Fifteen years ago on the July 4th weekend, former Northwestern University basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong was murdered by a neo-Nazi on a hate-filled shooting spree.

Each year, the anniversary is difficult for his 25-year-old daughter, Kelley Byrdsong, who now lives in Atlanta.

“I just don’t know how I’m going to feel until the day comes,” she said. “Every year is different...This year, I cried a little, but it’s not like I got angry. I just reflected.”

Byrdsong was jogging near his Skokie home with Kelley, then 10, and Ricky Jr. when he was shot by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith — a member of the white supremacist Creativity Movement.

For two days, a rampage played out over two states.

Smith also killed Won Joon Yon, a Korean-American college student on the campus of Indiana University; and wounded six Orthodox Jewish men in nearby West Rogers Park, two African-American men in Springfield, a Taiwanese man in Urbana and another African-American man in Decatur.

Then, Smith took his own life on July 4, crashing his car into a post during a high-speed chase by police.
 
“We did a little family counseling...but I don’t think I’ll ever be really comfortable talking about it,” said Kelley Byrdsong. “But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.”

Her father coached the Northwestern Wildcats men's basketball team from 1993 to 1997, including a National Invitation Tournament berth in 1994. After leaving the Northwestern job, he was hired as vice president of community affairs for Aon Corp. until his death.

Her mother, Sherialyn, started The Ricky Byrdsong Foundation, which holds the annual “Race Against Hate,” drawing thousands of participants each year, including all the Byrdsong family members — even grandparents.

Kelley Byrdsong graduated from North Carolina A&T State University and works as a youth director for Create Your Own Dreams, which provides enrichment programs for disadvantaged children.

As for political advocacy, Kelley Byrdsong has always kept a low profile — until recently.

She has appeared at events for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which currently features a video about her father’s story.

She can’t quite bring herself to watch it. “It’s just too much,” she said.

Despite lending her name, she wouldn’t call herself a gun control activist. “Really, what I’m doing is about love and regard for humanity,” she said.

Byrdsong said that while many people focus on race relations and access to guns when they look at how things have or haven’t changed since the shooting spree, she thinks about something her mom said once at a press conference: This wasn’t a gun problem, it was a heart problem.

“In terms of that, I think that we've come a long way because it opens us up for dialogue on uncomfortable issues, and more than that, I know people have been changed just by my dad's legacy. To see thousands of people at The Ricky Byrdsong Memorial Race Against Hate solidifies that we've come a long way because it represents what we stand for and the ways in which we're alike, and not what makes us different.

“In terms of gun violence and race relations, I think there's a lot of work to be done, but I know that there's always hope.”

brubin@tribune.com
Twitter @bmrubin