The news was breaking less than a mile from my suburban Chicago home, yet I first heard it in a phone call from a colleague, an NBC producer in New York.
“Are your kids OK?”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Why?”
“Didn’t you hear? Someone shot up a school in your town. You live in Winnetka, right?”
The short conversation left me stunned—a shooting in a Winnetka school? There was no way. This was a town where a stolen bike was a big deal. I was sitting at my desk at a major Chicago media hub and, for a moment, was pretty convinced that I would have gotten any such news first. I assumed it was a misunderstanding. But whatever denial I had experienced was shattered a moment later as a co-worker approached me: “You live in Winnetka, right?”
Now disturbed, I hustled over to the network’s breaking news desk, where the police scanner crackled with more, but still frighteningly few, details: A woman had entered a classroom in an elementary school in the Hubbard Woods neighborhood of my small town and opened fire. Children were hit. She was at large.
There are two elementary schools in Hubbard Woods, and they’re two blocks apart.
Two of my four kids were at one of them.
Thirty years ago this month, Laurie Dann, a 30-year-old nanny with a record of troubled behavior and deteriorating psychological health, hijacked that warm, sunny day on the North Shore. She began by delivering arsenic-laced Rice Krispies Treats and fruit juice to families whose children she used to babysit and to Northwestern University fraternity houses before trying to firebomb a Highland Park school. She went on to set fire to the home of a former employer, then walked into Hubbard Woods School carrying three guns. She shot six first- and second-grade students, killing one. She then fled to a nearby house—where the Andrews, friends of my family, lived—and shot a 20-year-old man and holed herself up in his sister’s bedroom. Dann eventually killed herself after an extended police standoff.
On that day, May 20, 1988, I was about eight years into my job as a features correspondent for NBC’s Today show and working out of Chicago’s network bureau, which then occupied two floors of the Merchandise Mart. My chosen beat was covering everyday Americans, telling stories of hope and humor. I often filmed on the tree-lined streets and in the familial schools of my hometown. I worked hard to avoid reporting on the carnage and violence so often covered in news. But on that day I couldn’t escape it. Network executives asked how I’d feel about working the story, but I declined. I had to get home, had to find my kids. I left abruptly.
Most of the details—the name of the school, the ages of the students, where the shooter went next—were unknown to me as I boarded that early-afternoon train to Winnetka. With no cellphones or 24-hour cable news coverage, updates were nonexistent, making that 25-minute ride home unbearable. I arrived to find my wife and two youngest children waiting for me, safe, Sacred Heart—the other elementary school in Hubbard Woods—having been quickly evacuated. My high-school-age oldest was home, and my second oldest was on her way. We watched the live coverage on the news, delivered by the very colleagues I had just left, while listening to the sirens roar outside. We sat in silence as the names and faces of those most impacted flashed on the screen: our local police and fire crews, our neighbors, that little school where friends of ours taught. They were now “the victims,” and this was their identity, a phenomenon we’ve seen unfold in the aftermaths of the Newtowns and the Littletons and the Parklands and every single day in West and South Side neighborhoods of Chicago.
We huddled inside as our safe, quiet town lost its way.
For a reason that has since escaped me, I felt it necessary to drive back to Sacred Heart later that evening with my fourth-grade daughter to fetch her bike. We passed Hubbard Woods School on the way home, slowing down to process the surreal scene of that small brick building surrounded by police tape and satellite trucks, with the lights of the reporters’ live shots flooding the sleepy neighborhood at twilight. I saw some of my NBC friends and rolled down my window to talk. There wasn’t much to say. We shook our heads in disbelief, and I drove on.
The days and months that followed were agonizing for those closest to the incident and a stupefying blur for the rest of us. Our once-buoyant little hamlet felt broken. Residents were dazed, withdrawn. Our young kids, part of maybe the last untethered generation, retreated to the safety of home. Our schools put locks on doors as we began eyeing a new reality. The following summer was subdued and strange.
Winnetka endured an alien invasion of fear, and with fear comes mistrust. When we lose trust, community breaks down, and that wound isn’t quick to heal. My youngest son, who was a preschooler then, says that the Laurie Dann shooting was his first vivid memory. Think about that: a 4-year-old whose most significant life event is seeing grownups scared and learning that he could be murdered at school. That’s a brutal thing for a child, to have a major turning point based on terror, to learn so young that trust is a commodity. And what about the children in that classroom? The ones who were shot? The families, especially that of the boy who died? It’s unthinkable that second graders had to experience this, that anyone did.
Now, unfortunately, it’s not so unthinkable. What felt like a freakish anomaly in 1988 is now horrifyingly commonplace. We aren’t surprised when it happens; instead, we wring our hands and wait for the news to break again, that it’s creeping ever closer to our little town, our little school, our little kids. The more we fear it, the more we fear one another. And the moment we stop trusting, we know we’ve been broken.