Columbine principal helped rebuild community through Catholic faith

“Mr. De” sat wide awake that night in his brother’s house. He was in disbelief at what had occurred. And, as a cradle Catholic, for the first time in his life, he questioned his faith: “God, how could you let this happen? These poor kids!”

Frank DeAngelis, the principal of Columbine High School the year of the shooting, didn’t know that in the wake of such tragedy, God would call him to stay in the very place that had deeply marked him in order to rebuild a hurting community.

In his newly-released book They Call Me “Mr. De,DeAngelis tells the story of Columbine’s heart, resilience and recovery.

He spoke with the Denver Catholic about his faith-filled experience and his new book.

“A lot of this book is about my faith and how it allowed me to recover and to do what I continue to do,” he said.

DeAngelis remembers April 20, 1999, vividly — his third year as principal.

“I was in my office that day getting ready to go to lunch duty… I was talking to a teacher [when] my secretary showed up at the door — I can remember her so vividly — and said, ‘Frank, there is a reported gunfire!’” he recalled.

He was in disbelief.

“This can’t be happening. I’ve been part of this school. It’s a fantastic school [with] a lot of parental support, great kids,” he thought. “And when I ran out of my office, my worst nightmare became a reality: I saw a gunman that was coming towards me, and everything just seemed to slow down.”

Instead of fleeing, he ran toward the gunfire.

“People have asked me, ‘Why would you do that?’ And the reason I did it is that I had some of my kids in danger. They were coming from a class… and they were going to be in the middle of the gunfire. And I ran down there to protect them,” he said.

The former principal found himself leading a group of 25 to 30 students to the gymnasium, where they could lock the doors from within, with the gunman approaching.

He pulled on the gymnasium door — it was locked.

“That’s when I really believe miracles started happening,” DeAngelis recalled.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a key ring with about 30 keys, introduced a random key, and opened the door on the first try.

“I tried [to replicate] that for 15 years later, but never could” he said.

But the story was just beginning, and he had to process everything that had happened on that day: the twelve students and teacher that had died, the dozens who were wounded.

“It was two days later that my life changed, and I’m eternally grateful,” DeAngelis said.

Father Ken Leone, who was pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, DeAngelis’ home parish, invited him to a candlelight vigil for the victims. DeAngelis hesitated; he was overwhelmed. Father Leone insisted, and the school principal finally accepted.

“[Father Ken] calls me up on the altar and brings some of the students who were part of the youth group and they came over and extended their hands over me and prayed for me,” he said. “And I felt something, the Holy Spirit, descend upon me. Then Father Ken whispered in my ear, ‘Frank, you should’ve died that day, but God saved you and he’s got a plan: Now you need to rebuild that community… Frank, it’s going to be a tough journey, but you never have to travel that journey alone.’

“And the thing that really turned it around for me is that he said, ‘Frank, you’ve got to believe this: You’ve got to live by faith and not by sight.’”

Father Leone accompanied him in his process of healing and so did Father Sean McGrath, when he became pastor of the parish.

“Their help, along with the help of a [Catholic] counselor, were the reasons why I was able to heal,” he assured. “I got counseling along with spiritual support, and that’s the message I share with communities that experience similar tragedies about having that support system in place.”

DeAngelis would remain the principal of Columbine High School for another 15 years, with the conviction that God had given him the mission to help students and the community heal.

He currently serves as a consultant for safety and emergency management for the Jeffco School District and speaks nationally and internationally.

“Hopefully people don’t have to go through a ‘Columbine,’ but there is an assurance we’re going to go through tough times in our lives,” he concluded. “And the piece of advice that I give is you never have to travel that journey alone.

“For me, the journey was a tough journey, but I knew my faith was so important to me that I had that support and belief that God was there to help me.”

COMING UP: Ms. Taylor: St. Louis’ fourth grade founder

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The following interview was conducted by the eighth grade class of 2020 at St. Louis Catholic School in Louisville to honor Ms. Lydia Taylor, the school’s beloved fourth grade teacher who is retiring after 20 years of teaching at St. Louis.

Our beloved fourth grade teacher, Ms. Taylor, has been working at St. Louis for over 20 years. As such, she has plenty of experience teaching in a Catholic environment. Since she is retiring this year, the 8th grade class at St. Louis decided to interview her and find out about Ms. Taylor. These are just a few of the many answers we received from her.

What are some things you wish more people understood about teaching in a Catholic School?

“I feel like we address the whole person… and [teach] life skills that can be carried on into their grown-up lives.”

Ms. Taylor feels that in Catholic schools, children receive an education that is applicable in all aspects of life, not just the academic portion. Catholic school teachers help children with social skills and independence among other skills. At public schools, teachers don’t get to know their students on a personal level, unlike Catholic schools. A personal connection with their students allows teachers to educate them on important life matters. Our Catholic faith and morals also allow our teachers to help students without having to worry about offending or insulting them.

What will you miss most about teaching at St. Louis?

“I’m going to miss the students for sure, and I’m actually going to miss the parents. I have had a lot of friendships over the years… A lot of my teaching friends have left before me, but I still keep in touch with them.”

Since Ms. Taylor was hired at St. Louis three days before the school year started, her room was a mess, and she wasn’t going to be able to clean it up in time. The parents at St. Louis saw how worried she was and stepped in to help by cleaning her room and organizing her lesson plan. She says she has met some truly incredible people here at St. Louis.

How would you like to spend your summers when you leave St. Louis?

“I think I’m going to move back East and vacation here in the summers… When I became a teacher, I thought I would have the summers to write, but I don’t, so I will probably catch up on my writing when I retire.”

Ms. Taylor has a passion for writing and even used to be a newspaper reporter. Her passion to write is still strong, and she hopes to do plenty of it when she retires.

Ms. Taylor with the eight grade class of 2020 at St. Louis. (Photos provided)

What accomplishments fill you with pride over the last 20 years at St. Louis?

“Having student teachers come back. I enjoy having my students come back wanting to pursue a job as a teacher.”

Ms. Taylor feels that she did her job properly when she inspires her students so much that they come back asking for assistance so that they can be just like her. She also enjoys hearing from students who have graduated and she can see what they are up to and how she impacted their lives.

Is there a quote/ saying that you live your life by?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi

Ms. Taylor believes that if you want to improve the world, you will have to set a good example of how we should treat each other and how we should live our lives. Ms. Taylor sets a good example for her children in hopes that they will go out and set a good example for the rest of the world.

If you could pass on any wisdom to your students, what would you share?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Ms. Taylor believes.

She thinks that people shouldn’t worry as much about the minor issues in life but focus on the things that are more important.

What would students be surprised to find out about you?

“This is kind of embarrassing, but I was actually in the Mrs. Massachusetts pageant… It was great for all my friends because they got to watch me up on the stage, but for me, it was like, “What do we do now?” and “Why am I doing this?”

Ms. Taylor also brought in a picture of a quilt she made with her class one year, which hung in the capitol building for one month. The whole class received official certificates of their work from the quilt, and the quilt sold for $2,000 at our school’s Gala.

Ms. Taylor is an incredible teacher and has been here for her students for over 20 years. We wish her luck in her further adventures and will always remember her here at St. Louis as an amazing teacher and friend.