He’d finished his tutorial and was walking around the room to survey the children’s chess moves when a man brandishing two knives burst into the room threatening to kill them.
James Vernon, a 75-year-old Vietnam War-era veteran, who volunteers weekly teaching chess to about 16 home-schooled children at the public library in Morton, Illinois, had only one thought: “This is not going to happen.”
The children, aged 7 to 14, froze in their seats. Vernon approached the man, identified by local press as 19-year-old Dustin Brown, and calmly asked him questions in an attempt to defuse the situation. Brown stood there making shallow cuts in his own left arm. He told Vernon his whole life sucked.
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Vernon, who spoke to The Washington Post on Friday afternoon, said he was certainly scared throughout the incident Tuesday, but was solely focused on saving the kids.
He asked Brown to let the children leave and they could talk it out. A mother in the room took the cue and hurried the children out the room. It was then that Brown lunged. Vernon lifted his hand to block him and was stabbed deep into his palm and through two arteries. His blood splattered on the plastic chess pieces and on the library carpet.
Vernon fought back and overcame him, and somehow got him flipped on to one of the conference tables – he said the minute or so of hand-to-hand combat is a blur. “I was operating at the animal level for a few seconds there,” he said. “I needed to stop him from assaulting these children or their mothers with those knives.”
He’s got weak knees, a bad shoulder and high blood pressure, but his body was “adequate for the job,” he said. He credited his basic Army training from over 50 years ago for knowing what to do in a knife-fight.
With the spate of school violence across the country, Vernon refused to let his small town become another statistic.
“This can’t happen here and I’m not going to let it happen,” he said he thought in that moment. “These kids are my responsibility right now.”
Both Vernon and Brown were taken to the hospital after the incident, and Brown was later arrested and charged with attempted murder, armed violence, and aggravated battery, according to local reports.
A mother of one of the children called Vernon to thank him. Vernon, who underwent two hours of surgery on his hand, just wanted to make sure the chess club was still meeting again next week.
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