Bearing the pain together

The Kenyon community grieves for murdered student Emily Murray

There were so many hard moments that it doesn't really make sense to talk about the worst. But the one moment that, for many people at Kenyon, distilled the wrenching pain of all the others came late in the afternoon on Monday, December 11, after a weekend of rumors, after weeks of wondering, of fearing, of hoping, of wondering whether any hope could be left--of not knowing.

The College called a meeting that afternoon in Peirce Lounge, because finally there was all but definitive news about Emily Murray, a twenty-year-old junior who had disappeared more than a month earlier. President Robert A. Oden Jr., shaken, halting, spoke briefly about the losses Kenyon had suffered in the recent past. "But this one is different," he said, "because none of us could imagine that this is what we would be talking about today."

In the dense silence, with young people packed close in the room, on chairs, on the floor, and standing against the wall, the sheriff of Knox County, David Barber, stepped up somberly to tell what was now known. Murray's car had been found outside a trailer in Vinton County, in rural southeastern Ohio. Inside the trailer, the police discovered the body of a young woman. By all indications that young woman was Emily. She had died of a gunshot wound to the head.

The gasps and sobs that broke the silence seemed to come from beyond hopelessness. Even those who had feared the worst were not prepared to hear this. It was as if the words Emily, and body, and gunshot had pierced straight through to the inner place where the unimaginable lives. Pain is not a word, nor horror, that can capture the moment. The hand rising instinctively to cover the mouth, the gasp escaping, the sob--these made a voice for the shock in the room.

"The way Kenyon is set up, everything is connected," Patrick K. Gilligan, the director of counseling services, has said since then. "Anything that happens to one person seems to be felt by everybody."

And so it was that, in one way or another, and in varying degrees, the murder of Emily Murray engulfed the entire campus. For Kenyon, Murray's disappearance and death was not only an appalling tragedy. It was an upheaval that tinged the whole season leading to Thanksgiving, then on to winter break, and beyond; an event that played itself out in a range of private emotions, and in the sometimes resented public arena of television and front-page news, and in that lesser but more encompassing public realm, of classmate and hallmate and teacher and pathway greeting and acquaintance by familiar face, the realm of the campus community.

It was also an event that forced College officials to mobilize, very deliberately and intensively, to help people cope. Starting on the day Murray was reported missing, the student-affairs staff and others around campus worked tirelessly to anticipate students' needs and tend to them. Care took many forms and touched many people. "This is one of the most supportive places, and groups of people, I've ever been associated with," said Gilligan. "I've gotten to see Kenyon at its kindest."

Murray was last seen leaving her waitressing job at the Pirates' Cove, a Gambier bar and restaurant, around 3:00 a.m. on Friday, November 3. The next day, when it was clear to her friends that something was wrong, they contacted the Office of Security and Safety, which notified the Knox County Sheriff's Office. While the police interviewed students and began a search, the counseling center and the student-affairs staff turned their attention to two groups of students in particular.

One was the circle of Emily's close friends, about a dozen students who knew Emily in different contexts but who now became a cohesive unit. "We holed up in one of the New Apartments, all of us," said Joel A. Rice '01. "We were worried. We brainstormed together. We talked about what to do. From that moment, the group coalesced; we became very close."

This group was "Emily's family on campus," said Gilligan, "and that's how we wanted to treat them." He and Jane Martindell, dean for academic advising, began meeting with them regularly, knowing that their fears, anxieties, anger, and emotional needs would be greater than those of other students and also that they felt a greater sense of urgency about what was being done to find Emily and what leads the police had turned up.

"We wanted them to hear information in ways that respected their need to know and their privacy," said Gilligan. "We didn't want them to find things out through the campus rumor mill. We wanted to give them the facts, but in a way that respected their emotions."

In addition, Martindell and others met several times with a second group, the students in Watson Hall, Murray's residence. There were meetings in other residence halls as well. "Some of the students in Watson were concerned about safety," said Cheryl L. Steele, associate dean of students. "But the needs were more emotional. They wanted information; they wanted to know what had happened."

The most troubling thing was that nobody had any idea what had happened. The county sheriff's office was joined in its efforts by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation and then, because of the possibility of abduction, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The search quickly widened to include Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Murray had gone to high school, and the New York area--her family had moved to Cold Spring, New York, in 1998--as well as Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she had spent the previous summer. Word of Emily's disappearance spread across the country via e-mail, both among her friends and in Episcopal Church circles, since Emily and her mother had been active in the church.

Rumors circulated continually. Gilligan, Martindell, and other officials continued to meet with students, while planning for a course of action to take if their growing fears were realized. The College's Office of Public Affairs, which had initially publicized the disappearance in the news media with the hope of producing leads in the case, now issued campuswide announcements periodically in an effort to combat rumors with information about what was in fact known. Unfortunately, for week after week, there was nothing new to report.

That changed on the weekend of December 9 and 10, as Kenyon prepared for the last two days of fall-term classes and for semester examinations and winter break. On Saturday, December 9, a Vinton County deputy sheriff went to a trailer in the rural hamlet of Ray to serve a warrant in a burglary case. The suspect in that case was Gregory McKnight, who owned the trailer and who had moved to a house near Gambier, where he now worked in the kitchen at the Pirates' Cove.

Nobody was home, but the deputy found a green Subaru with New York plates, soon learned that the car was being sought in the Murray case, and obtained a search warrant. The body was found wrapped in carpet inside the trailer. All indications pointed to its being Emily, although there was no way immediately to be certain. (Positive identification would be made on Tuesday, with the help of dental records.)

The news reached Kenyon indirectly. The police immediately contacted Emily's parents, who contacted friends, including some in the Shaker Heights area. Soon word was spreading on e-mail, including within a church discussion group. Rev. Stephen E. Carlsen, the rector of Harcourt Parish in Gambier and the director of the College's Board of Campus Ministries, got a call on Sunday from a church contact in the Cleveland area. He notified Director of Security and Safety Daniel J. Werner in the security office, thinking it might be another rumor.

Meanwhile, Robert D. Hooper, assistant director of security and safety, also called Werner on Sunday, having learned that local and state police were searching a home near Gambier--McKnight's home, it turned out. Werner confirmed the news with the Knox County sheriff's office and called Dean of Students Donald J. Omahan '70.

That afternoon, Omahan called in a group of College officials to "plot a game plan," as Martindell put it, for disseminating information and providing support on campus. A pressing concern was to notify the circle of Emily's close friends, so that they wouldn't find out through the media or through rumors. "We were able to get them all together on Monday morning and tell them about the car and the body," said Martindell, "although at that time there was no news about how she had died."

The officials also took the step of giving each of Emily's close friends an individual student-affairs contact, someone who would be available to offer help in everything from finding a College counselor in the middle of the night, to arranging for emergency travel to see family, to contacting faculty members about incomplete work. Carlsen spoke to Emily's parents, Thomas and Cynthia Murray, on Sunday to offer his help. "I told them they could consider me their pastor in Gambier," he said.

The Office of Public Affairs began issuing all-campus notices, via e-mail, on Monday, telling what was known and announcing the informational session in Peirce Lounge that afternoon. "We wanted the campus to find out what was happening from us before they saw it in the Columbus Dispatch or on the evening news," said News Director Shawn Presley. "We wanted to get out factual information and head off rumors."

Still, there was no official word on how Murray had died until the sheriff revealed it at the meeting in Peirce Lounge. "It blew us out of the water," said Martindell. "We had done our best to prepare the students close to Emily. We had told them a body had been found, but we hadn't known about the gunshot. We'd made a commitment to that close circle of friends. `We'll tell you first.' And here was this. Patrick [Gilligan] and I felt horrified."

The rest of the meeting was devoted to offering comfort. Gilligan urged students to seek out counselors or members of the student-affairs staff if they needed to talk. If you see that a friend or hallmate is struggling, he added, tell us. "We didn't want the kids to feel that they had to handle this by themselves," he said. "It was too much to take."

Carlsen spoke at the meeting, too, announcing that the Church of the Holy Spirit would be open for a prayer vigil that evening, an event organized by student religious groups. Students and others could come to light candles for Emily, to pray and reflect, and to offer their thoughts in a book that would later be given to the Murray family. The clergy and others who serve on the Board of Campus Ministries would be available for support.

Following the Peirce Lounge meeting, an additional meeting was held for faculty members, to ensure that they would know about the full range of resources available for students needing help.

Over the next week, the needs varied widely. "The people close to Emily were shocked; they felt real disbelief," said Gilligan. "Others were stunned that such a dark event could happen in a place that felt so safe.

"What we dealt with on campus," he continued, "were classic manifestations of trauma." People were anxious, fearful, easily startled, and more irritable. Some felt numb and distant. Some had trouble eating and sleeping. Others were afraid, even though evidence indicated that Emily had not been harmed on campus and the sheriff's office assured the College that Gambier was still an unusually safe place. Women in particular were more fearful of walking alone or walking on campus at night, and the demand went up for the security office's escort service. The Women's Network, an informal group of female administrators and faculty members, held a special meeting to discuss safety concerns with female students.

Even students who didn't really know Emily were suffering. "For anyone who had lost a family member or who was coping with a recent death, this forced them to relive those emotions," said Martindell. "Students needed reassurance; they needed somebody to care, somebody to talk to. They needed to process this. They needed to figure out how they were going to get through and finish the semester. One night I was about to leave the office and a kid just called up sobbing. Things like that were happening a lot.

"Usually we have one dean available each week to take late-night calls," Martindell said. "For that two-week period after Emily was found, we were all on call twenty-four hours, everyone in student affairs and in health and counseling."

Students were on call for one another as well. "The support that the students gave each other amazed me," said Steele. "They were just there for each other. But even the supporters had to deal with a lot, and they ended up coming to us for support."

The numbers of requests for incompletes that the deans in student affairs granted more than doubled, from forty or fifty in a typical semester to more than a hundred. "The professors were wonderful," Martindell said. "In all the places I've worked, I've never dealt with a better faculty."

Adding to the anxiety was continuing uncertainty over what had actually happened. The police arrested Gregory McKnight the day after the body was found, but even though they considered him a suspect in the killing, they held him for the time being--and for many weeks to come, it turned out--only on charges of receiving stolen property (Emily's car). The turbulent emotions on campus included anger: at McKnight, at the Pirates' Cove, at the police for not interviewing McKnight in their initial investigation.

The College also had to cope with the very public nature of the tragedy. As soon as Murray's body was found, Oden sent a letter to all parents as well as alumni explaining what had happened. He would send another letter to students' homes shortly before they returned from winter break. Dean of Admissions John W. Anderson wrote to high-school guidance counselors and to students who had been accepted to Kenyon as early-admission candidates. The aim of all these letters was to be open, to provide accurate information, to share the College's grief and its sympathy for the Murray family, and to offer reassurance about the safety of Gambier to all those who had an interest in Kenyon.

In order to keep providing up-to-date information, the public affairs office posted College statements on the Kenyon web site, along with links to major newspaper stories about the Murray case. For the case was very much in the news, and the campus found itself dealing not only with its own emotions but with newspaper and television reporters seeking "reaction" as well as details about Murray.

"The media wanted to talk to people who were really close to Emily--her family, her friends, her professors," said Presley. "But people instinctively resist the media; they want to slam the door and say, `No comment.'"

As the news director, Presley had to find a balance between limiting media intrusiveness and accommodating reporters. "I tried to get people on campus to understand that if they would come forward, that would help to prevent the media from just roaming the campus, sticking microphones in people's faces."

Oden spoke to a number of reporters, as did Emily's faculty advisor, Professor of Religious Studies Royal W. Rhodes, and one of her professors, Andrew W. Pessin of the philosophy department. Martindell was interviewed. Several students, including Joel Rice, also agreed to interviews.

"At first, I was offended by the media," said Rice. "I felt it demeaned Emily's memory. The reporters were a bunch of people who didn't know her, who saw her as just part of their job."

It was difficult emotionally to experience Emily's death simultaneously as a Kenyon tragedy, a family loss of sorts, and as a story on television news. The news had the effect of making the loss seem both more real and somehow removed. By appropriating Emily's story as news, the media also exacerbated feelings of helplessness, the sense among students of terrible intimate events spinning out of their control.

The interviews granted to the media were valuable, though, Presley pointed out, in enabling the news reports to convey some sense of who Emily Murray was as an individual and why people cherished her. As a close friend of Emily's, Rice praised a long, sensitive article written by Frank Hinchey of the Columbus Dispatch and published on the front page of the paper's Sunday edition in late January, just before the College's official memorial service.

Several Kenyon officials, along with Carlsen of Harcourt Parish and a number of students, attended Emily's funeral in Garrison, New York, on Sunday, December 17. In Gambier on that day, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Donald L. Rogan led services in the Church of the Holy Spirit, speaking in his sermon about how the College community was "frightened and shattered by this death" but also about how the Christian message of resurrection could lead people to a renewed appreciation for life and greater care for others. That afternoon, a small group of students, professors, administrators, and staff and community members gathered in Weaver Cottage to remember Emily.

A large number of Kenyon students as well as alumni attended a memorial service in Shaker Heights after Christmas, according to Omahan. "The Murray family has told me how surprised and appreciative they are about the number of letters and notes they've received from students and others," he said. "Mrs. Murray was struck in particular by the large number of letters she received from parents of other students."

The College's memorial service took place on Monday, January 29, with more than five hundred members of the campus community packing the Church of the Holy Spirit. The friends of Emily who had planned the service together with Carlsen sought to make it "a celebration of her life," Carlsen said. "They didn't want to reduce our remembrance of Emily to the tragedy of how her life ended, but to draw attention to the gift she was, to this community, to her friends, to her classes."

Prayers, remarks, and readings were offered by Carlsen, by Oden, by two of Emily's philosophy professors--Pessin and Juan E. De Pascuale--and by several students, including Rice, who gave a talk rich with anecdotes and memories. Songs were performed by the Chamber Singers and by the Kenyon Community Choir, of which Emily had been a member.

Emily's family came to Gambier for the service. "They'd already been through the funeral in New York and the service in Shaker Heights, so we would have understood if this was too much," said Carlsen. "But I was glad they came. Emily's friends needed to be connected to who she was before she came to college, and her family needed to see something of her life here. At a dinner later in the day, the family was able to sit down with a few professors and Emily's close friends and share stories."

If healing has begun, closure remains far away. Gilligan and Martindell have continued to meet with Emily's friends. A special session was arranged on March 23, when authorities announced the indictment of McKnight for the murder of Emily Murray as well as for the murder of a Columbus man whose remains were found on McKnight's property in Vinton County.

"Each story in the news brings back fear, anger, sadness, the whole range of emotions," said Omahan. "The College needs to be attuned to that and continue to respond as sensitively as at the beginning."

Student-affairs officials are concerned, meanwhile, about the cumulative effect of all the losses Kenyon has suffered in recent years. Cortney P. Colby '98 collapsed on campus and died of a pre-existing medical condition in October 1997. James W. Bunn '02 died in a car accident in Tennessee on his way home after classes ended in May 1999. That same summer, Jeb D. King '00 died in a car accident in Mexico. Melissa L. Kravetz '99 died in October 1999 after a long struggle with cancer. And in January 2000, Molly R. Hatcher '00 died in a van accident involving the College's women's swimming and diving team.

"These last few years have been filled with tragedy," said Steele. For seniors, every year at Kenyon has been marked by loss. "I wish I could explain why these things are happening, but I can't."

The staff has shown signs of wear, Steele notes. "We try to put a good face on it, because we're supposed to be strong for the students. But we seem to be in a mode of regular trauma. We're waiting for the other shoe to drop. The phone rings, or a siren goes off, and we're all on edge. We all wish for a year free of death."

Earlier this spring, the student-affairs staff met with a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress and who had been working with the swim team. "This was the first time the whole division came together to talk about how we were handling things," said Steele. "Most of us have taken all this and pressed it inside."

While law-enforcement officials seem certain that Murray was not abducted on campus and that her murder took place in Vinton County, her death is prompting the College to re-examine security issues. "Kenyon is a great place," said Werner, the head of security, "and Gambier is a great place, and Knox County is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. But anything can happen anywhere."

The biggest issue is access to residence halls: they are not locked, and students have traditionally opposed locks on the grounds that they would alter the friendly, trusting atmosphere on campus. Many College officials feel that locks are inevitable.

Lighting is another issue. "We need to strike a balance between aesthetics and safety," said Werner. "We don't want the campus to be lit like a football stadium at night, but we don't want a lot of shadows." Werner and maintenance personnel take a lighting walk with students at least once every year and make adjustments based on their suggestions.

Werner also tries continually to stress the importance of personal responsibility. "Don't prop your residence hall's door open. Lock the door of your room. Lock your car. Walk in groups. Walk in well-lit areas."

The discussions about security policies will go on into next year. Meanwhile, the sorrow of this year lingers. Looking back, those who continue to suffer the most, and those who have tended most closely to that suffering, are grateful for the caring spirit of the Kenyon community. "I feel that there's nothing Jane Martindell wouldn't do, or didn't do, to help us," said Joel Rice, who considered Emily Murray his best friend. "And there was the same level of care from so many others. I feel closer to other people here, to students and faculty members, as a result."

Carlsen, who marveled at many things through the ordeal--the graciousness of the Murray family, the generosity of students, the surprising role of e-mail as a vehicle for support, the mixture of laughter and tears at the memorial service--was most struck by "the tremendous effort and compassion given by the student-affairs and counseling staff. The work they have done has been so above and beyond what we could reasonably expect people in those positions to do. If I can say there was a bright spot in this, it would be working with that group."

Compassion cannot be taken for granted, but it seems to be inherent in Kenyon and Gambier. "We're small, we're tightly connected," Carlsen continued. "This fact magnifies everything we experience. There's nothing impersonal here. We don't just walk off and let someone go through something alone. We bear each other's pains."

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