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Tragedy in Colorado

Teacher Eulogized by Those Saved--and Touched

Funerals: More than 1,000 attend funeral service, one of three for Columbine shooting victims. He was praised by students and faculty.

April 27, 1999|J. R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLETON, Colo. — The teacher who put himself in the line of fire to save hundreds of students last week was remembered Monday as a man who died the way he lived, shielding teens and guiding them through a dangerous world.

In a wrenching funeral attended by more than 1,000 students and friends of William "Dave" Sanders, the 47-year-old teacher was praised again and again by those whose lives he touched, and by those whose lives he saved.

"The first thing I saw when all the shooting started was Mr. Sanders over by the door, and his face was so serious," student Laurel Salerno said of Sanders, who taught typing and business and coached several sports teams. "Because of him, I ducked under the table, and I just want to thank him. Mr. Sanders, you saved my life."

On a day crowded with funerals--three more of the 13 Columbine High victims were buried Monday, including Cassie Bernall, who was killed after saying she believed in God--Sanders' service was the first, and may have been the largest.

The only teacher killed in the rampage, Sanders was shot twice but still managed to herd 200 students out of the smoke-filled cafeteria and then struggled to survive for more than three hours, waiting for SWAT teams to liberate the school.

Students with him at the end said he spoke constantly about his family, saying: "Tell my daughters I love them." Minutes after SWAT teams liberated Columbine, Sanders died in a police officer's arms.

In his eulogy at the Trinity Christian Center, Pastor Bill Lower held out hope that Sanders' bravery would help people remember the Columbine massacre for years. He recited several epochal moments in American history, when the call went forth to remember, from the Maine to the Alamo to Pearl Harbor.

"We've forgotten too many things," Lower said, nearly sobbing. "We've forgotten so many things that count. . . . What's wrong with us as a nation if we can't say, 'Remember Columbine!' "

At the request of his family, Sanders' students and fellow teachers took turns giving testimonials, telling stories about their teacher and colleague, about his ferocious loyalty, his tender heart and his can-do attitude, which inspired many to dig deeper and find the best in themselves.

"There's something called the Spirit of Columbine Award," said Paul Spielman, a burly 1979 graduate of the school and a star on the basketball team. "I'm a recipient, but I truly think Dave Sanders is the spirit of Columbine."

Lindsey Dowling, a student in Sanders' typing class, couldn't remember her teacher ever being cranky or mad. "If you did something wrong, sometimes he'd give you that stare," she said. "But he'd never be mad."

Many students recounted the hours Sanders spent listening to their family problems, and their personal problems, showing a tireless patience that became one of his trademarks.

"We hear what a hero Dave was Tuesday," said Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis. "But I need to tell you, he was a hero before that."

DeAngelis recalled a moment last Monday night, the eve of the shooting, when he and Sanders struck up a conversation. Sanders was feeling reflective, DeAngelis said. He was reviewing his life and wondering what might lie ahead.

"He told me, 'I really am looking forward to spending more time with my children and grandchildren.' "

Sanders' three daughters also spoke, one reading an open letter to her father.

"I'll never forget the talks we had on the front porch," Angela Sanders said, promising she would use the advice from those talks as her compass for the rest of her life.

Then she thanked her father for hanging on, for not only helping others to live, but fighting so bravely to live himself.

"What you did in that school Tuesday was an amazing act of heroism," she said. "The rest of the family and I will make sure your grandchildren never forget you."

Outside the church, Melissa McFarland said the funeral had been hard, but ultimately cathartic. A 1994 graduate of Columbine, McFarland was a student of Sanders, and often burdened him with her crises.

"He helped me figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," she said, smiling sadly behind dark sunglasses.

She then joined a hurried procession of students and teachers streaming to their cars, headed to the next funeral, and the next, and the next.

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