MENOMINEE, Mich. — Hundreds showed up Sunday for a memorial to a 15-year-old Wisconsin boy who held his social studies class hostage before shooting himself last week, setting aside the terrifying standoff to remember him as a quiet, helpful leader who loved the outdoors.
Sam Hengel's family held the gathering in a school auditorium in Menominee, Mich., because they expected so many supporters. Menominee lies just across the Menominee River from Marinette, Wis., where Hengel held 26 classmates and his teacher at gunpoint for nearly six hours.
Barb Post of Marinette, Wis., said she didn't know Hengel's family but attended anyway to show support: "You care about the people and the family, and you understand it could happen to anybody.''
Flurries fell form an overcast sky as the line to greet the teen's parents and two younger brothers stretched out of the auditorium and into the lobby, where mourners gazed at collages of photos depicting Hengel as a small child, holding a string of fish and paddling along on a canoe trip with his family. On a table was a message board. Hengel's brother, Ben, had written "I will always miss you, brother." Next to the board were pin-on buttons emblazoned with Hengel's face and take-home cards listing symptoms that might indicate suicidal thoughts.
Hengel's family stood in front of the auditorium's stage and hugged one well-wisher after another for more than two hours. They had set up a tent, a canoe and paddle and a mock campfire on the stage. They hung up Hengel's Boy Scout and tae kwon do uniforms and his replica Green Bay Packers jersey with linebacker A.J. Hawk's No. 50 on the front next to the stage. A slide show showing Hengel hiking in the woods, canoeing and riding horses with his family played.
The Rev. Nicholas Johannes told the crowd he wondered why Hengel did it as he held the boy's hand in the hospital. Hengel was a good person and God would not judge him on one act, Johannes promised. People's lives revolve around work so much they don't listen or help each other anymore, he said. "This is not about Sam's sin. This is about the world's sin. Something has gone terribly wrong," he said. "We need to say 'I love you' and mean the words."
Keith Schroeder, Hengel's scoutmaster, said he had looked forward to seeing how Hengel would turn out as a man, because he was such a compassionate youth and always had a smile on his face. "Sam was my best friend," he said. "We don't know for sure what went on in Sam's mind, but we know he chose a permanent solution to a temporary problem … his emotional bucket was empty. We didn't see his bucket was empty and I don't think Sam did, either."
Jon Hengel told the crowd his son was a quiet leader who was "always ready to go. Someday when we meet again you can tell me what happened. You are one of the great ones. You and your brothers are the North Star in my life. ... I love you, Sam."
A bugler closed the ceremony with taps. Dozens of Hengel's fellow Boy Scouts filed into the auditorium's aisles and saluted.