On Friday evening at Polk Place, as the North Carolina state flag flew half mast above him, Sam Howell stood in front of a crowd and spoke of his cousin.
“He was a strong and intense guy with a truly loving heart,” the UNC sophomore said. “He was everyone's big brother … I like to say that I looked up to him, both literally and metaphorically. He was a big, tall guy. And he never took anything for granted.”
Sam’s cousin, Riley Howell, was one of two students who died in a school shooting at UNC Charlotte on April 30. The shooting occurred in a classroom and left four others injured.
According to police, Riley tackled the gunman and was fatally shot as he did. His actions saved the lives of his fellow students.
Sam Howell was one of several speakers at Friday’s candlelight vigil that commemorated those killed or wounded in the shooting.
“I just so badly want the community to live like (Riley) did," Howell said. "And stand up against evil and denounce this concept that the country is how it is now, and that it's just going to be the way it is forever."
Students lit candles and gathered in a semicircle around the flag in the center of the lower quad. As they listened, many guarded their flames with their palms or helped light the candles of others.
“This was close,” said sophomore Brady Creef, who attended the vigil. “This hit home for a lot of people.”
Laura McDow, a high school student who helped start the Durham-Chapel Hill chapter of March for Our Lives, helped organize the event.
“I’ve grown up in a world of gun violence,” McDow said. “This time, it was in our own state. These were our friends, our families, our neighbors.”
McDow said that, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, she felt supported by the college community. She wanted to return the favor.
Kaaren Haldeman, a mother and UNC alumna, said that she had been to many similar vigils. Still, it brought her hope to be present last night.
“Please believe me when I say, 'Thank you for being here,'” Haldeman told the crowd. “Thank you for standing up, and speaking out and showing your sense of community and love for one another.”
When asked what he hopes attendees would carry with them after attending the vigil, Sam Howell had an immediate and simple answer.
“Live as Riley did,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”