NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A 9-year-old who is known for brightening up the neighborhood with her Broadway-esque performances in the driveway. A school custodian who loved students as if they were his own children. And a school leader who was determined to help every child, no matter what problems they faced.
These were some of the victims of Monday’s rampage at The Covenant School in Nashville, where three students and three adults were killed.
Authorities identified the victims at the small Christian school as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; principal Katherine Koonce, 60; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and school custodian Mike Hill, 61.
Investigators were still investigating the motive for the shooting when details of the lives cut short emerged.
Evelyn “was everything a 9 year old should be. She was regularly in and out of our house playing tag,” said neighbor Nick Riegal, 45, whose two children played with her.
There were often games of hangman and laughter from the back porch, he said. And plenty of fun moments during the day and in the evening.
But it was the lively outdoor theater performances, in which Evelyn and other neighborhood kids each chose a character from the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” that Riegal said he will remember most.
“They worked really hard on Hamilton,” said Riegal, adding that all the kids proudly learned 20 minutes of the popular show.
Clay Stauffer, senior pastor of Woodmont Christian Church, of which Evelyn’s family is a member, shared a statement on behalf of the family:
“Our hearts are completely broken,” the family said. “We can’t believe this happened. Evelyn was a shining light in this world.”
“We appreciate all the love and support, but ask for space as we grieve,” the statement added.
Evelyn’s older sister cried during a vigil in Woodmont on Monday night. You heard her say through tears, “I don’t want to be an only child,” The Tennessee reported.
The Covenant School, housed in the Covenant Presbyterian Church, serves preschool through sixth graders. On Tuesday morning, a heap of teddy bears and flowers placed by mourners rested near the entrance.
Hallie, another child killed in the shooting, was the daughter of Chad Scruggs, a minister of the Covenant Presbyterian Church.
She was the youngest and only daughter of the Scruggs’ four children, said Mark Davis, senior pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, where Scruggs served.
“She held her own against three guys,” Davis said, laughing. “She was always just a radiant little girl. And that radiance, I believe, was Jesus in her.”
Hill, 61, the school custodian, was a “sweet man” who went by the name of Big Mike, according to a former Covenant pastor.
“He loved the kids at school,” said Jim Bachmann, adding that Hill was like a father figure to them. “The kids loved him too.”
Bachmann said Hill was sometimes a greeter for church services at Stephens Valley Church in Nashville, where Bachmann is now the senior pastor.
“When he greeted, he dressed just like he was going to meet the president,” Bachmann said, adding that Hill would wear a suit and tie and have his shoes polished.
Bachmann’s wife, Kristen, added that Hill would stop whatever he was doing and give you a hug as soon as you entered.
“Because that’s how he treated everyone,” she said.
Hill’s family said in a statement that Hill was the father of seven children and had 14 grandchildren. The statement said they are “so grateful that Michael was loved by the faculty and students who filled him with joy for 14 years.”
Peak, the substitute teacher who was killed, graduated from Texas Christian University in 1983, a university spokesman said Tuesday. Louisiana State Rep. Charles Anthony Owen grew up in Leesville, Louisiana, with Peak.
The world lacks “a sweet soul who cared about people,” Owen said. “She was a devout follower of the Lord, Jesus. She was very outgoing, but gentle in her faith.”
Koonce, the principal of Covenant’s school, was described by former students as a champion for all children, whether they had learning disabilities or were gifted and needed extra challenges.
Barrett Severance, 33, credited Koonce with helping him graduate from high school. He knew Koonce when she worked at Christ Presbyterian Academy, a small private Christian school in Nashville that he attended.
“I wasn’t a great student, so I saw Katherine before school and after school and the summers in between. She often fought for her students after we stopped fighting for ourselves,” he said. “I definitely owe my graduation date to the fact that she didn’t give up on me.”
Another former student, Robert Gay, also knew Koonce from Christ Presbyterian Academy, which he attended from 2000 to 2006.
“She loved people and students and children and families in a way that she would describe as ‘loving them through God’s eyes,'” he said.
Up Facebook page On Tuesday, The Covenant School said the community is “in shock at the terror that has destroyed our school and church”. Past posts show photos of smiling students on field trips, performing in Christmas plays, and celebrating basketball victories.
Gay said he felt he could still learn lessons from Koonce as he processed the news of her death.
“I really want to learn from her spirit to serve people kindly,” he said, “how can we respond with love and care to every member of our Nashville community? I think that’s the best way to honor her memory.”
Deon Hampton reported from Nashville and Elizabeth Chuck from New York. Marlene Lenthang, Antonio Planas and Daniella Silva in New York and Jake Lubbehusen in Washington contributed to the reporting.