UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State senior Kevin Gallagher is leaving school Monday to find his mother and hug her tight.
On Friday, hours after one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, Gallagher learned his young cousin, an elementary school student, was among the 26 killed.
And just like that, with a single phone call, Gallagher’s thoughts were ripped from finals and enjoying his final year at Penn State to his home outside Philadelphia and his extended family in Newtown, Conn., the site of the tragic school shooting.
Suddenly fights with his brother and arguments with his parents don’t seem so important.
“You can’t get mad, especially when something like this could happen at any time,” the broadcast journalism major said Sunday evening from the steps of Old Main, candles flickering around him.
“Make sure you cherish everything you have, the people you have,” Gallagher said. “That’s what I’m going to do with my family. Because they are my best friends. Without them I wouldn’t have the power to hold back tears right now.”
The message resonated with the several hundred silent Penn State students who had gathered outside Old Main for a candlelight vigil.
“When you leave here, after you take care of finals, you go home and hug your family,” Gallagher said. “Tell them you love them.”
Katelyn Dandrea knows how lucky her family is.
The Penn State student’s younger brother was inside Sandy Hook Elementary School when the gunman opened fire Friday. The young boy hid in a closet, likely frightened for his life.
When the news of the shooting broke, Dandrea’s mother raced to the school fearing the worst. She eventually found the her son outside the building.
“I can’t imagine the pain of parents who weren’t as lucky,” Dandrea said.
The young woman was among a handful of Penn State students who grew up in Newtown to speak Sunday at the vigil. They described a close-knit community, once only known to outsiders as the birthplace of the popular board game Scrabble.
“To see it torn open is heartbreaking,” another Penn State student said.
After the rally, the young women said they spoke because their hometown should not be defined by tragedy.
Penn State senior Ryan Brown, who organized the rally, also felt the need to reach out. When he saw the news, he first thought of his young nephew. His mind then turned to his fellow students.
“I know Penn State has students from all over the place,” Brown said. “It’s such a small world that someone here is highly affected by it. We just decided this was something that needed to happen.”
Brown and his fellow organizers read aloud the names and ages of the shooting victims. He asked the crowd to remember those who were lost.
Perhaps more difficult is knowing what to say to those left behind, as they begin to the slow process of putting their lives back together.
“I guess when people find out about my situation, they don’t know what to say,” Gallagher said. “I guess there’s not much to say. There really isn’t. Other than how horrible this truly is for everyone.”
Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.