The violence of the world we live in hit Haywood County like an extraterrestrial force last week when news broke that one of the two students killed on the UNC-Charlotte campus was Riley Howell, a native son who touched countless lives during his short time on this earth.
Howell was just 21 when he died tackling the campus shooter, an act that led to his death. His act of heroism has reached the far corners of the nation — and beyond.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the portrait that’s emerged of this young man shows what a special person he was.
Teachers remember his magnetism, a brilliant smile and a special personality that made him a favorite of both adults and his classmates. He was the fun-loving class jokester, but also the student who helped others who were struggling and the student all in class looked up to.
The same was true where, as the eldest child in an extended family, he was seen as the protector by his younger siblings and cousins, but also as the one who found a way to lead in the most fun-loving way possible.
Family members said he was a person who knew who he was, and who was always true to himself, unbothered by how others might react to that. Many spend a lifetime trying to uncover who they are, yet it was something Riley Howell seemed to grasp very early on.
He wore his wavy blonde hair on the longish side and was convinced that Tevas were the superior footwear — if one had to wear shoes at all. He loved his dogs, everybody else’s dogs and dogs that had nobody to love them. He loved to eat, which led him to take up cooking with his preferred cast iron cookware, something that led to good-natured teasing at times.
Whether it was parenting, a supportive extended family, a community that fostered an environment where children are free to be all they can be, or simply a destiny that God had in mind for a very special young man, it’s hard to say what made Riley who he was. Perhaps it was all of the above.
What’s apparent in this tragedy, however, is the abiding love that has emerged in multiple ways.
A police escort that brought Riley Howell home for the last time was marked by law enforcement and emergency service personnel, as well and community members, standing with their hands over their hearts at every overpass and interstate ramp along the route from Charlotte to Haywood County.
As the motorcade arrived in Waynesville, hundreds tearfully gathered to show their support for the family — friends and strangers alike.
While it would have been totally understandable for the family to privately grieve for a son, grandson, brother, nephew and cousin who had just arrived home for burial, family members made a point to walk into the street, hug friends and tell all how much they appreciated the support.
It was as if the Howells were providing the comfort, holding the community together in their strength.
The most selfless act of love, however, was that of Riley Howell when he lost his life through an action, whether instinctive or decisive, that allowed others to live.
Those who knew him well say it was “pure Riley” and weren’t at all surprised he would run toward, rather than away, from a gunman.
The world would be a much different — and far better — place if the millions who have been inspired by Riley Howell took even one step to make a difference in a way that he would have if his life not been so tragically cut short.
Vow today to do something that will ensure Riley Carl Howell will not have died in vain.