“I’m crying writing this now,” Dave Cullen says, thinking back to that tragic night 36 years ago.
It was the winter of 1980, and the sophomore from Elk Grove Village was manning the copy desk at The Daily Illini, then located in “the grimy, beat-up bottom of Illini Hall,” where Cullen spent a good number of his nights (and has the transcript to show for it).
If his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of another tragedy Cullen (BS '86) would go on to write a best-selling book about decades later — 'Columbine,' which made countless best-of-2009 and all-time true-crime lists.
Just as alumni of other eras can tell you exactly where they were for those happy historic moments — Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon, America electing its first black president, the Cubs snapping their 108-year funk — Cullen remembers exactly what he was doing on campus when grim news broke.
He was skimming the AP ticker — “a rickety old 19th century contraption that supposedly ticked, but definitely clacked each time a story came in” — when the news broke that John Lennon had been shot outside his New York residence and was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.
“Someone had stationed the ticker right around the corner from the ‘rim,’ where the copy editors sat, so we could hear it clacking,” he says. “Your ears told you how lively the world was: most nights, it sat silent for long stretches, but when things got crazy, it was relentless, and it never rested that night.
“John had just begun his big comeback and was still beloved by our generation, and we tore up much of the morning edition to refocus it on him. Every few minutes, the night editor came by with a new stack of painful copy to stammer our way through and write ghastly but tasteful headlines, attempting to be poignant, but not too cute. It was too horrible to believe and no time to stop to emote, because we had to work, had to get it right, the one tiny gesture we could do for him.
“I’ve heard so many people say Americans lost our innocence on 9/11, but the last of mine went that night. Our sister station WPGU played all John all night, reminding us how sweet he was and how brilliant, and what an absurdly ironic target.
“We finished around 1 a.m., and our tear ducts were sucked dry."