NIU student Theresa Smith lays flowers at the memorial for the victims of the 2008 campus shooting. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The pain of the loss persists, but the legacies of five Northern Illinois University students fatally shot on Valentine's Day in 2008 have an even greater resonance.

A bell tolled Thursday as nearly 500 people solemnly stood on a wind-swept plaza at 3:05 p.m., the time five years earlier when a gunman walked into NIU's Cole Hall in DeKalb, shot the five to death and wounded 21 others.

"We learned to cherish one another, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us," NIU President John Peters said during a 20-minute memorial service in front of the renovated hall. "We learned to take care of one another, not just in times of tragedy but every day.

"These lessons are a gift left to us by those taken from us far too soon. It is their legacy."

One hundred twenty students were gathered for an introductory geology class when former NIU student Steven Kazmierczak opened fire inside Cole on Feb. 14, 2008.

The slain students were Gayle Dubowski, 20, an anthropology major from Carol Stream; Catalina Garcia, 20, an elementary education major from Cicero; Julianna Gehant, 32, a 12-year Army veteran and elementary education major from Mendota; Ryanne Mace, 19, a psychology major from Carpentersville; and Daniel Parmenter, a 20-year-old finance major from Westchester.

At the end of his rampage, Kazmierczak took his own life.

After being closed for several years, Cole Hall reopened in 2012 with a new Anthropology Museum, a high-tech collaborative classroom and a 351-seat auditorium. The highly trafficked pathway in front features a serene oasis with a small garden, a stainless steel sculpture and black metal benches. Five granite blocks carry the names of the slain students.

Engraved on alternating slabs are the words "Forward" and "Together" — a theme that emerged as a shattered campus tried to cope.

Family members Thursday placed flowers and wreaths in front of each memorial and stood in quiet tribute to their loved ones.

"God gave them not a long chronological life, but he gave each a purposeful life," Gov. Pat Quinn told the audience.

NIU enrollment has almost turned over since the shootings. Many in this year's freshman class were eighth-graders in 2008.

"Almost no undergraduate student currently enrolled at Northern experienced firsthand the terrible tragedy of five years ago," Peters said. "However, while they may not realize it, today's students are touched by the presence of those five each and every day."

Five current NIU students are annually awarded Forward, Together Forward memorial scholarships from a $700,000 fund generated by contributions from 1,900 donors.

Taylor Danielle Bogan, a 20-year-old biomedical engineering major from Crete and a 2013 scholarship recipient, said the best tribute is to look ahead.

"We have the pillars: 'Forward, Together Forward,'" she said. "And to truly embrace that saying, you have to appreciate life."

chicagobreaking@tribune.com

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