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Remembering Riley Howell: 'I Miss Him. I Love Him. I'm Proud Of What He Did.'

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The Howell Family

Thursday marks one year since a gunman opened fire on a UNC Charlotte building during the last day of spring semester classes. Two students died that day — Riley Howell and Reed Parlier — and four others were injured. We heard from the Parlier family Wednesday. Now, we turn to the Howells as they continue to grieve 21-year-old Riley, who is credited with tackling the gunman a year ago.

Since Riley Howell died last year, his family has tried to pick up where he left off, by completing a list of goals he had set out to do. A big one is to fix up an old car Riley had bought with the intention of restoring it.

"You can really feel him when you’re sitting in his car," said Riley's mother, Natalie Henry-Howell. "He had bought an old Isuzu Rodeo he was working on, and purposely bought it in bad shape so he could learn about cars and engines.

"When you have a child that dies and you look at this big, beautiful life ahead of them that it’s just gone, part of what you try to do is walk in the ways they were walking. Everything is unfinished in their life and there is never going to be any closure. But finding small things, I think, helps you make it minute to minute sometimes."

Riley’s father, Thomas Howell, says he feels near his son when he gardens or goes to the gym where Riley used to work out. There were landscaping projects they were going to do together, Thomas says, that had to be done without Riley.

"It was a matter of coming to the realization we're not going to see him again, I guess moving forward from that, taking in the things he liked and his hobbies, what he enjoyed," Thomas said. 

The Howells have been riding this wave of grief for the last year. It’s a complicated group of emotions. Along with the pain and devastation of losing Riley, there’s been the feeling of pride in his last act — heroically tackling the gunman who opened fire in his classroom. There’s also the love and support the Howells have received from friends, family and strangers.

"I don’t know if gratitude is the right word," Thomas said. 

"It is, it’s part of that. But the gratitude, it stems from something that was preventable and shouldn’t have happened in the first place," Natalie said. "I think for me, it's communities need to take action, we just need to take action that prevents these events from happening and the ripples that come out from them. Just don’t forget. Don’t just not forget. Do something to move towards having a safer society."

Part of how the Howells hope to ensure people won’t forget Riley, is through the Riley Howell Foundation Fund they formed shortly after the shooting. Riley’s uncle, Scott Pritchard, said the idea came as the family was sitting on Howell's front porch, reflecting on the community support that immediately rushed in.

"We want to do something to honor Riley’s memory, let’s do a foundation and try to dedicate it to be there for other people in moments like this," Pritchard said. "Unfortunately they are not all that uncommon. I don’t want to say we had endless opportunities to support people of gun violence, but we had numerous."

Pritchard, who is a member of the board of the foundation, says the organization announced the latest round of donation recipients this week. It included $3,000 to the Ellis Reed Parlier Scholarship Fund — a scholarship which honors Reed Parlier – the other student who died in the shooting.

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Credit The Howell Family
Natalie and Thomas Howell with their children and Riley's girlfriend Lauren (far right).

Another board member is Kevin Westmoreland, a close family friend of the Howells. His daughter Lauren was in a long-term relationship with Riley up until his death.

"This last year has been me spending my time watching my daughter and wife and my son, and making sure they are doing OK and working through grief in a way that is positive," Westmoreland said. "When I pray in the morning, I pray to Riley. I tell him I miss him, I love him, and I’m proud of what he did."

There’s a closeness between the two families that’s grown stronger since Riley’s death. Westmoreland's wife, Amy, regularly texts with Riley’s mother, Natalie, sharing a picture or a memory of Riley. Riley’s uncle, Pritchard, and Westmoreland have become tight-knit friends.

During this interview, Westmoreland paused to take a breath. He had just learned one of Riley’s dogs died. Normally, he said, losing a family dog would be sad, but an inevitable fact of life. With Riley gone, endings like this one have a different weight to them.

Both families have been thinking about how to honor Riley’s life on the anniversary of the shooting. Westmoreland says they plan to spend the day together at the Howell's home in Waynesville. They avoid going to Charlotte these days.

"It is painful literally to drive into Charlotte for our family," Westmoreland said. "It is painful to drive into Raleigh because my daughter remembers Raleigh now as the place where she got the phone call at 1:56 in the morning on the first of May telling her that Riley was gone."

Thomas Howell was planning to travel to Charlotte to attend UNCC’s Day of Remembrance event, but Natalie Howell decided a while back it would be too difficult to go. The coronavirus outbreak ended up making the decision for the family -- due to social distancing practices, the original in-person event has been canceled, a remembrance will instead be streamed online.

Natalie and Lauren, Riley’s longtime girlfriend, have been planning a family potluck to remember Riley. The potluck will include Riley's favorite foods, music he loved, and maybe a family hike. 

From a distance, Natalie says it may even be easier to watch the virtual remembrance together as a family.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Howells in another way that isn’t what you’d expect. Thomas is an RN at a hospital in Asheville, but he says, things for the moment are calm at work. Natalie says Riley's siblings are all home -- much like this time last year. After the shooting last April they ended up staying home the rest of the school year.

Natalie says what she can’t stop thinking about is the fact that if the virus had come a year earlier, her son wouldn’t have been in a classroom, charging an armed shooter. Classes would have been canceled. He would have been home. With her.

Of course, she says, you can make yourself sick thinking like that. So she tries to stay focused on the way Riley lived his life.

"He really enjoyed taking backroads when we were on drives," Natalie said. "And I make sure I do that. "Taking in the little things, taking care of others along the way."

She’ll continue to try and focus on the tasks at hand: On finishing the restoration of Riley’s old car, on cooking the recipes he had saved to his phone he never got to try.

She wants her son to know he’s near, that she’ll be living with him, for him, and in ways, she says, that were important to him.