LAKE JUNALUSKA — Nearly every seat in the 2,000 capacity Stuart Auditorium was filled as Western North Carolina bid Riley Carl Howell a final farewell.
Howell’s last act in life was to tackle a gunman on the UNC-Charlotte campus, saving the lives of others, but losing his own.
Howell was one of two students killed in a shooting where four others were injured.
About 10 percent of those in the auditorium were members of two prominent Haywood County families — the Henrys and the Howells — families who have claimed a rightful spot in local history in numerous ways.
Riley Carl Howell’s heroism is a sacrifice not likely to be overshadowed.
When the doors to Stuart opened at 4 p.m. for the funeral set for an hour later, the large sidewalk area had filled with those who came to show their respect. As they waited, the music of Balsam Range filled the room, and slides projected on a screen chronicled highlights of Howell’s 21 years on this Earth.
Outside, friends continued to pour in as members of every law enforcement jurisdiction in the county, along with two Charlotte police officers and their chaplain stood watch.
The Rev. Dr. Robert M. Blackburn, who baptized Howell when he was six months old, said no one could have ever imagined this moment just a week ago.
“Our hearts are never ready for these moments, but we are here together and this is where we need to be,” he said. “We have come here to give thanks for his life together.”
He asked for prayers not only for the loss felt by family and friends, but for the perpetrator of the heinous act, as well as for his family.
Howell’s friends and family shared memories of the young man they will always remember because of his impact on his life.
Lucas Tate, spoke of his best friend’s ability to light up any room in a way that positively demonstrated his love for others.
“He left his keys in an unlocked car everywhere,” Tate said. “He didn’t look for the bad in others. He always saw the good.”
His sister, Iris, said Howell was everything she needed in a big brother — someone who taught her to be tough and would offer to beat someone up for her if she needed that.
Juliet said her brother was a free spirit who “truly had no fears” and was so “quirky and lovable” she will never forget him.
Brother Teddy, just 14, said for the first seven or eight years of his life, he only knew him as “Ri Ri,” someone always up for a wrestling match, would eat everybody’s leftovers and who would talk about cars for three-hours at a time.
“That he was there Tuesday wasn’t bad luck,” he said. “It was fate.”
Howell’s fiancé, Lauren Westmoreland, spoke directly to Howell, recalling the moment they met and the special moments they shared in the last five years.
“So many times you made me feel I was the only person in the world,” she said.
Her father, Kevin Westmoreland, spoke of all the broken hearts left in the wake of Howell’s tragic death.
“Maybe it was that God moved the levers to put Riley in that classroom at that time for the purpose of saving others,” he said, later adding that perhaps Riley’s death was meant to awaken in all the love and kindness that often remains dormant.
He said Howell learned sign language at age 3 to communicate with his uncle and shared the sign for love, asking all in the auditorium follow suit. All raised their hand with the index and pinkie finger extended upward.
Amy Westmoreland spoke of all this “bright, beautiful and humble young man” had done to help her daughter become the person she is today.
She recalled his huge appetite, and “hugs that were so warm and real. I asked his advice on plants, he asked me how to make better biscuits,” she said. “My heart is torn in two for my daughter, his family, our family.”
Blackburn said Howell was wise beyond his years, noting that those who knew him best “declared in one voice they were not shocked” by his actions that fateful day when a shooter entered a classroom and was knocked down by Howell.
“We will never forget Riley’s last heroic, sacrificial act,” Blackburn said. “We live in a cultural house that has become a haunted house. This moment calls for us to steel our determination to try to build kinder communities.”
Senseless acts of violence are hard to understand because there are no easy solutions or answers.
Blackburn recalled the words he used in 1998 when he baptized Howell, calling him to fully live into his gifts as a child of God.
“We all get to be human,” he said. “Then someone like Riley comes along and shows us how to be fully human. He figured how to carve out a purposeful existence in this world.”
While many continue to ask “why,” Blackburn said the larger question is “how.”
“Our deepest need is not for an explanation,” he said. “Our deepest need is for strength in how to go on living... We come together, hold on to one another and hold on to God.”
Blackburn prayed all would experience the “depth and breadth of the love of God,” saying Riley Howell’s final act was “that of love.”
Following a three-gun salute, a flag ceremony done by the Honor Guard and the presentation of the flag to Howell’s parents, the family filed out shortly after 6 p.m. where they boarded several large buses and left the grounds.