Three weeks after saving 16 children from a man wielding two hunting knives, James Vernon just wants his normal life back.
“I told my wife that before, I was old, then I was news, then old news, and now I can go back to just being old,” he said.
On Oct. 13, Vernon, who turned 76 on Sunday, subdued 19-year-old Dustin Brown, who shouted his plans to kill as he bolted into the Morton Public Library conference room where Vernon was teaching a childrens’ chess class.
The 16 children, none older than 13, and several mothers escaped unhurt after Vernon, while speaking calmly to the attacker, maneuvered between him and the room’s door. That left the young man without the children he later said he wanted to kill in anger over child pornography charges he was facing.
He slashed at Vernon, who said he used army combat training five decades old to block the blade and subdue the attacker until help arrived.
On Monday, Vernon was recognized by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who declared Oct. 26, 2015, as James Vernon Day.
“We’re very blessed that every family is here and every family is safe,” Rauner said to a crowd of Vernon’s students and admirers at the Morton Public Library. “We’ve got a true American hero here. This is a day to celebrate.”
The story of Vernon’s heroism quickly spread nationwide, then across the world. Since the original attack, he’s submitted to more than a dozen interviews and accepted requests to be recognized by the village, its public school district and in the city of Peoria’s Veterans Day Parade, he said.
“I was hoping this would died down a bit,” he said before Rauner’s visit Monday, “but I recognize it’s important to the community not to let it go so quickly and do what they think they should do. Its part of the healing process.”
He’s done his own healing too. The bandages that once immobilized his right arm are gone, now replaced by a light sling and splint. Scribbled across the thumb: “I love you” and a heart.
As for Brown’s impending trial, Vernon is unsure what to expect.
“They can’t let him out onto the street,” he said after accepting Rauner’s commodation. “On the other hand, if he went out into the (prison) general population and they found out some chess geek had kicked his butt, he wouldn’t last very long either.”
Until then, Vernon said he just wants his life to be normal again.
“It’s an interesting circus that I’ll be glad to step down from in a week of two,” he said. “The kids ask about it, and then say, ‘OK, now can we play chess?’”
“And that’s exactly what I want to hear: ‘Thank you Mr. Vernon. Can we play chess now?’”