I saw a pair of Canada geese at the lake this morning—protectively walking with their seven downy goslings. They weren’t particularly fearful but rather, tentative, watchful. The couple had a job to do after all—to protect their young as they taught them to be aware of their surroundings while entering boldly into the world. 

Preparing to walk around the lake, I hadn’t brought my cell phone, and I was sorely disappointed. As this fowl family walked single file across the wooden dock, a beautiful western North Carolina sunrise behind them, I almost couldn’t breathe for the beauty. I considered running back to my van to retrieve my phone, but I was afraid they’d scatter by the time I returned. Not only would I then miss taking the picture, but I’d miss that poignant moment. Thus, I stayed still and stared—committing the scene to memory. Despite my presence, they just walked bravely by—not fearful or deterred. They were determined, as though driven by an intrinsic call. They had somewhere to be. 

Yesterday I learned of the horrific shooting at the University of NC in Charlotte. My heart broke further when I discovered that one of the two killed by this deranged shooter was a young man named Riley Howell. Riley had been one of our son Ian’s first friends after we moved to North Carolina. They’d been classmates several years, attended birthday parties together and shared the sort of boyish banter that young boys truly enjoy. 

Ian left Riverbend Elementary after the fourth grade, and we began homeschooling. Thus, Riley and Ian didn’t see one another much after that. After his freshman year at Tuscola, Riley attended and then graduated high school in neighboring Buncombe County. Several years ago, our family visited a small restaurant in the Biltmore Village. Upon entering the Corner Kitchen for brunch that Sunday, I immediately recognized a worker’s infectious smile. Riley was just as friendly and warm as ever—quickly catching us up on what he’d been doing and what his plans for the future were. Though our visit was brief, we appreciated seeing this kind and caring young man again, and we’ve talked about that encounter off and on over the years. 

But on Tuesday, in crowded Kennedy Hall, an angry young man took aim and fired—leaving at least four critically injured, struggling still today. He took one life—a nineteen-year old student named Ellis—before being tackled to the ground by someone who, whether consciously or unconsciously, determined to do what he could to put a stop to the madness. After knocking him to the ground, Riley Howell suffered a bullet and was mortally wounded. He is being called a hero. 

And he is, because he has the heart of a hero.

I’m left wondering—what makes a hero? What makes some flee and some fight? What makes one turn a blind eye to injustice and another face it headlong, determined to make a difference?

I’m not sure I know, nor that I ever fully will. But as I’ve pondered, thinking about the person I knew—a cute, blonde boy named Riley—I’ve collected several things and stored them up in my heart. Holding them makes me feel better somehow. 

So I ask—what shapes the heart of a hero?

Like that feathered pair who carefully walked their goslings along the water at Lake Junaluska this morning—that moment I couldn’t capture in a photograph—I remember Riley’s parents walking him and his siblings into Riverbend Elementary too many mornings to count. Rarely did they pull up and drop them off; rather, they parked and, with hands held tight—a neat row of Howells and sometimes a baby in tow—walked the school-aged children safely across the pavement and into the building, then to their respective classrooms. Many mornings were met with, “Good morning, Maureen,” and I’d echo, “Good morning, Thomas… Good morning, Natalie….” Sometimes we’d continue with friendly conversation for a minute or so, about this or that. Though I have no picture to prove this, it is etched in my mind, and I’m sure one would find quite a few witnesses who’d say the same.

Riley’s parents instilled in him the qualities of a hero—simply by loving him and caring for him and his siblings. They gave him a firm foundation, upon which others who came along would continue building.

Like those teachers that Riley was privileged to have—at Riverbend and in his education beyond. I can’t honestly speak of those who came later, but because my son Ian was in Riley’s class in first, third and fourth grades, I know those teachers—along with others who taught the specials classes like P.E. and music, for example. They, too, were in the business of building heroes. Renee Gidcumb, Anita Painter, Celeste Reyes and Chris Ray were a few of these, and there certainly were more. In their small classrooms of sixteen to eighteen students—many of the children from hard-working farming families—these men and women planted the seeds of knowledge and instilled a love for learning that they hoped would lead to a greater understanding of math and the English language, as well as a deeper appreciation for diversity and the world beyond Haywood County. 

But each of those who taught Riley were doing more than teaching fundamentals; they were also helping develop heroic qualities—maybe without even realizing it. Even those teachers who fell short—weren’t kind, fair or honest perhaps—helped their students understand better how not to be in this broken, often hateful world. And there’s value in that, as well.

Besides Riley’s parents and teachers, there were those extended family members—grandparents, aunts and uncles, for example. Although I don’t know many of them well, I do know Riley’s grandmother Nancy Blevins. Just last Sunday, she came up to me at the church we visited and wrapped her arms around me for a big hug. Loving and lovely, Nancy is an artist and a hard worker. Her late husband, Dr. Thomas Howell—a dentist in our community—passed away some years ago, having suffered with leukemia. Nancy grieved this loss and pressed on—instilling in her children and grandchildren the virtue of trusting in the Lord with all one’s heart, leaning not on his or her own understanding. In all her ways, Nancy has acknowledged God—trusting that He would direct her paths (Proverbs 3:5,6).

Yes—Riley’s grandmother Nancy, as well as her husband David, helped instill in him the qualities of a hero, and I believe without doubt that she pointed him to the One in whom she trusts most—Jesus, the ultimate hero, who sacrificed His own life, laying it down for the sake of the world. Though heartbroken again over this recent loss, she will press on, as she presses in to the heart of her Savior.

And then there are those who were blessed to call Riley their friend—boys like our Ian who enjoyed sleepovers and birthday parties and pestering girls alongside this blonde-headed, bright-eyed friend. It mattered not to Riley that Ian has dark brown skin, brown eyes and a head of curly dark hair—which is no small thing in an unkind world where children of color are sometimes excluded, or worse. Riley wrapped his arms around Ian from the get-go—considering Ian a true friend. Together, perhaps they plotted and planned as little boys do—how they’d change the world by conquering pirates or put an end, once and for all, to green bean cooties (which all girls have in the second grade). Fear wasn’t a factor—only valiant determination and a lot of imagination.

And Riley wasn’t just Ian’s elementary friend. Looking back at photographs, it’s not uncommon to find him with his arm around a buddy, wrestling with a chum, or giggling with the guys—being silly through and through. Riley was hands-on—yes, even onto his death. He wasn’t afraid to reach out and touch—so strong was his intrinsic love for people, which propelled him to tackle even this shooter on Tuesday, that other lives might be spared.

One of my very favorite pictures is of a first grade Riley Howell. Most of the other students in the photo are smiling normally for the camera. Some aren’t smiling at all. Our Ian isn’t even looking ahead; rather, he’s looking directly at his friend Riley—who’s standing at attention, saluting the photographer in what is to me a poignant foreshadowing of the life he lived. 

Ian is on the very far left–looking at his saluting friend Riley. This was Ms. Renee Gidcumb’s 1st grade class at Riverbend Elementary.

Besides what Riley is doing, I’m struck by how Ian is staring at him—as though he is admiring him and perhaps would have—had the photographer waited several more seconds to snap the picture—turned to do the same: salute those who will, for years to come, look at this photograph, remember their child at the age of six or seven, and reflect upon the years since and what time has done to their boy. Their girl. I think, given an extra few seconds, Ian would have followed Riley’s example.

I look at this picture and think, “How could we have known that this  funny, friendly, kind-hearted child would be snuffed from this world on April 30th, 2019—his life too short, taken by a crazed individual who intended harm and succeeded?” 

But then I pause, and I think about the lives Riley saved because he determined to live what he’d seen modeled. He decided to do what was in his heart to do—what had been instilled by his parents, his teachers, his extended family and his friends. He learned by example. 

More importantly, he lived by example.

Yes, Riley Howell has the heart of a hero. His life here may have ended, and we feel it’s much too soon; but he lives on—in all those whose lives were impacted by this beautiful soul. And as someone close to him recently said–

Beautiful souls like Riley are always with us in the way they made life more beautiful.

He did that—made life more beautiful, whether in a small-town elementary school, a large high school, a corner cafe or on a diverse university campus. And though I have no photograph to prove this morning’s beautiful moment, seeing the family of geese as they walked across the wooden dock—the western North Carolina sunrise behind them—I know that, for a brave boy-man named Riley, the sun will never again set and he, too, has risen to new life having stepped into a glorious new day.

Thank you, Riley Howell—for being someone who we can all hope and pray to be more like. Thank you for having the heart of a hero. May it beat on in all the lives you touched, in all the lives you saved. 

We salute you.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13 — NIV).