I woke up to a text from my son.
“Dayton . . . this is awful.”
At first, I didn’t know what he meant.
A quick scan of news sites made it clear: “Shooting in Dayton, Ohio, leaves at least 9 people killed.”
He’d heard news of the horrifying mass shooting that had happened in the place where he and his two sisters were born and where they’d gone to college. A place that he’d visited a couple of weeks ago.
I just started crying, overcome by the tragedy that had struck the place I called home for 30 years. I wanted to call my two daughters. But what father wakes a daughter with this kind of news?
COMPLETE COVERAGE: WEEKEND MASS SHOOTINGS
- 5 things to know: Dayton shooting
- Dayton victims: What we know
- 11 hospitalized, 9 dead, dozens injured in Dayton shooting
- El Paso Walmart shooting: Death toll rises
I streamed live news coverage and read online stories – many provided by old friends I once worked alongside. Veteran journalists informing their town, struggling to maintain their composure as they described the carnage just a couple of miles from their office.
Dozens of times in my career I’ve participated in covering this kind of tragedy. It never felt like this.
I texted a friend who runs the same newsroom in Dayton where I worked. I asked if she was OK. If her daughters were OK. I asked if everyone who works there was OK. They were. A little piece of relief.
Then I waited to hear the victims’ names. And that of the shooter. I dreaded it.
As the story developed, some things became clear.
Police said a masked gunman opened fire in a crowded downtown entertainment district. It was just after 1 a.m. Police were able to shoot him in less than one minute, preventing him from entering a crowded bar he’d apparently targeted. If he’d succeeded, many more would have died. His motive remains undetermined. Twenty-seven people were injured.
As journalists, both national and local, worked to uncover the story, I awaited each scrap of information.
But I couldn’t bear it at times.
The facts as they emerged enveloped me in personal recollections; the images on network news were of familiar places.
That entertainment district is called the Oregon District, and it’s one of the oldest areas of Dayton. It’s filled with restaurants and bars on the main drag I’ve walked many times, East Fifth Street. The neighborhood includes historic homes, proudly restored and occupied by friends.
On the western edge of the neighborhood, at the corner of East Fifth and Patterson Boulevard, there’s an Arby’s restaurant. When I was in college, a friend worked there as night manager. She closed the place down and took the late shift cash at a nearby bank deposit slot.
“My heart is heavy,” she said in a text. She lives in New Jersey now, but it turns out one of the interns in her office attends the University of Dayton.
One of my daughters reminded me that I’d taken her and her college roommates to a birthday dinner at a restaurant on East Fifth. She remembered her dessert from that night. (Tiramisu with a birthday candle in it.)
The bar, Ned Peppers, the one the gunman attempted to enter – I’ve been there. Many times. A friend posted on Facebook that he’d met his wife there.
About a block and half away from Ned Peppers, on the corner of East Fifth and Wayne Avenue, there’s another restaurant called The Corner Kitchen. It’s owned by a friend’s daughter and her husband. We had a big family dinner there the night before my son graduated from college. My sister drove down from Cleveland to join us.
As this story develops, national media will report on it, inevitably characterizing Dayton in shorthand.
A Rust Belt place that has seen better days. Over the Memorial Day weekend, it was devastated by tornadoes. Home of the Wright Brothers. The inevitable “five things” to know about it.
For me, it’s a place of deep and meaningful experiences, the place I came of age.
It’s the place where I nearly got a speeding ticket rushing from work when my daughter was going to start her first varsity soccer game. An understanding cop let me go with a warning.
It’s the place where I taught my children to drive on the winding roads of a historic cemetery.
The place where we bought our first house. Where I coached little league baseball. Where I took the kids sledding in the winter when school was canceled.
Where, as I wrote in a column when I left, I was guided by “the college professor who kept me on course to graduation, my first boss at the Dayton Daily News who hired me despite my lack of qualifications, the neighbor who gave me subtle advice about fatherhood … Dayton was the perfect place to build a life, and I highly recommend it. Along with me, my wife, whom I met here, and my three children, I leave behind the place that will always be home.”
These are the people and things I know about Dayton. If you know someone who’s from there, I’m sure they’ll tell you similar things.
It is not the kind of place where you expect the satellite trucks to show up for wall-to-wall cable news channel coverage of a mass shooting.
Finally, later on Sunday, I awaited the names of the victims and the shooter.
Five men and four women were killed in the shooting, including the shooter’s sister:
Lois Oglesby, Megan Betts, Nicholas Cumer, Logan Turner, Thomas McNichols, Derrick Fudge, Monica Brickhouse, Saeed Saleh and Beatrice ‘Nicole’ Warren-Curtis. The shooter was identified as Connor Betts.
None of the names were familiar to me, but there is no relief in that.
As I read about the victims, they became familiar.
They were fathers and mothers and students. All people living a uniquely Dayton story, as I had.
But theirs was tragically and mindlessly cut short.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.