‘Connected by things more powerful than grief’

A man speaks from a podium in front of flowers
Bridgewater College Police Chief Milton Franklin reflects on the effects Police Officer John Painter and Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson had on him and the community. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

By Bridget Manley, publisher

In the year since the fatal shootings of Bridgewater College Police Officer John Painter and Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson, the college and surrounding community have endured the grief, sadness and disbelief that accompanies such violent acts, while trying to heal and memorialize the two lives lost. 

And so, on the anniversary of the shooting, on the same lawn where the two officers lost their lives, hundreds of students, faculty and staff gathered in front of Memorial Hall to remember the two officers and break ground on a memorial dedicated to Painter and Jefferson. 

Emotions and grief were still raw Wednesday, as students wept, hugged and huddled tightly together. Even Bridgewater College President David Bushman wiped away a tear as a bell rung – the first six tolls of the bell honoring those who have responded, served, protected, defended, sacrificed, and suffered. 

And then, a seventh and eighth toll – one each to signify loss of life. 

Karis David was a student at Bridgewater College that day. 

Two women embrace
Bridgewater College students hug at Wednesday’s memorial. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

When students were let out of lockdown, David reunited with friends on campus. She remembers the tears, the hugs, the need to stay physically close.

She also said she remembers the vibrant sunset over the college as they stood on the campus “taking it all in.”

Speaking at the groundbreaking, David said she felt shock, grief, sorrow and gratitude.  She turned to a close friend that evening, looking at the sky, her friends, and the sunset, and wondered how there could be such beauty in a moment full of deep sadness and shock. 

Bridgewater College Police Chief Milton Franklin reflected over the last year on Painter and Jefferson’s heroism that day, as they kept students and staff safe.

“I’m grateful for them for protecting this campus, the place where they loved, and where they were loved by students and employees,” Franklin said. 

Franklin also expressed gratitude to the community of Bridgewater for their love and healing over the last year. 

Franklin smiled remembering the nickname given to the two for their friendship – The Dynamic Duo – and said he took comfort in the impact the two made in the lives of Bridgewater College. 

David said that over the last year, she has felt the care and consideration the Bridgewater community has given to each other as they navigate their own emotions. 

“If you pay attention, it’s there, all around you,” David said. 

The last year of healing has been difficult, but students, faculty, staff and alumni navigated those waters by leaning on each other, said Bruce Christian, the chair of the Bridgewater College Board of Trustees.

Christian said the word he has always used to describe Bridgewater, even before the shooting, was “community.” 

The crowd at the memorial groundbreaking listen to speakers. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

“When you are in a community as tight-knit as this is, you are always looking out for one another, and you are there for one another,” Christian said. “[The shooting] is part of us, it isn’t going to go away, but at the same time I think we have learned a lot about who and what we are as a community to lean on one another, to be there for one another, to assist one another, and to strengthen one another.”

Christian said he was overwhelmed by the number of people who attended but said that underscores the spirit of the Bridgewater community: to remember, to heal and to teach each other about the goodness of healing. 

The accused shooter, a former Bridgewater College student, is scheduled to go to trial next year.

The site where the memorial will be is under construction. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Combining landscaping and sculpture, the memorial will feature steel piers that will grow closer and taller together as they rise to an arching wall. It will be a place of remembrance and reflection, Bushman said. 

“We have come together as a community, one that cannot be shattered, and could not be undone by and unspeakable tragedy, because we are connected by things more powerful than grief,” Bushman said. “We share a common bond of hope and a love for each other that cannot – that will not – relent.”

“In the face of the very worst, our very best has been on display for all to see,” Bushman added. “We are B.C. Strong.”

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