in town,” he said. “Certainly the underlying principles of the dignity of human life and the common good and protection of society — these are constant teachings and principles of the Catholic Church.”

The most dramatic point of the lie-in came at high noon, when exactly 32 participants laid down on the ground — 32, because it represented the number of people slain at Virginia Tech, as well as the number of individuals murdered by guns each day in the United States.

Fourteen-year-old Danny McGeehan participated in the protest with a picture of Nicole held to his chest. His younger brother Ryan stood beside him, sounding a muted drum roll that started at noon and — along with a bell that rang 32 times — continued for a three-minute period.

It was a stark reminder, explained Mike, of how little time it can take to make a gun purchase in this country.

“We’re not protestors by nature,” he said. “We’re just learning as we go along. We hope our kids will feel like they’ve moved in a positive direction forward from the horrible event last year, and that as a family — and through our faith — we can work to effect change.”

Msgr. McGlinn agreed with the McGeehans’ philosophy.

“We tend to forget the tragedies so quickly, maybe because there are so many of them or maybe because of the time that passes,” he said. “And I want people to remember the tragedy of this loss of life and see how possibly we can do something to prevent it from ever happening again.”

As she lay on the ground, Mary Ellen thought of her niece and couldn’t hold back a flow of tears.

“She was just a very strong, happy, sensitive person who shined wherever she went and never met a stranger,” she said.

On that catastrophic day one year ago, Mary Ellen had stopped home for lunch and happened to turn on the TV. She saw the shocking news about the slayings at Virginia Tech and immediately tried to reach Nicole on her cell phone, but to no avail.

Mary Ellen’s next call was to her sister, Nicole’s mother, to ask if she’d heard from her daughter. Her sister was at work and knew nothing about the incident.

“Suddenly, we had family all over trying to track her down,” Mary Ellen recalled.

The next day, she flew to Virginia and was greeted by pure pandemonium. She spent a week with victims’ families, got to know them and saw what they were going through.

“Mary Ellen’s family drew together, and, through their strength, were able to get through the process,” recalled Mike. “But also a lot of the other families came over and drew strength from them. I think that has a lot to do with the strong faith they have.”

Mary Ellen recalled how people were amazed at her family’s ability to stay strong and move forward. She attributed their fortitude to their faith — a legacy left to them by her mother.

“My mother believed in her Catholic faith and taught us, no matter what you do, family sticks together, supports one another and does things to affect the better for others,” she said.

Mary Ellen said she has also derived healing strength from attending Mass and the homilies of Msgr. McGlinn and Curé’s associate, Father Greg Hammes.

“I just find that I leave Mass with a lifted spirit, because there is usually something that speaks to my sadness,” she said.

With faith and the support of their community, the McGeehans have started to bury the nightmare of Virginia Tech through efforts to bring about positive change. In that way, said Mary Ellen, they’re doing exactly what Nicole would want them to do.

“All of us are put here for a reason, and our reason will not be known until we meet with Christ again,” she said. “You never know when your day will come, so you need to live your faith.

“Nicole did that, so I know she is in a good place and she is with God.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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