Abby Roemer remembers when Trevor Wehner was first hired as an intern at Henry Pratt Co. because he had warned her he was going to be 10 minutes late to their Northern Illinois University class since he was driving to Aurora to hand in some new-hire paperwork.
“We said ‘Trevor, what are you driving there for? Just email it’,” Roemer said. “He said, ‘No I want to thank them in person.’ And that’s just the kind of person Trevor was.”
Roemer, 23, was Wehner’s classmate in Management 460 – a senior business class of a tight-knit group of seven for human resource management majors to get a real-life feel for working with local businesses. Wehner was on track to graduate from NIU’s School of Business with her in May of 2019.
He never made it. Wehner, 21, of Sheridan, was killed on the first day of his internship at the Henry Pratt plant a year ago, a post-college gig he landed with help from Clayton Parks, 32, a 2014 NIU grad. A year has passed since a gunman shot and killed Parks, Wehner and three of their coworkers: Russell Beyer of Yorkville, Vicente Juarez and Josh Pinkard of Oswego, on Feb. 15, 2019.
Parks, of Elgin, was the plant’s HR manager and had taken Wehner into the termination room to give him a feel for the tougher parts of working in HR. In the room, the gunman opened fire after he was told he was being fired about 1:20 p.m. He later died in a shootout with police.
“[Wehner] was great, always so funny, and just could put a smile on anybody’s face,” Roemer said, chuckling through tears. “But when it came to having to get the work done, he was there front and center, would whip the team into shape, a real go-getter.”
Roemer’s loss was two-fold – Parks had been her mentor throughout her four years at NIU. As a freshman, Roemer was encouraged to build a relationship with alums in her field through the business school’s Society for HR Resource Management.
She chose Parks, who was an eager and recent NIU graduate, heavily involved in the Huskie Alumni Network, and hoping to instill the same passion for HR he held in those following him.
At the time, Parks worked at Caterpillar in Peoria, both his and Roemer’s hometown. He helped Roemer land an internship at Caterpillar.
“I literally still can remember when I was writing my first email to him,” Roemer said. “I was so nervous, a terrified freshman being like, ‘this is the first professional I’m coming across.’ And I remember his response was so kind and inviting.
As with Wehner, Parks also graduated from NIU’s School of Business and took the Management 460 course taught by Professor Mahesh Subramony.
The salt of the earth
A year later, Subramony reflected on how similar the two turned out to be.
“Clay (Parks) was a fantastic student, very energetic,” Subramony said. “My connection with Trevor (Wehner) was shorter, but deeper. One of the interesting things about Trevor was that he was a very positive individual.
And so was Clay. I never heard either of them say anything bad about a circumstance or person, ever. Sometimes we have a bad day, but neither of these guys ever would.”
In multiple interviews, the words “joyful,” “kind,” and “positive,” fluttered around those who remembered Parks and Wehner.
That’s not by accident, said Terry Bishop, associate professor of management, who taught both Parks and Wehner.
“There’s an irony here, too, and that is that Clay had a very similar bonding effect on his fellow students,” Bishop said. “Clay was just very engaged in life, very visible in a non-egoistical way. It wasn’t about him being the center of attention anywhere, it was how quickly he introduced himself. He oozed compassion for others.”
He said he thinks NIU alumni hold a certain value system found in Midwestern, first generational families.
“They’re the salt of the earth,” Bishop said. “I think many of them, when they leave here, they have gratitude for their experience. Not just the programs they’ve been through, but for each other.”
Roemer said she first heard about the shooting on the news that day, and texted both Parks and Wehner (who she’d planned on texting later asking him how his first day went).
“I can just remember watching to see if they had read my messages,” Roemer said, adding NIU staff later contacted her with the tragic news. “Honestly it was the worst pain I’ve ever felt, just thinking about their families.”
A year later, Roemer has been pivotal to the effort made by her, her Management 460 classmates – referred to fondly in the business school as “the seven dwarfs” – and NIU faculty to help memorialize Parks and Wehner.
She’s worked with both victims’ families to help set up a Golden Heart Scholarship Fund, which they are working on getting endowed by raising a minimum of $50,000. Those wishing to contribute can do so via the NIU Foundation by specifying the Golden Heart Scholarship.
In the days after the tragedy, Subramony, in his 11th year teaching at NIU, looked out for his students’ well-being. Trevor and the rest had spent the day before the shooting in class together. He organized an impromptu Skype session with the six of them on Saturday after the shooting. That Tuesday, he held class but gathered everyone in a circle and instead invited them to share, talk through their grief, and remember Trevor and Clay.
“I’m glad I didn’t break because I needed to be there for them,” Subramony said of his own grieving process. “See, these six students are unique. Usually adversity is the best test of character. What we have to do is stretch ourselves beyond what’s done in the classroom. We have to give them more than that, carry on their legacy.”
A year later
The six remaining dwarfs continued their Management 460 class project, and on every subsequent paper, report, and presentation, they made sure Wehner’s name was there.
On graduation day in May 2019, flowers lay on Wehner’s empty chair while his family accepted his diploma posthumously. Roemer’s class posed together for Trevor. On the six-month anniversary of the shooting, the classmates gathered at the Henry Pratt plant in Aurora, where a bench was built to honor the fallen employees. Bishop, Subramony, Roemer and others will head there Saturday to sit, remember Wehner and Parks, and go for a meal together.
In the lobby of the management department, a painting done by an NIU art student hangs on the wall: a blue bicycle sits in the shadowy glow of Barsema Hall. Next to it, a Chicago Bears football rests on he sidewalk. Bishop said it serves as a reminder of the two lives they’ve lost, but who’s legacies continue to be felt in rippling effects by all who come behind them.
“A day has hardly gone by where I don’t walk in and see that,” Bishop said. “It’s a positive reminder.”
Roemer said when she moved for her first post-graduation job as an HR Coordinator for ITW’s Global Tool Unit in Libertyville, she came across some old notes from a presentation Parks had given when he came to visit the Society for HR Management on campus.
“He shared that as long as you are always being equal, fair and respecting your employees, its one the greatest things people can ask for,” Roemer said. “Because you are present, showing you’re passionate and there for others, and that’s really one thing I’ve taken into my everyday life.”