Surviving Columbine: God in the Midst of Tragedy with Will Beck
Will Beck was a sophomore at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine shooting. 20 years have passed since that fateful day but on this week’s episode of “All In,” we talk with Will about his memories of that day, what he learned from that experience and how it has shaped his life in the years since. He also responds to those who may question where God was that day.
MORGAN JONES: April 20, 1999. This date may not carry any special significance in your mind, but you likely remember where you were on that day when you're reminded that it was the date of the Columbine shooting.
For Will Beck, the memories of that day are vivid. He was a sophomore at Columbine High School at the time, and yet, even now, 20 years later, the events of that day continue to affect his life on a daily basis.
Will Beck is now a husband and a father, he and his family reside in Utah where he is a financial advisor. This week's episode is dedicated to those who lost their lives at Columbine High School, as well as those whose lives have been impacted by the events of that day in the 20 years since.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm your host, Morgan Jones and I'm so grateful to Will Beck for being willing to share his experience with us today. Will, thank you for being here.
WILL BECK: Hey, thanks for having me.
MJ: Well, today we are going to go back 20 years to your high school days. And during your time in high school, obviously, you went through something that a lot of high school students don't experience. And so if you could, just as we get going this morning, walk me through your experience that morning at Columbine High School.
WB: Yeah, I was thinking a little bit about it this morning. And I thought about the very first thing that happened to me that day. And I got to school a little bit early, and I went to the library and I met two friends of mine, one was Jeremy and another one was named Dan. And I went and we were just hanging out and talking and I had at times been not the kindest kid to Dan. And I had just this feeling to apologize to him and asked for forgiveness for kind of being mean. And Dan was a kind of stereotypical, a little bit nerdy kid. And I said, "Hey man, I'm sorry for giving you a hard time and I hope we're cool." And Dan was just really great and "Yeah it's no big deal, man. Don't worry about it." And I went on with my day and I went to a class, I took a test in biology, I took a test in math. And then I had a class, English class and we took a test on a book called "The Cannery Row." And it was an essay test, and I finished it 10 minutes earlier or so, and had a feeling that I should just stop and say a prayer. And I don't pray in school all the time, I'm not, you know, that guy, at least not then, you know, and I just stopped and put my head down my desk and just said a prayer of gratitude, you know, thanking Heavenly Father and just kind of telling Him I loved him. And then, you know, class, the bell rang, whatever we got out and I went to my friend's locker and met him there. And we met another friend and then a group of four of us went outside and just started eating lunch. And we were eating lunch and then, within a moment or two, I heard firecrackers going off. I was like, "oh, man, this is going to be a senior prank. We need to go see what's happening." And so we stood up, we walked like two or three steps and then around this corner, we saw on top of the hill, we were sitting outside for lunch and we saw the two shooters on top of the hill. And a kid who was probably five feet or so in front of me just dropped. And they shot him first in the knee and he just started screaming, and they shot him again in the back.
And it was like instantaneous that I had this kind of moment where I flashed to a year earlier— I was in a keyboarding class and we saw on the news that there was a shooting in Portland, Oregon, I won't say his name, but he shot his school in Oregon. And I was like, "Wow, so crazy. That would never happen here." And I remember thinking that, at that time, wow, this is actually happening here. And I saw, like a really clear picture of the shooter smiling and kind of laughing as he was doing it. And I just was like I need to run. And so I ran inside the school. And one of the first people I saw when I got inside the school was a teacher named Dave Sanders and he was that same keyboarding teacher that I had, that was like, "Wow, that could never happen here," I was talking to him when I said it. And I told him there's a shooting and he starts warning people. And I run and I see a friend of mine who was getting ready to go outside. His name was Casey. And I said, "Hey, Casey, there's a shooting going on. Don't go." You know, and he's like, "B.S. Will," I like slammed my hand down and I got real mad, I said, "Don't. There's a shooting." And he's like, "Okay." And so I grabbed him and me and my other friends, we went and we're like, let's hide. Because these other shootings that had gone on were like, five minutes maybe, you know, and it's over. So I was like, we'll just hide, when it's over we'll come out and we'll be safe. And so I went to the bathroom behind the cafeteria. It was like not really one that was used a lot, was just— a lot of people didn't even know where it was, we'll be safe here. We went in and I just, our whole group of guys were like standing on top of the toilet. We wanted nobody to see our feet if they came in. And there was like another stall with a bunch of other people in there. And so we just were standing there I was like I need to pray. So I stopped and I said a prayer in my heart and just like, "Heavenly Father, like I'm so scared, please help me get out of here." There was a bomb that went off while I was praying. And it just kind of like shook everything. And then I had a feeling, like the strongest feeling ever, it was like, "Get out."
I was like we need to go. And I started walking towards the bathroom door. And I will like define that moment as the scariest moment of my life. Like not even being right next to the shooters was this scary—it was just walking out and not knowing what was out there but feeling like I needed to go. And the moment that I got out there, a teacher opened the door to the stage, a backdoor to the stage. He said, "Come here, come here." And so we ran up to the stage. That teacher was Mr. Andres and every time I see him, I'm like, "Man, you're my hero, you saved my life."
And we went up through that stage and went really slowly. You might think like, in this moment, you'd be like running all fast and trying to like get out of there, but you just don't know what's around any door.
WB: And so we just kind of like navigated up through the auditorium. And we went into the upstairs part of the school, we peeked out a door. And we actually heard more gunfire down the hall, so we just kind of zipped across the hall and then kept running and running and eventually went to the apartment complexes about a half-mile down the road. And I called my parents, I was like, "Hey, there's a shooting, come pick us up." You know, and so that was like my experience with the shooting. My teacher, Mr. Sanders, he helped clear out the cafeteria and people will say like, "Mr. Sanders is a hero," and he absolutely is, he saved a lot of lives. He went up a different way upstairs than I did, and when he had gone up there, the shooters had gone up there, but a different route. And he ran right into them and they shot him while he was trying to run away from them. And he ended up dying, you know, and yeah.
The other thing too is Dan Mauser, who I saw in a library that morning—that's one of those secret things that was like, so tender for me, because he ended up dying too, in the library. And just to be able to have that off my chest and to be able to have that moment, and I was like, wow, it's like, of all the things I sometimes I feel like, did that really happen? You know, I talked to my friend John, like, "that really happened, right?" You know? "Yeah," I was like, wow, just blows my mind that, you know, that God would help me to talk that through and find that kind of forgiveness from him.
MJ: Yeah. I think that's such a beautiful example of— I think God is so merciful. And often, he gives us opportunities to kind of take care of things before something, where later we would look back and be like, "Man, I wish that I had done that differently." I think a lot of times, it's like Heavenly Father, he kind of helps us in those moments to relieve us of like, guilt or regret that we would feel later on. Will, what grade were you in?
WB: I was a sophomore.
MJ: Okay. And how would you describe 10th grade Will?
WB: Tenth grade Will had a good testimony of the gospel. He had a really good desire to be a righteous kid. He also wanted to be a cool kid. You know, I was athletic, I had some friends, you know, but it's just a time where you're, in a lot of ways insecure.
MJ: Yeah. I think that's pretty, pretty true of most 10th graders. But I'm interested in that because what shift did you see or what changes in yourself did you see following the attack?
WB: Immediately I saw myself care less than less about, like, important stuff. And more and more trying to find, like, happiness.
WB: You know, trying to spend more time with friends, do stuff, chase girls, just trying to find whatever I thought was making me happy.
WB: And that was kind of a tough time. But the whole rest of my high school experience, I look at it and there's beautiful, really happy moments. But my grades went down, I felt like my connection to God was like, hit and miss, where times I felt so close and then there were times where I felt like I was, like running away a little bit and trying to find things on my own. And so you know, kind of tough sometimes.
MJ: So when you look back on that day, April 20, 1999, right? When you look back on that day, in hindsight, obviously, hindsight is 20/20. But when you think about it, is there anything that you wish that you had done differently? We talked about being kind of freed up some regret, but is there anything that you wish that you had done differently?
WB: You know, there was a while where I thought, maybe if I would have just hid behind that door, instead of running, and just waited for him. And then tackled him, you know, like, been this hero and saved these lives and, you know, you just wish you could do anything to stop these people from getting killed. And then you just have to accept that you don't have control and there is nothing you could go back and change. You know, little things that I wish I could change would be, you know, just trying to be, you know, more close to God, more reliant on Him when it happened. And I ultimately did get there. I wish I would have just done it sooner.
MJ: When did you start to feel like you did kind of start to get there? When did things kind of start to shift and become more clear to you?
WB: Yeah, I went to BYU my freshman year before I mission, and I had some great friends who are really good examples who, you know, just helped me to be myself again, and helped me to, you know, let my desire to be a good person, to be a righteous person come out. And, you know, I prepared for my mission, and I, you know, was ready to be a missionary, but I was still kind of damaged in my heart. But going on my mission changed the whole course of the rest of my life. There's a scripture in Luke that talks about, you know, "Whosoever will lose his life, for my sake, shall find it." And I felt like when I gave up my life, and put everything on hold to do what Christ wanted me to do, to proclaim His Gospel to everyone that I saw, that I found it. And I found what it meant to be happy and to have joy. And I found who I was, who the Lord wanted me to be for the rest of my life.
MJ: Yeah. How did, I'm curious, how what you experienced at Columbine influenced the way that you taught people on your mission?
WB: Yeah, so my testimony like, is based on the experiences that I've had in life. And when I say I know that God lives, and I know that he'll answer your prayers, I think back to being in the bathroom, standing on this toilet, and feeling like I heard God's voice speak to me. I say I know that He's real. And so when I testify, like, that's what I think of. And I can strongly say like, I know that he'll be there for you. And I think about the aftermath of the shooting, and how hard that was for him, or sorry, how hard that was for me. But when I turn God, I always found peace. And that's not the last challenge of my life in the 20 years since there's been plenty of hard times. And in those hard times, I've been able to learn each time a little bit better how to handle it and how to go back to God and find peace. And so when I was on my mission, just being able to tell people like, I know that you can be healed from whatever you're dealing with. Because I felt like I was, you know, being healed. Not entirely at that time, but I felt like I was finding my peace.
MJ: I want to touch on a couple things that you said. One, this idea of healing. And I imagine that it was a whole community trying to heal all at the same time. And I, personally, can't imagine what that would have been like. So for those who haven't experienced something like that, in that kind of environment, what was that like and how did you see your community there heal?
WB: I think it's a really beautiful thing when you see people love each other, like just people that don't even know each other super well have like a connection, where they go through something, and they're like, we've got to stand together. And, you know, people just— there's a kindness that came from that. And I loved it. I feel so close to a lot of my classmates that I don't know anymore, or I see randomly on Facebook, but I feel a love for them. And I think that time, we just kind of all knew how hard it was. And so I would say we were a kinder class. There's plenty of people that still were jerks, at times, you know, but I think we all tried to be better to each other.
MJ: Another thing that I'm curious about, you mentioned that you've been through other hard things. And this is something that you and I talked about briefly, previously, but this idea that you can go through something as hard as Columbine, and then still experience other things that other people may view as kind of like run-of-the-mill trials, right? But that those things can be just as hard. Can you talk or speak a little bit to that?
WB: Yeah. So when Columbine happened, when I would reach out, or I talked to people or they'd meet me, they'd be like— I went to EFY and they were like, "Oh, you're from Columbine?" Like, I was like, famous because of this tragedy. And my parents, when I was 18, 19, they separated and got divorced. And nobody ever reached out to me and was like, "Oh, you're famous, your parents got divorced." But for me, that trial was as painful as having the Columbine shooting. That might sound crazy to people, but it hurt. And it still hurts that, you know, when I go home for Christmas, you know, I'm not with my family as I want it. And it's just, it was its own form of pain that I had to get over for a long time. And, you know, when I was on my mission, and I'd talk about healing, I was healing as much from my parents getting divorced as I was from going through Columbine. And so I have empathy for people that are going through trials that your trial matters. Just because it's not a big one or famous one like your pain can be just as real. Because a lot of times I feel, "Oh, I can't believe you went through that," you know I'm like, "You've been through things too, you know, just because people haven't heard of them, you know, they're still painful."
MJ: Yeah. I think that reminds me of like, the idea that, you know, we have ideas in our minds of the worst sins, but that God doesn't view them in that way. And I think the same is true of trials like God doesn't have some hierarchy of the most painful trial. What have you learned, Will, in the 20 years since Columbine about grief?
WB: Yeah. I think grief kind of comes in waves and layers. And when you have something super bad happen to you, it is overwhelming. And the waves just cover your head and you're trying to survive. And for me, the important thing in that moment is still like, just find solid ground so that you can kind of just be stable and get through that initial moment. I think it's really easy to let go of good habits in hard times. And so that solid ground, for me is going to the temple, it's reading your scriptures, it's praying and just making sure that that's your foundation, going through grief. And then just trying to like, keep that so that you can be so you can have the faith to fight it. And then I think you still have to have fun, you still have to do things. After Columbine, one of the things I felt I did best is to just be like, I want to be with friends, I want to see people, I want to go out and still live. And my kind of enduring message for Columbine, the way I want to live my life is, these children didn't have a chance to keep their life. They didn't get to experience things. So I want to experience everything I can and live a beautiful, full life in their honor.
MJ: I love that. How has what you experience— we talked about how it shaped what you taught people in your mission. But how has it influenced your life since you're now a husband and father? And what does that look like?
WB: Yeah, I think I just appreciate the little moments. I was lying down in bed this morning, and my daughter came up and just cuddled me for like two minutes. As it was happening, I just thought, "Man, this is so beautiful. I just have her here and she's just so cute." She's seven and it was a special moment. And so I appreciate those little things. Also, like, I have felt deep pain and when I see somebody else, feel deep pain, I want to be there for them. And so I try to be the best friend I can and just love somebody, especially when they're going through a hard time. I think the kind of friend I am is based on having been through Columbine.
MJ: I can vouch for you on that. Will is a very good friend. There are some people who will say, and I think this is true of anytime something really terrible happens, but there are people who will say "Where was God that day at Columbine?" How would you answer that?
WB: He was with us. I felt Him when I was there. God doesn't force people to do anything, He doesn't control anyone. So if people want to be bad, He's going to allow them to be bad but he's going to help people overcome. The whole gospel is about overcoming. It's having a challenge, having an obstacle, and then relying on God for help. And, you know, having him kind of carry you home, so to speak.
MJ: 20 years have passed since Columbine and when people—I think it's common for us, especially on these big number anniversaries, to look back and reflect on, you know, where were you when you heard about that? When people look back on that day, especially this year, what do you hope they remember?
WB: You know, that's a tough question for me because I think what people do remember, is they remember just the shooting. And they think, oh, this was the beginning of the end for schools in our society and it kind of decaying and look at all the violence that we have now. And that's sad to me because I don't want to be remembered that way. But when I look at it, I think, why is our society falling apart? And for me, I feel like it all starts in the home, and it starts in the family and you have kids that are leaving their homes that aren't feeling loved. And their parents may not be paying enough time to them, may not be focusing on them, you know, I think our society is suffering from focusing on the wrong things, focusing on materialism, and everyone's on this like journey to find happiness. And I think society as a whole is really looking in the wrong place right now. And I hope when people look at it, maybe it would spark them to say, "Hey, let's get back to what matters." Just spending time with your family, enjoying being with your kids, because that may not always be there. Just enjoy what you have and be grateful for it.
MJ: Absolutely. One thought that just came to me, Will, you mentioned that there have been a lot of other incidences of violence in schools and similar situation since Columbine. If you were to talk to— and I know I interviewed one of the girls that was involved, that was a victim of the Parkland shooting— if you were to talk to one of those kids, let's say one of the Latter-day Saint kids that was there at Parkland, what advice would you give them about how to move on and move forward?
WB: First, I would just want to give them a big hug and just tell them, "I love you, I have been where you're at, I know how you feel and it's horrible. And nothing can change that, nothing can take it away immediately, right? Don't feel bad for feeling bad. But just take it a day at a time and try to make each day a little bit better than the others and Christ will lift the burden from you if you give it to Him. It's hard, it's not an immediate, magical thing. But if you keep going, and you're finding ways to serve other people, and make your life about giving to God and giving Him your life, then I really believe that he will make yours better and help you find happiness." I actually, there's one Parkland student that I talked to a little here and there and they just had their one year anniversary, I was talking to her and just trying to tell her like, hey, there's like a large group of people who are praying for you, that just want you to be okay. And just, you know, keep going, keep living life, like don't quit, you know. I think it's easy to feel like I should stop doing whatever, but to keep living, life gets better.
MJ: How would you say, Will, that that gospel has given you resources and tools to be able to feel that way now? To look back and say, you know, that was really hard but things gradually got better. What role did the gospel play in that?
WB: Immediately after the shooting, probably, I think it was like four or five days before we had seminary again. And we had a seminary class of the church and it was like, during the middle of the day, it was like 11 o'clock and we didn't have school yet. But we were studying Doctrine and Covenants that year, and just happened to be on section 121 and 122. And that's where Joseph Smith is in Liberty jail and he's feeling like the Lord has just kind of, in some way, like abandoned him, that he's hiding from him. And you know, just to have the comfort of knowing and having that lesson immediately and just knowing hey, like the Lord is here for us, and that these challenges that we're going through are going to make us stronger. It was an immediate, you know, boost to life like hey, you know, we are supposed to have this lesson now and that we can have Columbine be a strong point in our life. I don't want to make it like it was just like I was immediately "Oh, the gospel, fix me!" It was a long journey. It was like six years before I felt like, man, I am a whole, 100% person. And that's what I told my friend at Parkland, like, because she's like, "How long did you feel till you are normal again?" I was like, "It was a long time." But you just got to keep going and the Lord will get you there. You know, you have hard times, you just don't quit. And the gospel has been everything for my life. I know like my testimony of the Book of Mormon, you could tell me like, why do you know it's true? Well, when I read it every day, it makes every day feel better. And that's, you know, whether it's a scientific method or not, it works and it helps me to just know that it's true. And all those pieces of the gospel, from living them, I found hey, these have worked for me. And so that's, that's why I have it be my wrong.
MJ: That leads us perfectly, I think, into my last question, which is, what does it mean for you, Will, to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
WB: Being all in is doing it the right way. The Gospel works best when you're all in. If you're kind of halfway in with the gospel, you don't get all of the blessings for keeping all of the commandments. But when you're 100% committed to Christ, you're just getting these blessings that naturally come from doing the right thing. And nobody's going to be perfect, but you have to have your heart be, "I'm going to do everything I can." And there's little things, there's little places where you can slip up. And if you say that's a little thing, I can do that the right way. Even though it might feel like it doesn't matter, I don't need to do this, you just do it. It's like an example being all in and then you can do some of those bigger things a little bit better. And so I feel like when your heart is 100% committed, you just have so many more blessings in your life.
MJ: Yeah. I think it's kind of interesting because there, in your answer, you talked about like, we may view something as a little thing, but when we try to do the little things right, we're becoming more like Christ. And I think kind of bringing this full circle, in the beginning, you told that story about asking for forgiveness. And it may, to some people, have seemed like on an ordinary day, a very little thing. But in reality, it turned out to be a very big thing. And I think that that's often how our efforts to live the gospel, whether it's asking for forgiveness, or reading our scriptures, or saying a quick prayer before we run out the door, may seem to be a very little thing. But in the end, those little things add up to be very big things. And so, Will, thank you so much for sharing your experience and for being willing to share your testimony with us. We really, really appreciate it.
WB: Thanks for having me. You know, it's a hard thing for me to share my story, but I want it to be out there. I want people to know that God is real and that He will send his love to you at your hardest time and He'll be there for you.
MJ: Thank you.
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