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MIT and nation mourn Sean Collier, officer with a common touch

Thousands of mourners attended a memorial service for Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who authorities say was gunned down by the Boston marathon bombing suspects. His stepbrother Rob Rogers told the crowd, "People have asked me, if Sean were here, what would he think? Are you kidding me? He would love this. You've got sirens. Flashing lights. Formations. People saluting. Bagpipes. Taps. The American flag. He would have loved it. He was born to be a police officer, and he lived out his dreams."

By Bill Dedman and Matthew DeLuca, NBC News

Vice President Biden spoke at the memorial for slain MIT police officer Sean Collier and condemned terrorism, saying, "Boston, you sent a powerful message to the world."

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Two young men about the same age apparently crossed paths last Thursday night in the Kendall Square area, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One was an MIT police officer known for his extraordinary ease at building relationships with foreign students. The other was an immigrant from the Caucasus.

Perhaps if they'd met in a different circumstance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev would have taken a liking to Officer Sean A. Collier. Everybody else seemed to.

On a campus where 40 percent of graduate students are from other countries, where their experience with police officers may be limited to violent confrontation, students found an exuberant friend in the 27-year-old Collier. In only 15 months on campus, he found a place in its heart. Collier joined the Outing Club to learn winter hiking, and trained with students by running stairs at night, sometimes in his uniform if he was on duty. "When we did a day hike in plaid flannel to yodel off of a mountain, Sean was the most enthusiastic yodeler of all of us," recalled alumnus Maddie Hickman. When he worked security at a school dance, he decided he'd better take dancing lessons, so he wouldn't be embarrassed the next time he showed off his footwork.

TODAY

Officer Sean A. Collier, 27, of the MIT Police was killed April 18 in Cambridge.

Collier was shot dead in his police car on April 18, apparently as the Tsarnaev brothers made a failed attempt to get another weapon. The killing of Collier and a carjacking eventually led to the death that night of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, during a shootout with police in neighboring Watertown. It also eventually led to the capture on Friday afternoon of his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, who is facing federal charges in the April 15 bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

The MIT community mourned Collier on Wednesday with a powerful midday memorial service on the baseball and softball facility, Briggs Field, about a five-minute walk across campus from where he died. Fifteen thousand chairs were filled with a sea of blue caps worn by law enforcement officers from around the nation. A huge American flag waved from the tips of two fire department ladders. Collier's casket was placed on a bier.

The service began with mournful bagpipes and ended with the playing of taps, then a flyover by police helicopters. Vice President Joe Biden spoke, paying tribute not only to Collier and his family, but to the families of all law enforcement officers. James Taylor sang the folk song "The Water is Wide" with the MIT Symphony Orchestra and then his "Shower the People" with MIT a cappella ensembles. A handmade sign displayed prior to the memorial proclaimed "Collier Strong," a play on the "Boston Strong" meme. Students who couldn't get into the memorial gathered around campus to watch the live video feed.

 

The siblings of MIT Police Officer Sean A. Collier, 27, who was killed April 18, describe their brother on the TODAY Show.

Related: Family of Officer Collier on TODAY: "Sean was such a good person"

How could a police officer meet so many students in barely a year on campus? MIT Police Chief John DiFava offered his explanation.

"He was the same person in uniform then when he wasn't wearing the uniform," DiFava said. "He was able to achieve a level of trust with people of many different backgrounds that was truly remarkable. ... Many of our students come from countries where the police really are not their friends. ... Sean understood this right away. He made it his mission to achieve their trust."

Young Officer Collier, fresh out of the state police academy, applied his own brand of community policing. He lived in neighboring Somerville, where he had worked as a civilian for the police department and was planning to begin a job as an officer this summer.

"People have asked me, if Sean were here, what would he think?" said his stepbrother Rob Rogers. "Are you kidding me? He would love this. You’ve got sirens. Flashing lights. Formations. People saluting. Bagpipes. Taps. The American flag. He would have loved it. He was born to be a police officer, and he lived out his dreams."

Hickman, the former student, posted her memories of Collier along with other students on the Outing Club's website.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

Heightened security, empty streets, and memorials mark the the day after the Boston Marathon bombings.

"He wanted to get involved in countless other student organizations across campus," Hickman wrote. "He loved the MIT community, and loved getting to know students and becoming a part of the MIT culture. ... He was good at making lasting connections, not just at striking up conversations, and we became close friends. I ran into him regularly on campus, and stopped by often to chat through the window of his police cruiser, or on his patrols. Sean cared a lot about his job, and he cared intensely about people; he worked long hours, but always made time to stop and chat. He was incredibly easy-going and friendly, and we'd talk regularly - about life and the world, or just being silly.

"Sean used to stop by the student center while on shift, and often came by the MIT Lindy Hop dance in uniform," Hickman said. "At first, some of the dancers were nervous at the 'police presence' in the room, but Sean made friends quickly and stood by the door to hang out and chat. In the spirit of trying new things, he even started taking swing dancing lessons in his time off, so he could participate in future dances 'without being embarrassed,' as he said."

Chief DiFava said he saw Collier about 9:30 last Thursday night, and pulled alongside his police car. He said Collier said he was "just making sure everyone is behaving." An hour later, DiFava said, he got the phone call.

As the memorial continued, police snipers held positions on the tops of buildings.

Biden called the perpetrators of the marathon bombing "twisted, perverted, cowardly, knockoff jihadis." He said he's often asked why terrorists do what they do. "They do it to instill fear," he said. "The irony is, we read about these events, we experience them, but the truth is, on every frontier, terrorism as a weapon is losing. It is not gaining adherents." He called for Americans to hold firm to their values. "The moment we get in a crouch and are defensive, is the moment they win. ... We have not yielded to our fears. We have not compromised our values. We have not weakened our constitutional guarantees. We have not closed our borders. ... We will not hunker down. We will not be intimidated."

DeLuca reported from the memorial in Cambridge.

MIT has created a Sean A. Collier Memorial Fund, which will support a Collier Medal to be awarded to people who demonstrate Collier's values. And his family has suggested that memorial gifts be made to the Jimmy Fund of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.