PEORIA — Well over two years have elapsed since the day that James Vernon, in the midst of a weekly chess club session for home-schooled children, thwarted a knife-wielding man who had entered the room intending to kill people.
Physical evidence of the confrontation has mostly faded. Vernon, who was 75 at the time of the attack at Morton Public Library in the fall of 2015, was cut in two arteries and a tendon in his left hand by the then 19-year-old assailant, Dustin Brown.
One of Vernon's fingers still won't fully straighten out, which he uses as an excuse on the golf course when he occasionally shanks a ball into the tall rough.
"I'm making light of (the situation) that day, but that's the only way you have to deal with it," Vernon said Monday.
Yet Vernon is still being honored for the heroic actions that day that saved the lives of 16 children and several of their mothers. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood awarded the Morton resident the Carnegie Medal in the congressman's district office within the federal courthouse.
The medal is bestowed upon a person from the United States and Canada who risk his or her life "to an extraordinary degree" while saving or attempting to save the lives of others. One of those lives was present in the congressman's office Monday: Sandy Rassi, the mother who coordinates the chess club and who also had three children present at the fateful session two years ago.
Rassi recalled the the frightening moments when Brown first entered the room, screaming that he was going to kill someone and making small cuts into his left arm as intimidation. Vernon managed to deflect Brown's attention away from the children and then stepped between him and the door to allow the kids and mothers to flee the room until the armed man was apprehended. Rassi marveled not only at Vernon's bravery but the children's reactions as well.
"It was a supernatural, God-imposed calm that was in the room," Rassi said.
Vernon's actions that day were not a surprise to his family members, who were also in attendance for the ceremony Monday. His younger brother, Rex Vernon, pointed to his considerable military training that not all chess instructors possess. And his sister, Julia Vernon, couldn't help but ascribe a spiritual hand to ensuring that her brother was in that library room.
"He was the man who had the training, the know-how and the character," Julia said as her voice quivered. "He was the perfect man for the job. We're just unbelievably proud of him."
A man of many jokes and much determination, Vernon returned to the very next chess club meeting the week after the attack, hand bandages and all. The club continues to meet to this day. Rassi still organizes the club, Vernon still instructs and they still meet at the Morton Public Library.
An unintended result of all the publicity Vernon received meant that the chess club also garnered more attention — more than 35 kids regularly attend, Rassi said, prompting the need for a larger room at the library.
Sitting next to Vernon throughout the ceremony was his wife, Hanna, who shares his flair for jokes and storytelling. She hoped that the many honors and press attention that has followed her husband these last two years can inspire others to step up in an imperiling situation in the future.
"If a 75-year-old chess geek can do this, what can I do?" Hanna Vernon asked.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.