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Teacher recalls somber time after Matthew Shepard’s murder

Melissa Henry remembers the mood and the quiet. She remembers seeing the fence over and over on TV and in the papers. And she remembers the staff at Natrona County High School finding a way through those hellish days between Shepard being found, tied to that fence beaten and bloodied, and his funeral in downtown Casper.

“When things happen in a building like this, you carry on and you rally forward and you help the kids and each other,” she says from her office in the library. “But there’s a feeling, there’s a sense in the building that’s almost palpable. Maybe it’s not always spoken, but it’s there.”

Henry didn’t go to Shepard’s funeral; she was needed here. But she remembers the day was cold and wet and that it was melancholy everywhere.

“It was just — you could feel it, in the whole town. It was just heavy,” she says. “How did this happen?”

A pause, then an acknowledgment.

“But at the same time, we live in Wyoming.”

Henry taught Shepard’s public speaking class his sophomore year, before he moved overseas. He was “painfully shy” in that class, so much so that “he didn’t really do a lot of” speeches, she says.

The feeling in the town after he was attacked was similarly somber at Natrona County High. It was quiet. Kinder, too. None of the students would’ve known Shepard from his time at the school. But he was still a Wyoming kid.

“That happened here, in Wyoming,” Henry says. “And it wasn’t a simple homicide. It was so — it was terrible. And no homicide is simple, but I mean it was so drawn out and so brutal and he suffered for so long. Just — that bothered a lot of people.”

Henry’s been at Natrona County High for 28 years; this has been her only job and she proudly says she bleeds orange — the school’s color. She has seen change in this building, she says. Fewer anti-gay slurs thrown around and more students who have come out while here.

When asked if she thinks Shepard has a legacy here, she responds immediately: “Yes.” Then: “Unfortunately.” His parents have helped make him a legacy, she explains, through their work. His death created more awareness, more empathy. That’s a legacy. But it’s unfortunate because a 21-year-old had to die to make that happen.

It’s been 20 years. The students in this building weren’t alive when Shepard was killed. It is not a memory to them. It’s history.

But not to the people who knew him, who were in this building and in this town when he died.

“It’s a lot more,” Henry says. “It’s a lot more.”

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