Remembering where I came from
By Shannon Stapleton
Throughout my career I have covered my share of despair caused by senseless killings, war and natural disasters in other countries and within the United States. You become kind of jaded and realize that when you get the call to go cover one of these assignments that you are going in as a journalist and your job is to cover the reality of the situation no matter how bad it is. Little did I know that I would someday be covering such tragedy in a place around 25 miles from where I grew up.
I received the call on Tuesday to get on a plane to Chardon, Ohio, a blue collar town of 5,000 outside of Cleveland a day after the senseless shooting of five high school students, that ended with three dead by the end of the week. I boarded a plane as soon as possible and arrived in Akron, Ohio around 5:00 pm where I drove for an hour to make a candlelight vigil honoring the victims of the shootings at St. Mary’s church in Chardon, Ohio.
When I arrived at the church there were thousands of people that had gathered inside and outside dressed in red to honor the victims. I got quickly to work and was amazed at the outpouring of support from throughout the community and the other schools nearby. Kids had their school name jackets on from around the area and everyone had candles listening to the church service outside in the cold. When it was over people hugged and cried and walked hand and hand back to their vehicles. Walking back to my car was when it really hit me. I hadn’t been back to Chardon in 25 years when I played one of my last high school football games on a field that had now been replaced by a newer one with Astroturf.
Over the course of the next five days I was able to reflect and remember where I was brought up and how it had made me the person I am today. Some things I admit I had forgotten and will make sure to incorporate into my daily life. Living in the New York City metropolitan area for the last 15 years has changed me. I don’t go out of my way to say hello to people or smile and just nod when passing a complete stranger on the street. The sense of pride in living in a community outside of New York is something I’m only now starting to feel on a small level through my son Zander’s involvement in sports. But while I was in Chardon I realized that even in the midst of such a tragic event people can forgive, persevere and be kind to others even if they are members of the press invading their community while the story still has the interest of the nation.
Please don’t get me wrong because I was there on the horrible events of 9-11 in New York City and I saw how people came together in such a heroic effort to preserve life and help others but the experience I had in Chardon, Ohio was something completely different. It wasn’t the outpouring of people showing up to support students or the memorials set up around town, I had seen plenty of that throughout my career. It was the forgiveness by the community for the 17 year-old shooter Thomas “T.J.” Lane that truly overwhelmed me and actually made me remember where I came from. I had forgotten what it was like to grow up in a community where everyone knew everyone and when one member of the community was hurting, everybody hurts. There is a reason they call the Midwest the Heartland.
“This isn’t Chardon, I would pray for him” sophomore Peter LeMaster responded when asked how he felt or what he would say to to T.J. Lane. Click here or on the photo above for portraits of Chardon students and their sentiments on T.J.
I interviewed around ten students and former graduates of Chardon High School and out of all of them only one feeling of anger was ever felt towards T.J., the shooter. A feeling that I believe I would harbor as well if my friends were killed in cold blood. The others, while puzzled by his horrific actions, were forgiving and just wished he would have asked them or someone for help to get him through whatever pain he was going through in his life. The remorse for their lost friends and students was coupled with a noble sense of sympathy for T.J. that he was so troubled in his life that he would commit such a heinous act.
I often tell people proudly I’m a New Yorker after living here for 15 years. I often would say how glad I was that I left Ohio in 1987 and traveled and lived in other parts of the country. This assignment grounded me and made me realize that I should have cherished the fact that I grew up in a small town in Ohio raised in a community that was unique. While still proud to consider myself a New Yorker I now know for certain that I’m truly a Midwesterner and proud of that as well.