Roseburg Strong

Outsiders politicize the Umpqua Community College shootings

From the Billy Graham Rapid Response prayer vans to the Oct. 9 visit by Barack Obama shutting down a section of I-5 and the rush of hundreds of pro-gun advocates from out of town, it’s safe to say the citizens of Roseburg are dealing with two traumatic crises.

First, the Oct. 1 shooting that killed eight students and their instructor at Umpqua Community College before the killer committed suicide, and now the powerful and consuming reaction of the rest of the nation flooding into this rural town of nearly 22,000, an hour south of Eugene.

“The media has been camped out there at the hospital for a week, getting in the way of people doing their job,” Roseburg native Mike Sterrenburg says.

Indeed, journalists and camera staff from every major news outlet in America crowded much of the town’s free parking around UCC and the airport for the presidential visit.

Media and protesters swarmed Roseburg  Oct. 9

Hundreds of attendees for the Defend Roseburg pro-gun rally, protesting Obama’s “politicizing” of the Umpqua shootings, stood by the Roseburg airport, fielding interviews with CNN, ABC, the LA Times, The New York Times, Fox News and dozens of other regional media outlets.

But behind the nasty debate on gun control blowing up in the comments sections of these news outlets and on social media — just go browse the comments on the R-G’s page and website; it’s ugly — the actual community of Roseburg has responded in a very different way. Many people know the families of the people who died. This is personal. It hurts.

“People called me late that night [Oct. 1] and asked me if I was going to make stickers for the families of victims,” says Morgan Flury, owner of Flury Brothers Sign Company, part of Flury Supply Company, a downtown business in Roseburg since the 1950s.

For the past 10 days, Flury has drawn and printed more than 500 car decals emblazoned with “Roseburg Strong” or other sentiments, selling them for $5 each. Every few days, he tucks up all the crumpled dollar bills and checks and drives the funds down to the Umpqua Bank, where there is a United Way UCC Relief Fund for the victims and their families.

“Many people who knew the victims have come in. They’re very emotional,” Flury says, as he cuts out every single sticker outline with an X-Acto knife at his work bench. “Whether they are buying something for someone they lost or someone injured, either way they want to help.”

He says the national debate raging on Obama and gun control is beside the point for him and many of his friends. “We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s important —— the victims and their families. That’s the main thing.”

In addition to the $500 from Flury’s decal sales, a mechanic in town has manufactured and sold more than 4,000 metal yard stakes with a picture of Oregon that has a heart over the location of Roseburg. Those sales have raised $40,000 for the relief fund.

The president’s visit drew locals and outsiders to protest

“One thing that’s great to see is everybody coming together and donating,” Flury says.

In the hour before Obama’s arrival, dozens of Roseburg natives flocked to the hilltops around the airport with binoculars, hoping to see the Marine One helicopter. Sterrenburg caught a glimpse of the helicopter with his binoculars before heading back home with his daughter.

The day of the shooting, Sterrenburg had dropped someone off at the UCC campus a mere 10 minutes before the killings occurred. Since that day, he says, his quiet little town has been incredibly disrupted.

“Hwy. 99 was shut down at the UCC entrance. People in their homes were blocked in,” he says. “The media, that organization on the Brady law — they don’t even live in this community. I walk in the door [that evening] and the president is already on the TV, politicizing this.”

Meanwhile, Friday, at the gun rally, pro-gun activists were eager to speak with the media about their disapproval of the president. Of six EW interviews with people at the rally, three were from Roseburg; the rest drove down from Albany, Eugene or Vancouver and were active members of gun clubs.

“Obama was very disrespectful to the deceased and endangered families in town,” says 71-year-old Vicki Hart, who came with a sign that said “Roseburg is Mourning.” Hart claimed, as did several other interviewees, that if someone at UCC had had a gun, fewer people would have died in the shooting.

However, there were people on campus with guns that day. UCC student and veteran John Parker has said in several interviews with the media that he was legally carrying a concealed handgun on campus that day, but had he run toward the shooter with his weapon, he was concerned law enforcement might have assumed he was the shooter.

The shooting deaths have also rattled Roseburg’s Christian community; one pastor says many churches saw a major spike in church attendance the first Sunday after the shooting.

“We were scrambling to change our weekend services,” says executive pastor Mike Kildal, of Redeemer Fellowship in Roseburg. Kildal says one of the victims wounded in the shooting, Rand McGowen, was part of his congregation. McGowen was shot in the hand and the wrist, but also witnessed firsthand the execution-style deaths of others around him.

Kildal says the rush of media calls to his church and other churches has been intense. On the day of his service, he and several other pastors made the decision to ban filming by the media during the sermon.

Kildal, who has been a pastor at the Roseburg church for four years, said the events of Oct. 1 will impact his community for much longer than the media frenzy of the moment.

“We are going to be walking the ripples of this for a long time,” he says.

Native Jim Pyle, who grew up in Roseburg, attended the rally with his brother and cousin. Pyle says he owns just one gun, his grandfather’s rifle. He says he just wants his town to be left alone to grieve now.

“We just want to be left alone … it [violence] just doesn’t happen down here. People get along. This is a nice town. That was an outsider that moved here with his mother and his guns,” he says.

The main drag through Roseburg is now dotted with signs supporting the UCC students. The Del Rey Café billboard reads “Our Prayers Go Out For All. Prime Rib.” The Log Cabin Grocery store sign says “Praying for Our Community.”

Outside a trailer park near the entrance to UCC, a handwritten cardboard sign taped up on an overpass reads: “God Bless the UCC Students.”