When Stephen Rane did something that caused his friends to express their thanks or admiration, such as bringing over a six-pack or winning a video-game round, he would brush off the attention, grin and say matter-of-factly: “Stephen is great.”
It started as a joke and became his signature catchphrase, Rane’s friends recalled this week as they mourned his death. Rane, 22, was one of the University of Maryland students living in an off-campus house where police say Dayvon Green, an engineering graduate student, opened fire Tuesday morning.
Police say Green, 23, killed Rane and seriously injured another roommate, Neal Oa, 22, before killing himself.
Rane’s Facebook profile photo seems to capture his personality: a grinning guy with brown hair and a matching beard, flashing a thumbs-up at an “ugly sweater” party, to which he wore a garish old-lady sweater decorated with cats. He was goofy and funny, always quick with a witty comeback. But his friends said they could count on him to drop everything to help.
“Stephen was the greatest guy,” said Drew Needham, 21, who met Rane at freshman orientation and lived with him during their sophomore and junior years. “Stephen was great. That sums him up — he was great.”
Rane moved to Maryland from Indiana when he was in high school. He graduated in 2009 from Centennial High School in Ellicott City, where a friend said he played the saxophone in the marching band and flourished as a writer.
“He was every English teacher’s favorite,” said Jeanette Santori, 21, who dated Rane in high school and is now a senior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Although they broke up after heading to different colleges, they stayed close, Santori said.
In high school, Rane was very smart, a little shy and always kind, Santori said. He listened to National Public Radio in his car, took dates to bookstores, and played strategy games, such as World of Warcraft and the Settlers of Catan. He would start passionate debates with his friends and usually win. He loved indie music and the sound of unusual instruments, such as the tin whistle, bagpipes and accordion.
For Senior Week, Rane and four friends went camping at Cunningham Falls in northern Maryland instead of partaking of the usual parties and beach trips. Just their luck, it rained the entire time, and a small lake pooled inside their tent.
“We call it ‘the fateful camping trip,’ ” Santori said. But it cemented a friendship among the five campers even as they headed off to five colleges. They kept in touch with Facebook and text messages and hung out during breaks.
Rane enrolled at Maryland’s flagship campus, where his mother works as a plant pathologist. He got a part-time job at a video game shop near campus. He decided to major in English, and friends say he added linguistics as a second major. He was on track to graduate in the spring, they said, and he hoped to teach English overseas.
Rane appears to have penned a guest column for the student newspaper in November 2011, explaining the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and urging students to take a stand against it.
“Though this law only authorizes censorship on the grounds of copyright infringement and not political or moral views,” the column says, “it is still a step toward the restriction of information that any American should be appalled by.”
Santori said Rane was passionate about social equality and identified with the Occupy Wall Street movement. He was also fascinated by the evolution of language and was annoyed by people obsessed with grammar.
“He would say, ‘You can’t tell people they’re wrong in their grammar because of an old rule established by someone in a position of authority,’ ” Santori recalled.
Rane lived in the college dorms his first two years and in an on-campus apartment with three other students the first semester of his junior year.
“His side of the room was always neat and tidy,” said Needham, a senior biology major from the Philadelphia area. “My side was the opposite, papers everywhere.”
Last spring, Rane studied in Ireland and traveled around Europe, soaking up the languages and cultures. When he returned to Maryland for his senior year, he needed a place to live and found a room for rent in an off-campus house. Rane didn’t know any of his housemates well before moving in, but everyone seemed to get along — except for Green, whose bizarre and unpredictable behavior scared Rane, said Needham and Santori.
Early Tuesday morning, the university sent out a crime alert, notifying the community about a shooting near campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up with reports that two students were dead and another was seriously injured, but the names of those involved were not released until the afternoon.
Santori said she received a phone call from Rane’s older sister about 11 a.m. and was tasked with calling their camping group.
“He did all the right things,” Santori said. “He was getting a degree. He was almost done. He had plans for what to do next. His life was too short. It was wrong. It shouldn’t have happened.”
Needham said that on Tuesday morning, a group of Rane’s friends pieced together that the crime scene was Rane’s house. They heard that one student was alive and in the hospital. They prayed it was Rane. Soon they learned the truth.
“It’s surreal,” Needham said. “If you told me that Stephen slipped on an Xbox controller and died, I would probably believe you. But this? I can’t believe this. It’s not real.”