The Last Friday in May

Rebecca Lear

by Kerry Dougherty

When I emailed Rebecca Lear earlier this week I told her I was writing a piece on Monday’s anniversary of the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center and wondered if she had time to meet me. It was May 31, 2019 that a deranged city employee went on a shooting spree, killing 12 people and injuring four.

Lear, who worked on the third floor of Building 2 where five people were killed and three were injured, readily agreed to get together but told me the survivors would not be commemorating the massacre on May 31, 2019.

Instead, they recognize today as the anniversary.

“Those of us that were in the building that afternoon will never consider May 31 to be the anniversary, it will always be the last Friday in May,” Lear replied. “There will be a few of us gathered at Bldg 2 at 3:45 Friday then heading to New Realm raise a glass to our lost 12.”

Makes sense.

After all, it was late afternoon on the last Friday of May three years ago that a disgruntled civil engineer with two handguns strode through Building 2 coolly picking off his co-workers. Rapid police work resulted in the shooter being killed about 40 minutes after he started shooting.

He was still gunning down helpless employees when he was neutralized. Beach police saved an untold number of lives by their quick action.

I first met Rebecca shortly after the massacre. I didn’t use her name in the pieces I wrote at the time because she still worked for the city and didn’t want to go public. We’ve gotten together several times since – always at Murphy’s Irish Pub at the oceanfront – to talk about the horror.

Until her retirement in 2020, Lear was the flood zone administrator for the city.

She’s an upbeat woman with a quick smile, a quirky sense of humor and a penchant for salty language, who spent 26 years as a Virginia Beach employee.

On that Friday in 2019 she and her colleagues headed to work thinking it was just one more day in a long life. A dozen didn’t live to see the sun set. The survivors lived through hell.

Yet Rebecca has twinkling eyes and a ready laugh. Visible reminders of that devastating day are never far, however. They’re on her arms.

On Lear’s right wrist is a simple winged VB tattoo. On her left forearm she has a more intricate design. Psalm 23 is in script above the date, 5-31-19. Below it, a dove, like the one released by Noah who returned to the ark with an olive branch.

Lear’s olive branch has 12 leaves, representing those who were killed. The artist added four olives on his own, without knowing that there were four people wounded.

It’s a poignant piece of body art.

One worker, who was left a quadriplegic from a gunshot wound to his spine, was shot outside Lear’s office. She and others administered first aid until emergency personnel arrived. Harrowing. No one goes to work in a city office building with the expectation that they’ll be applying pressure to gunshot wounds before the day is through.

When survivors were finally led outside the building by police officers, they had to step over the bodies of their slain colleagues. Some of the floors and stairways were slick with blood.

It’s taken Lear and some of her colleagues years to recover from the horrors they witnessed that day. Many of the survivors suffer from PTSD, she told me.

This week’s school shooting in Texas brought back painful memories.

We talked about what the Uvalde children and teachers saw and experienced and Lear’s eye welled with tears for the little ones who perished.

“I have a deep and abiding faith,” she said softly. “I know that those babies are being cuddled by my mother and my grandmother right now.“

Lear says it infuriates her to see politicians leaping to use the school shooting to push their agendas.

“No more politics,” she said firmly. “Politicians don’t have a place in this. And gun control is not the answer. They need to stop with that.”

Lear mused that before long no one working for the city of Virginia Beach will remember the people who perished in the municipal building massacre.

“They’ll just be forgotten,” she said.

That’s why the survivors will gather today: to remember their friends who lost their lives on the last Friday in May, 2019.

This column has been republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.