You Must Remember This

The horrors of Columbine, reduced to a single page.

The Columbine collection at the Colorado Historical Society stretches across fifteen linear feet. And this is just the paper collection. The three-dimensional items -- the T-shirts, the teddy bears, the beanie babies, the banner from a Texas church -- are kept in secured storage in two more departments in the building at 1300 Broadway.

And these are just the artifacts at the Colorado Historical Society, culled from all of the pieces left at what began as an impromptu shrine at Clement Park and grew to an immense outpouring of grief made physical. Only about half of these offerings survived those rainy days that followed the April 20, 1999, shootings, the decay of the floral remembrances that piled knee-deep at some points along the fence.

The collection at the Colorado Historical Society is just a fraction of the whole, and yet there are thousands of pieces of paper here, each evincing emotions still so strong in Colorado's consciousness -- in the world's conscience -- that it's difficult to get your arms around them.

But you can get your arms around box 9, which accounts for just a foot or so of those fifteen feet. You can carry it to a table in the society's research library and look through its contents, each piece preserved and individually inventoried. The posters, the cards, the notes from classes, churches, families.

"We will never forget," promise Buzz and Barb. "May the goddess grant you peace." "Dear Columbine High." "Take comfort." "With all our grief and sorrow," from Greenwood Elementary. "I'm sorry your kids got killed." "You are never forgotten in our prayers." "To every student of CHS," from papal youth of St. Louis. "Angels took everyone to heaven." "To someone." "We will always remember."

"I hope you get better soon."

Cards with pink, yellow, blue ribbons.

Cards with irises, pansies, morning glories, violets.

Store-bought cards, handmade cards. Cards with smiling faces, happy frogs, crosses.

Lots of crosses.

"I hope you will find a way to heal your heart," wrote Alex, a second-grader.

Another second-grader sent a card with a heart cut out of the center.

"It's an open wound," says Keith Schrum, associate curator of manuscripts. He pulled down box 9 on Monday, when he knew he would be talking about Columbine this week. It was impossible to look at everything; Schrum has yet to study the three-dimensional objects in the other departments, for example, confessing that "I just haven't had the heart to look at them." But from the dozens of items archived in this box alone, he pulls out a card originally placed at Clement Park by an Arvada family, created and colored by a child, with the words "In Loving Memory" and a cross on the front, and messages from family members inside.

From Zach: "Throughout time, schools have always competed. Who has the best cheerleaders, sport teams, etc. But now it doesn't matter anymore. Only life matters. Another minute to take a breath and be thankful for life. Life is a gift. Don't wish it away. All we want to do is live."

From S.A.: "I know you went through a tragedy. You'll be fine wait and see. If I knew you, you could see. Just how lucky you are to have a friend like me. I'll be praying for you."

Unofficial memorials are nothing new. They spring up across the country, around the world, at the sites of tragedies great and small -- outside Buckingham Palace after Princess Diana was killed in Paris, by Coors Field where a little girl was killed crossing the street two summers ago. "We've done this for a long time," says Schrum. "We have this need to recognize people. We hope that this life was not lived in vain."

After the battle at Gettsyburg, an attorney who lived nearby recognized that "something significant had happened," says Schrum, "and he started personally acquiring property with the idea that one day there would be a memorial at this battlefield."

Historians recognized that Columbine would need to be remembered, too. "We knew right away that something dramatic had happened," Schrum recalls, "and we knew we needed to be in a position to document the public response, or at least part of that." So Foothills Parks and Recreation, which oversees Clement Park, called together representatives from the Colorado Historical Society, from the Littleton Historical Museum, from the Jefferson County archives, to talk about what to do with everything that had been left at the park. The material was taken to the Federal Records Center in Lakewood, where a separate room was set up for things pertaining to each of the people who'd died that day.

After the items had been dried and inventoried, the families of the victims were invited to take pieces, and then the Littleton museum claimed its share, and then the historical society collected more. "We selected an estimated 5,000 items, many of them paper-based," says Schrum. Those paper-based items are the ones he oversees in the fifteen linear feet that account for just one of thousands of collections at the society.

This Columbine collection doesn't deal with what happened in Jefferson County before April 20, 1999 -- what complaints might have been made to police and ignored; what papers might have been written by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for high school assignments and ignored. It doesn't deal with law enforcement's response at the school that day, or the never-ending investigations that have followed. "It does not document the shootings, or the events that led up to the shootings," he says. "It deals with the public and private response. It deals strictly with Robert F. Clement Park."

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