On a Tight-Knit Mississippi Campus, Violence From Within Confounds

Rogelio V. Solis, AP Images

Students, faculty, and staff members at Delta State U. paid tribute last week to Ethan A. Schmidt, the history professor who was killed in his office. The suspected gunman, Shannon S. Lamb, taught in the same small division and is also dead. Colleagues, faced with unexplainable loss, are grasping for clues.
September 22, 2015

Ethan A. Schmidt and his colleagues came here from all over: Kansas, New York, Virginia, the West Indies.

The professors in Delta State University’s division of social sciences and history did what academics often do. They left everything they knew, and they landed in a place that seemed foreign to them.

But the transition felt easy here on a regional campus of about 3,500 students, where professors seldom see an unfamiliar face. Faculty members coached their kids’ basketball teams together. They knocked off on Fridays to grab beers up the street at Hey Joe’s.

Mr. Schmidt, who had come to Delta State from Texas Tech University, in 2013, would occasionally join his fellow historians at the bar. He would order a Guinness and steer the conversation toward his beloved Kansas City Royals. But there were heavy demands on Mr. Schmidt’s time. He was the father of three young children, and a prolific scholar of Native American history. He’d be up for tenure this year.

All of that ended last week, when Mr. Schmidt was shot and killed in his office in Jobe Hall.

He was 39.

His death has sent Mr. Schmidt’s colleagues down a spiral of grief and disbelief.

What makes it worse for the professors here is the belief that it was one of their own who did this terrible thing.

In a division of so many carpetbaggers, Shannon S. Lamb stood out as a true creature of the Delta. He had family in Greenville, Miss., about 40 miles south of the campus. He played guitar and harmonica in a blues band, and he had an easy manner that colleagues described as cool.

Mr. Lamb, an instructor of social sciences and history, earned three degrees at Delta State, including a doctorate of education, in 2014. He drew praise for his work in the classroom, and he sometimes used his own money to help students pay for teacher-certification tests.

Gautier Police Department, Reuters, Landov

Shannon Lamb, an instructor at Delta State U., is believed to have killed a colleague in the division of social sciences and history and another person before fatally shooting himself.

It is impossible, his colleagues say, to reconcile this version of Shannon Lamb with the man suspected of killing both his coworker and Mr. Lamb’s live-in girlfriend, Amy M. Prentiss, who police officials say was shot the day before Mr. Schmidt in Gautier, Miss., a coastal town 300 miles south of Cleveland. Mr. Lamb later shot himself in the backyard of a residence near his parents’ home in Greenville.

Suddenly, two professors in a tight-knit division of fewer than 25 full-time instructors were dead.

‘Father of the Freshmen’

Mr. Schmidt was one of just four history professors at Delta State, where he played an outsize role. He helped revamp the university’s freshman-seminar program, a critical piece of the campus’s effort to improve retention rates.

Nearly half of Delta State’s students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, which support low-income students, and this population is particularly challenged by the transition to college life. As director of the first-year seminar, Mr. Schmidt helped to professionalize a program that had seen little change in 20 years. The seminar, for example, was made a graded course instead of a pass-fail one.

There is some early evidence that the changes have helped. A year after the program was revised, in 2014, retention rates among first-time freshmen rose to 91 percent, the highest in at least five years.

Christy L. Riddle, executive director of the student-success center, says she probably talked to or emailed Mr. Schmidt 10 times a day about the program. His loyalty to the seminar earned him the nickname "Father of the Freshmen," she says, and his absence is already being felt.

"We will be OK one minute," Ms. Riddle says, "and then say, ‘Oh, Ethan was going to do that.’"

In the short term, Delta State has taken a patchwork approach to covering the duties of Mr. Lamb and Mr. Schmidt. Professors and administrators who may not have the same disciplinary expertise as their departed colleagues have been asked to help cover their classes.

The killings have been particularly confounding in part because a motive continues to elude investigators, who quickly ruled out a rumor that the professors and Ms. Prentiss were in a love triangle. Mr. Schmidt’s colleagues find that particular suggestion, widely reported in the first day of news-media coverage, to be baseless and cruel, unnecessarily compounding grief for the victim’s wife, Elizabeth A. Skolaut Schmidt.

"In the end, it was a mental illness," says Paulette A. Meikle, chairwoman of the division of social sciences and history. "Ethan was not a target. I think he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have been any one of us, and that is why it’s so perturbing."

Like many of her colleagues, Ms. Meikle has tried to piece together any clues that, in hindsight, might have forecast Mr. Lamb’s propensity for violence.

She is haunted by a routine email from Mr. Lamb, time-stamped at 2:55 p.m. on September 11, just two days before he is said to have killed Ms. Prentiss. In it, the chairwoman says, Mr. Lamb coherently describes his availability for a conference call about accreditation issues.

"Did he actually have a plan at 2:55," she wonders, "when he was writing so sincerely?"

Other professors are similarly combing through their inboxes, searching for some hint of what was to come. The exercise has proved futile, and somehow it makes them only feel worse.

"We will go crazy if we don’t stop this," Ms. Meikle says.

Mr. Lamb communicated frequently with his supervisor, even though he was working remotely and teaching a reduced load of two online classes. The professor had been granted medical leave, university officials have said, but they have declined to provide further details about the reasons for his detachment from the campus, citing privacy laws.

"The farthest I could go," Ms. Meikle says, "is to say that I thought he had issues with anxiety and that a doctor was going to treat him for that."

But Mr. Lamb was expected to be back teaching on the campus in the spring. There was nothing, Ms. Meikle says, to indicate that the professor might have posed a danger to himself or others. "Shannon confided in me a lot of things," she says. "He would have said something. Ethan never came up as an issue in any conversations we had — never, ever."

Death of a Friend

On the morning of September 14, Charles R. Westmoreland Jr. stood before a roomful of students in Jobe Hall. He was just a few minutes into a lecture about the Puritan settlements in New England when he heard something strange. He now knows those sounds were gunshots.

But no commotion followed, and Mr. Westmoreland, an assistant professor of history, resumed teaching.

Moments later, a university police officer entered the classroom. His gun was drawn.

"No one leaves this room," Mr. Westmoreland recalls the officer saying. "We’ve had a shooting in the building."

While some of his students hid in a storage closet, Mr. Westmoreland told others to help barricade a door with a large table. The young men, at their professor’s urging, grabbed chairs to throw at anyone who might try to get inside.

Mr. Westmoreland’s cellphone rang. It was a colleague down the hall.

"She was crying," he says. "She said, ‘Where are you? Ethan’s been shot.’ And then just a few minutes later, we have more cops come in, and they lead us out through the evacuation. It’s orderly and quiet."

By this time, authorities say, Mr. Lamb was nowhere to be found.

The man lying dead down the hallway was Mr. Westmoreland’s close friend. It had been that way almost from the start, when Mr. Schmidt first interviewed for a tenure-track position at Delta State.

After reviewing Mr. Schmidt’s credentials, Mr. Westmoreland put the then candidate through a final examination: the coffee test.

"One question you should ask yourself," Mr. Westmoreland says, "is, Do I want to have coffee with this person? Is this a person whose office I can walk into and expect to have a 10-minute conversation, and then sit there for an hour? Ethan obviously passed that test."

The two men bonded over sports, and they took turns teaching courses that examined American history through the lens of baseball.

Together, they coached the Grizzlies, a basketball team for 10-to-12-year-olds whose players included Mr. Schmidt’s eldest son, Connor. The Grizzlies had an undefeated season and won their league championship.

Return to Normalcy

In the first days after the shooting, Delta State began the gradual transition from visceral mourning toward some semblance of normalcy.

Classes resumed last Wednesday, two days after Mr. Schmidt was killed. But faculty members in the slain professor’s division said they needed one more day, leaving Jobe Hall eerily desolate.

Sidewalks across the campus were dotted with peace signs, fashioned from green construction paper, that read "Let Your Love Flow" and "Peace for DSU." Ribbons of green and white, the university's colors, were strung together with black and tied to doorways. Atop a bench on the quad, someone had placed three small stone cherubs.

William N. LaForge, Delta State’s president, sent signals early on that the best thing for the university would be to get back to business. He decided, for example, that Delta State would move forward this past Saturday with Pig Pickin’, an annual alumni gathering for barbecue, tailgating, and football.

"Ethan Schmidt himself would be the first to admonish us to put the grief behind us and move on and go have fun at Pig Pickin’," Mr. LaForge says.

The night after classes resumed, Mr. LaForge headed downtown to attend an outdoor concert series. Families sprawled across a grassy field on lawn chairs and blankets under a thumbnail moon.

The Mississippi Delta has a long history of cycling its grief through music, and this night was no exception. Delta State’s campus is just a few miles from Dockery Farms, where Charley Patton is credited with creating the region’s distinctive blues sound.

Mr. LaForge is right at home here. In Cleveland, "Bill" is known as the hometown boy done good. He spent more than 35 years working in public policy in Washington, D.C., where he was chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican. Two years ago, Mr. LaForge came back home to head Delta State.

Between musical acts, the university president took to the stage with Billy Nowell, the town's mayor and Mr. LaForge’s high-school and college classmate. As Mr. Nowell spoke about the tragic events of the week, he struggled not to break down. Mr. LaForge stepped in.

"If you detect a little emotion, if you detect a little passion, it’s because this guy has it," Mr. LaForge said, pointing to the mayor. "And we at Delta State have it. We were tested this week, but we’re bigger than what happened. We had a crisis. It’s over. It’s time for healing, and we’ve begun that."

No Answers

When Thomas J. Laub met with his history students for the first time after the shooting, he wore a red-and-white polka-dot bow tie and matching suspenders. On his wrists were silver cufflinks, engraved with his initials.

The cufflinks were a groomsman gift from Christopher M. Morrison, Mr. Laub’s college roommate, who died in the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Mr. Laub, who delivered a eulogy at his late roommate’s memorial Mass, told his students that the only thing that helped get him through that tragedy was to talk with friends and colleagues about what had occurred. He told the students they could talk as long as they wanted, and whenever they wanted, about what had happened in Jobe Hall.

Mr. Laub was accompanied in class by one of several grief counselors, who have been brought to the university to work with students, staff, and faculty members.

The students told their professor that the shootings had upended their perceptions of the community, Mr. Laub says. This was supposed to be a safe space. Professors were supposed to be the people they could trust most; now it appears that one of them was capable of taking lives.

Mr. Laub had no answers for them, but he let them talk. And talk.

Back in his office after class, Mr. Laub looks exhausted. He pulls off his necktie and tosses it in a crumpled pile amid papers on his desk. He leans back in his chair and kicks up his black dress shoes.

"We’re in the knowledge business," says Mr. Laub, a scholar of modern Europe. "You want to know why this happened. I want to know why Hitler invaded France. We may never know the answer. We accept this. We don’t like it, but we recognize the limitations of our discipline."

Mr. Laub’s office, 213 Jobe, is next door to the office where Mr. Schmidt was killed. On the day of the shooting, Mr. Laub had accompanied his wife to a doctor’s appointment in Memphis. Had he been on the campus, the professor wonders what his own fate might have been.

Playing that scenario through his head, Mr. Laub would like to think that he would nobly have intervened and managed somehow to save his colleague’s life. But he acknowledges that something altogether different happens when most people are confronted with violence. "The realist in me says I would have hid under my desk and tried to ride it out while my friend was shot to death."

Mr. Laub expects there will come a day when he will knock on Ethan Schmidt’s door, forgetting that his colleague is dead. He expects that this will bring him to tears. He knows it will.

But he does not want to leave Jobe Hall. Indeed, he thinks that no one should. To walk away from what happened here, he says, would mean shirking the faculty’s obligation to own its own history, tragic though that history now may be.

"This building can be a memorial to a horrific crime or a memorial to a hell of a great professor," Mr. Laub says. "Why can’t we define this? We can."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.