Tuesday's shooting at UNC Charlotte has been felt in several Western North Carolina communities, including Asheville and Waynesville. Although Charlotte may seem a world away, when the names of the two deceased were announced Wednesday morning, tiny Waynesville in Haywood County learned it had lost one of its own.
“It’s a small town,” said Michael Blackburn of Waynesville’s First United Methodist Church, who knew shooting victim and Waynesville native Riley Howell. “It’s got one high school, one middle school, it’s one of those communities that you feel like you know everybody. It’s a good place to live, a great place to have a family.”
Blackburn said he remembers the 21-year-old Howell from various church groups during his youth. “He was a leader and a great kid,” he said. “Just someone who always seemed mature for his age. He was a kid that both people his own age and elders, he just got along with everybody. Everyone respected him and liked Riley.”
At least some of that was because of his desire to help the less fortunate, according to Riley’s seventh grade teacher Susanna Shetley. “We had a class of students with severe disabilities and he was one of their peer helpers and just that was really telling right there,” said Shetley. “They could choose to do folk art or PE or chorus or whatever, and he chose to be a peer helper in that developmental delay class.”
News about Riley’s death has hit this town of 10,000 especially hard. “Shock is the only way I can describe it,” Blackburn said. “Almost unbelief. It reminds me of being at an accident scene.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said that Riley Howell ran towards the gunfire and attempted to subdue the gunman, saving untold lives and buying more time for law enforcement to handle the situation. That didn’t surprise Shetley, nor did it surprise Blackburn. “Not at all,” Blackburn said. “That sounds like something Riley would do.” Four others injured in the shooting are expected to recover.