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Commentary: Dayton still remembers 'the promises we made in the attic'

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside Ned Peppers bar following a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. A masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in the popular entertainment district in Dayton, killing several people, including his sister, and wounding dozens before he was quickly slain by police, officials said.
John Minchillo/AP
Mourners visit a makeshift memorial outside Ned Peppers bar following a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. A masked gunman in body armor opened fire early Sunday in the popular entertainment district in Dayton, killing several people, including his sister, and wounding dozens before he was quickly slain by police, officials said.
Updated: August 3, 2022 at 2:40 PM EDT
Three years have passed since the people of Dayton woke up to horrific news on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019.

In the wee hours of the morning, in the crowded and bustling Oregon Entertainment District, a lone gunman with a converted automatic rifle shot and killed nine people and wounded 17 more in the space of 32 seconds — innocent people standing in line at a taco truck; people lined up to get into a popular bar; people just milling in the middle of E. Fifth Street on a sultry summer night.

Dayton has never quite gotten over that tragedy. It probably never will. But the one thing I know about Dayton — the city where I was born and raised — is that they have dealt with calamities before and have never failed to bounce back, stronger than ever. This is a column from December of 2019 about the eternal resiliency of a city and its people.

—Howard Wilkinson

Dayton, Ohio, is a city that is used to getting knocked flat on its back.

Natural disasters, the collapse of major industries, retail businesses fleeing downtown and leaving the city's broad Main Street looking empty.

It is a town that has taken some hard knocks over the years.

And yet, every time the city where the Great Miami, Stillwater and Mad rivers come together gets knocked down, it picks itself up, dusts itself off and carries on.

The city that prides itself on being the home of inventors is good at re-inventing itself. It has always thumbed its nose at the naysayers and found a way to bounce back from any disaster, natural or man-made.

This is my hometown. This is the town where I grew up; where I lived in a middle-class neighborhood where seemingly everyone worked at one of three places — the Frigidaire plant, the National Cash Register Company (NCR) or Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Today, only the air force base remains.

Year after year, Dayton faces challenges.

But there has been no year in living memory where Dayton has had such a string of incredibly bad fortune.

"I will be so glad when this year is over,'' said Mayor Nan Whaley, who led the city through one tragedy or disaster after another in 2019. "Time for us to start with a clean slate."

dayton tornado
Credit John Minchillo / AP
Residents sort through apartments open up to the air Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at the Westbrooke Village Apartments in Trotwood, Ohio, after the roof was torn off from a severe storm the night before.

This year in Dayton has run the gamut, from tornadoes ripping through the region on Memorial Day to a mass murder in the Oregon entertainment district in August that left nine people dead on E. Fifth Street and another 17 wounded. All in the space of 32 seconds.

dayton shooting
Credit John Minchillo / AP
Shoes are piled outside the scene of a mass shooting near Ned Peppers bar, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio.

It was a year when a planned rally of Ku Klux Klansmen on Courthouse Square in May had the city on edge. The city did not know what to expect — hundreds, thousands of white-hooded hatemongers descending on downtown? So, the police and the city administration prepared for the worst.

In the end, it was only eight sorry-looking Klansman walking around in circles before high-tailing it back to Indiana when they realized that hundreds of Daytonians had gathered nearby for a counter-protest.

Then, in early November, another tragic shooting occurred which left the city in shock and mourning for the family of a fallen police officer.

Jorge Del Rio
Credit Dayton Police Department / WYSO
Jorge Del Rio.

Detective Jorge Del Rio, a 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico who served the city as a police officer for 30 years, was shot in the face twice while a DEA task force he was on served a search warrant on a suspected drug house in northwest Dayton.

He lingered in the hospital, unresponsive, for two days before the family decided that there was nothing to do but let him go. He passed away and — at his instructions, long before the shooting — his organs were harvested for transplants.

Detective Del Rio gave the gift of life to others as he lost his own.

"What a wonderful family,'' said Mayor Whaley. "People lined the streets to pay their respects as his funeral procession went through the streets. The suburban schools let their students out early so they could be there.

"The whole community came together, with the GoFundMe effort for Jorge's family, the way they did this summer in the Oregon District shootings.

"That's why I love this town."

In Dayton today, there are rotating electronic billboards all over town that have a simple and very heartfelt message:

Thank you Dayton/(from) The Del Rio Family.

That generosity extended to the families of the victims of the Oregon District shootings. About $3 million was raised by individuals and businesses in the city.

The Dayton Foundation is distributing the funds, with about $250,000 going to each of the families who lost loved ones.

The shooter was shot and killed by police within a minute of the barrage of gunfire outside Ned Peppers Bar on E. Fifth Street. One of the nine victims was Megan Betts, the sister of the shooter, and the foundation says the family will be considered for the funds if they apply.

Tim Riordan, who was city manager of Dayton from 2009 to 2014, said he talked to City Manager Shelley Dickstein while the city was coming up with a plan to distribute money to the victims' families.

"I told her, 'Shelley, everybody is going to piss and moan about this, no matter what you do,' '' said Riordan, a former finance director and acting city manager in Cincinnati.

"But they went out and found that there is a network of cities who have been through this same kind of thing and found an equitable way to doing it," Riordan said. "It's really been very well done."

Riordan said he was city manger of Dayton during the heart of the recession.

"Things were not good; it was not pretty,'' Riordan said. "Dayton took it pretty hard because the recession slowed everything down and Dayton was already behind cities like Cincinnati.

"But even in those days, people were proud that we were still here and still kicking," Riordan said. "They still believed in their city. Nothing stops the people of Dayton."

Whaley said that for her, "it has been the toughest year of my life."

"But the strange part is that I look back on it and all I can think of is what a joy it is, what an honor it is, to be the mayor in a town made up of people such as these," Whaley said.

"The love people have for this community is amazing, even at the worst of times," she said. "It has been an unreal year, but it is not about me. I am just doing my job for the people who elected me in a city I love."

On Thanksgiving, she shared a handwritten letter on Twitter thanking the residents of her city who "make our city great."

I told her about my grandfather, Walter Wilkinson, who was 23 years old in 1913 when a massive flood left much of the town underwater. My grandfather and one of his friends took a rowboat out into the neighborhoods and rescued flood victims from their attics, the only place they could go to escape the flood waters.

They would row them to safety on higher ground, many of them at the makeshift shelters at the NCR plant.

"There was a saying, back in 1913, that everyone in Dayton knew and remembered once the flood receded,'' Whaley said. " 'Remember the promises you made in the attic.'

"Today, we are still remembering 'the promises we made in the attic.' There is a lot to be done. Working to get sane gun laws in place. Making this an even better place to live and work."

Dayton is, of course, the home town of the Wilbur and Orville Wright, the West Side geniuses who gave the world powered flight. Those two made Dayton forever the "birthplace of aviation."

"We have changed the world once,'' Whaley said. "And we will change it again."

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.