Frigid air hung over the growing crowd at Bridgewater College who tracked over the muddy ground from the previous night’s fallen snow. Members of the community stood before a podium in front of Memorial Hall, clouds lingering in the sky as they waited for the memorial event. The site of a mass shooting just one year ago. As each speaker spoke, the clouds broke and the sun shined through, casting light on a previously dreary day, warming the crowd.
It’s been one year since tragedy struck Bridgewater College. One year since Campus Police Officer John Painter and Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson died in the line of duty. One year of grief, healing and hope.
And one year later, a community gathered to honor the lives of Painter and Jefferson and remember how the community banded together.
On Wednesday, Bridgewater College held a gathering of remembrance to break ground on a memorial site to honor Painter and Jefferson outside Bridgewater’s Memorial Hall.
“Since that devastating day, we have all been on a journey — a journey of grief, a journey of healing, a journey of hope for the day when tragedies like this are forever banished from the world,” Reverend Robert Miller, Bridgewater College chaplain, said. “We gather to break ground on a site that will honor officers John Painter and J.J. Jefferson that will bring comfort and healing to our broken hearts, and that will inspire those who journey here for generations to come.”
Speakers at the gathering looked back on Feb. 1 one year ago, remembering the officers’ sacrifice. Bridgewater junior Karis David recalled the mixed emotions that came after the lockdown. She described reuniting with her friends once it was safe to do so.
“ ... I remember…the vibrant sunset, time slowed down and we stood there taking it all in. Relief and grief, love and loss, shock yet peace, sorrow yet gratitude,” David said. “There was relief to be in one another’s arms again, gratitude for this life and the people around us and also shock over what we just went through and grief over the loss of John and J.J. who are no longer with us in the same way. It is a lot to hold at the same time.”
Bridgewater College Police Chief Milton Franklin said he’s focused on being grateful — grateful for Painter’s and Jefferson’s heroism for the safety of the campus.
“I’m very grateful to John and J.J. for protecting this campus, the place where they love and where they were loved by students and employees likewise,” Franklin said. “Every one of us, every last one of us, left this campus safe.”
Bridgewater President David Bushman said the memorial site will personify qualities that “sustained us as we grieved and heal together,” especially connection and community, he said. Bushman said the site honored the officers’ sacrifice and that he was grateful their loved ones were there.
Bushman said the memorial sculpture design will include steel piers that grow “closer and taller” together, making an arch that represents the community coming together and its resilience.
“It’s meant to commemorate the actions of John and JJ, who acted together in protecting us,” Bushman said.
Upon completion of the memorial site, Bridgewater will host a public dedication.
“The lighting of the sculpture and trees within the memorial space will use illumination as a symbol of hope in darkness and remind us that while sorrow may endure the night, joy comes in the morning,” Bushman said.
Bushman said the memorial will combine sculpture and landscaping and that “it will serve as a permanent part of the college’s identity.” He also talked about moving forward, the healing process that follows tragedy and how each healing process is unique. Moving forward does not equal forgetting, he said, and with community members supporting one another, they’ve healed together.
“We cannot make sense of senseless acts. Our minds rebel at the randomness, the utter betrayal of order and fairness that accompanies acts of violence … The tragedy of February 1, 2022, is a part of our story, but we are not a prisoner to it,” Bushman said. “The care and compassion, the resiliency and resolve, the support and solidarity we’ve demonstrated in all the days that have followed and all the days to come is a part of our story, too.”
The bell rang eight times to end the service, with each resounding toll signifying a different aspect of Bridgewater’s journey: one for those who responded, one for those who served, those who protected, defended, sacrificed and suffered, with the final two signifying each loss of life. One for Painter. One for Jefferson.
“Nothing at this site will bring back our friends J.J. and John,” Miller said. “It will be a space where the light gets in a space where we remember their spirit, honor their sacrifice and reflect on how we too can be of service in this world.”
In a pamphlet handed out at the event, the college also provided therapy dogs to pet, a wellness walk, self-care activities and counseling walk-in appointments for the remainder of the day. David said one of her professors made class optional Wednesday — some people need to keep busy in these times while others need to take it slow and process grief, she said.
“It’s little gestures like these that don’t feel so small in their impact, all the little and big ways this community expresses its care and consideration for one another. If you pay attention, it’s there all around you,” David said. “I’ve learned so much from the Bridgewater College community more than merely books and lectures can teach … And I’ve learned from our care for one another … I’ve learned for how we rise.”
Franklin said he tries to take comfort in knowing how this community cares for one another, especially on days like this day when comfort seems to be far from reach.
“Thank you Police Officer John Painter, and thank you, Campus Safety Officer J.J. Jefferson for making a deep positive impact in all of our lives,” Franklin said. “Forever, you will live on in the memories of Bridgewater College.”