Ryan Strong is a Northern Illinois University student. The most important word in that sentence is “is.” Last week, when word of the shootings at NIU hit the news wires and air waves, the natural inclination was to call Strong to see if he was

When the soft-spoken sophomore calmly answered his cell phone with a “hello Mr. Reedus,” the rush of relief was nearly overwhelming. The mind was processing that Strong was fine, but the words wouldn’t come for a few seconds asking him to confirm how he was. Finally, he answered with some shocking news as well as a bit of humor.

Strong explained that he normally had an anthropology class in the building where the shootings occurred, and at the same time. What some would call fate and others would refer to as God’s hand saw to it that at the time of the shooting, Strong was nearly 800 miles away in New York City. He got his hands on some inexpensive airline tickets and decided to visit some high school friends living in the Big Apple.

How relieved could his mother be, knowing her son was safe with friends as soon as she got news of the shootings? News of Strong’s safety generated a sense of relief throughout the Defender as everyone here knows Strong as the quiet intern.

People in other parts of the paper know him as “the kid who worked for us who got the scholarship.” Last winter during the Defender’s Newsmakers Gala, Strong was the recipient of a $2,500 Chicago Defender scholarship. During the summer, Strong worked as a newsroom intern, doing everything from running errands to writing stories.

He proved to be an eager learner and a young brother motivated to excel. Although he had only finished his freshman year at NIU then, he was the consummate professional; thoughtful, a gifted writer and reporter. No one in our operation ever had an unkind word about him, and why should we about a great young man.

His professors apparently thought enough of him that after one year, he was working as the campus editor for the school’s newspaper û no small feat for some still aspiring for a newspaper job. Strong is the kind of young brother that the Defender, or any other news organization doesn’t write about enough. In politically correct parlance, Strong is “the product of a single family home.” When he explains the last time he saw his father, the language is respectful, but not nearly as flowery.

The Lincoln Park High School graduate gets the big things û like staying out of trouble and excelling in the classroom. And he also gets the little things that will carry him far in life; a steady gaze when he is speaking to someone, a firm handshake when he meets you, and a strong command of the language. He quotes his mother enough to give a listener the understanding that he recognizes and respects her wisdom as well as what she has done to get him to this point. Strong also is the kind of young brother who likely will be affected by the shootings, but not in an adverse way.

When the shock of what happened has ebbed, and he has tired from directing coverage and editing follow-up stories about the shooting; Strong will turn those experiences inward. Down the road, he won’t brag about how much coverage he caused to happen, or how well-edited the stories are.

He will be working at a newspaper and the editor(s) will marvel at how well he handles covering some tragic event. It is only then that he will share with them that Feb. 14, 2008 prepared him for effectively editing the tragedies that would come later in life. As a young editor, he undoubtedly will bring an old man’s news judgment to wherever he works; hopefully it will be here first.

Partly because it is so close to home, and partly because these young people never had a chance to show us how much they could do to make a difference in the world; this tragedy is monumental. There is no knowing or determining what caused the shooter to do what he did.

What we do know is we appreciate the fact that one of ours was spared. There is no price or value anyone can put on this. Strong would probably be extremely embarrassed if we all wanted to give him a hug and say thank God; but he doesn’t have to know that we all sent up a prayer thanking God that one of our best and brightest is still with us.

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