The shooting that stunned the community

The shooting that stunned the community

Boy Seriously Injures Two at High School

That was the headline on the front of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review the day after one of the first school shootings in United States history occurred in Grand Rapids, Minn., - 50 years ago today. Administrator Forrest L. Willey was shot in the abdomen and ninth-grader Kevin Roth took a bullet in the chest when 15-year-old student David Black opened fire on school grounds in the morning hours of Oct. 5, 1966.

“Hundreds of students and teachers were in the blacktopped parking area between the gymnasium and the Administration Building when the shots were fired,” reported the Herald-Review.

Willey died eight days later as a result of his injuries. Those who were witness to the incident say the coordinator of secondary schools for ISD 318 put himself in harm’s way in order to prevent anyone else from getting hurt. Willey was one of the first adults on the scene after hearing screams that a boy was brandishing a gun on school property and had shot a fellow student.

Roth, now nearly 65, survived the shooting but has shouldered guilt, questions and health concerns all these years as a result of that fateful day.

Speculation surrounding the incident blamed bullying for the cause of Black’s rage. It was thought that years of harassment had pushed Black too far and he arrived at school on Oct. 5, 1966 with intent on confronting bullies.

“It still is a tough day,” said Roth about the memories he associates with Oct. 5 - even after five decades have passed.

The 1970 graduate of GRHS married his high school sweetheart, Jane Doelle, and the two now live in Georgia. Just last week, tragedy struck closer to his home in South Carolina where a teen fatally shot his father then opened fire at his school, injuring several and killing a six-year-old boy.

“We all should be more aware of our children’s thoughts and speak up, talk to teachers, when we think something is wrong,” believes Roth who addressed the perception that new generations are more disconnected from reality. “Today’s children are so bamboozled from watching video games that are all about bang, bang, shoot ‘em up. It’s playing games versus real life.”

Three years ago, Roth was in Grand Rapids to attend a ceremony unveiling a memorial for Willey at Robert J. Elkington Middle School (RJEMS). While he was in town, he was asked to visit several area schools to talk about bullying. Roth bravely recounted his memories of Oct. 5, 1966, reopening wounds in hopes of helping kids understand the importance of preventing bullying. Accompanying Roth on these presentations was retired Grand Rapids Police Chief Harvey Dahline.

Dahline was the officer who apprehended Black on Oct. 5, 1966, moments after the shooting.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Dahline.

Fifty years ago, it was a beautiful fall morning, remembers Dahline who was driving bus as his second job and pulling onto Pokegama Avenue North when he was stopped by Highway Patrolman Lloyd Olson. Cautioning buses from going any closer to the school, Olson updated Dahline on the situation.

“My first responsibility were those kids on the school bus,” said Dahline.

After finding a safe spot to park his bus, Dahline joined fellow GRPD officer Dale Fox, in approaching Black. At this time, Dahline remembers the boy was holding his gun in the middle of the field area north of Eighth Street. Standing in a half-circle around Black was a large group of students who were either too scared to move or too shocked to realize what was happening.

“I knew the kid and started talking to him,” said Dahline who convinced Black to drop the gun.

Later, it was discovered that Black was also carrying a hunting knife in his sleeve.

It was Dahline who conducted the first interview with Black when he was taken into custody. As Dahline remembers, Black told of wishing he had taken more lives and spoke of emulating other killings that occurred just months prior. On July 14, 1966, eight student nurses were brutally murdered at their group residence in Chicago and on Aug. 1, 1966, 13 people were killed by a Marine-trained sniper and engineering student at the University of Texas.

As national news reported, the “Texas Tower,” killing spree introduced the nation to the concept of a “mass shooting” outside the context of a military battlefield, coining a phrase in American lexicon that has now, unfortunately, become commonplace.

When Dahline and Roth were introduced, the former cop offered the solace needed to ease the heart of the man who had carried the burden as the bully who caused it all.

“He told me David was not looking for me but rather just pointing his gun at anyone - but I took it personally,” said Roth who describes his most recent return to Grand Rapids as “healing.”

This healing was something that was not addressed 50 years ago. Roth said he was not provided any type of counseling outside of his parents and his English teacher, RJEMS namesake Robert Elkington.

“Even until he retired, on the day of the shootings he’d call me and talk me through it,” said Roth of Elkington. “He was a super educator and exceptional role model. I am so fortunate to have had someone like him in my life.”

Elkington may have been one of few to recognize the broad impact of the shooting on the students, the school and the community.

As the Herald-Review further detailed the incident of Oct. 5, 1966: Principal C. N. Mickelson was “visibly upset, but calm.” Mickelson made a brief announcement over the school intercom at 8:30 a.m.

“He described the incident, then said that, ‘the best thing we all can do is to follow our normal schedules and do our work. We’ll keep you posted.’”

That quiet response may seem odd today given the hysteria that often accompanies such present-day events. The Herald-Review headlines that followed the story in the months to come were not given remarkable placement on the front page but rather mixed in with stories on duck hunting and election forums.

Grand Rapids Herald-Review Editor Ken Hickman captured the sentiment of the community in an editorial he wrote for the Oct. 17, 1966 newspaper:

“People have been accustomed to thinking of Grand Rapids as a quiet, peaceful, law-abiding village where the things that plague big cities just don’t happen. Riots, armed robberies, murder and other major crimes have seemed far away, in spite of an occasional act of violence and death. Traffic fatalities and drownings are so frequent that they are met with relative calm, sad as they are. But death from a needless shooting carries a dramatic impact which literally stuns a community.”

While some things may have changed from 50 years ago, the impact of such tragedy is still significant, especially in smaller communities.

As current Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson explained, “We’d like to think we live in a different time, that things have changed, and they have changed. What hasn’t changed is that we care about our kids and our community, and their safety. As we send our kids to school, we fully expect them to return to us, safe and sound. I’m sure those were the expectations of parents 50 years ago as well. So maybe things aren’t that different.”

Commending Dahline for his bravery, Johnson said, “We should all be grateful that present that day was a man like (retired Grand Rapids Police Chief) Harvey Dahline, a man that wore a badge as a symbol of his commitment to do all he could do to keep those school children safe. He is truly a man of courage.”

Today, it is commonplace for local schools to partner with law enforcement with school liaison officers. As Johnson described the partnership, “A major benefit to having a school liaison officer is the whole issue of keeping our schools safe, but that is not the primary reason for officers in the schools. The primary reason is to build relationships between students and officers. These students are the future leaders of our communities. Our schools are a major part of our community and as police officers, our philosophy is to be a part of the community, not apart from the community.”

David Black was tried as an adult in the fall of 1966. In December of that year he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for third-degree murder and aggravated assault by Judge John T. Galarneault.

“I still think about and pray for David Black,” said Roth who spoke with Black’s sister a few years ago. “She said life didn’t deal him a very good hand. I wanted to talk face to face with him and give him a hug and hope to help make him feel better too.”

Prior to Willey’s funeral, the staff and personnel of ISD 318 submitted the following in honor of their colleague and friend:

“Seldom, if ever, has an educator demonstrated so unequivocally his complete dedication to the welfare of his students as did Forrest L. Willey on Oct. 5, 1966.

With no concern for his personal safety, he risked and gave his own life to prevent the serious injury and possible death of young people of our district.

“In respect to Mr. Willey in his courageous act, we pay tribute.”