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Hundreds gather at Cal State Long Beach to remember 'a beautiful soul'

Hundreds gather at Cal State Long Beach to remember 'a beautiful soul'
The mother (foreground, pink scarf) and stepfather of Paris terror attack victim Nohemi Gonzalez join the crowd at a Cal State Long Beach memorial service on Nov. 15. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Ambition and seemingly boundless energy had propelled Nohemi Gonzalez to move out of her mother's mobile home in El Monte to the campus of Cal State Long Beach.

At the school, the 23-year-old had earned high marks in her chosen major, industrial design, and decided this semester to study in Paris, her first extended trip out of the U.S.

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But when gunmen pulled up to the sidewalk bistro in Paris where she and three friends were dining Friday night, the spray of gunfire left Gonzalez and 18 others dead, among the 129 killed in the spate of terrorist attacks that has stunned a nation.

On Sunday, hundreds flocked to the campus that incubated Gonzalez's aspirations to mourn her death and remember her spirit: all at once creative, intelligent, observant and, befitting a designer, a bit playful.

"Nohemi possessed a character that was truly rare," Martin Herman, chairman of the university's design department, told those who crowded into the student union. Hundreds more spilled outside, some wiping away tears.

"What I saw in her was a beautiful soul who practiced goodness and compassion in her friendships and relationships with others. She exuded such energy and enthusiasm and infused the entire department with these same qualities by virtue of her presence."

Sitting in the crowd was the young woman's mother, Beatriz Gonzalez, who had mostly refrained from speaking publicly about her only daughter's death until Sunday morning.

At the salon and barbershop in Norwalk that she operates with her partner, Jose Hernandez, Gonzalez answered questions about her slain daughter while having her hair done for the day's memorial.

Somber but composed — showing the resignation of someone who realizes that her private grief was now of interest to countless around the world — she described her daughter's independent character and determination to carve out her own path.

When the souring economy forced the family to leave Whittier and move into a mobile home park in El Monte, Nohemi Gonzalez continued attending Whittier High School because she preferred its more rigorous academic program.

During her undergraduate studies, Beatriz said, her daughter balanced her classwork with two jobs, one at the Armani Exchange in a Cerritos shopping mall and another at her college's laboratory.

"She used to work all the time," her mother recalled.

The last time she saw her daughter was Sept. 1, the day she boarded a flight for Paris.

By the time the FBI arrived at the barbershop to formally inform her of her daughter's death, she had already heard through a friend of a friend. Another classmate at Cal State Long Beach had accompanied her daughter in the ambulance and said she never made it to the hospital alive.

"She was a wonderful kid," Jose Hernandez said later. "If there's anything bad to say about her, I got nothing."

Before the larger memorial at Cal State Long Beach, classmates and faculty from the School of Design gathered on campus, whispering, shedding tears and clutching fragile blooms of orchids and lilies.

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They stood by a memorial to Gonzalez, including a mini-Eiffel Tower and balloons in the same colors as the French flag.

Instructor Joe Ricchio said that during an upper-level furniture design course, Gonzalez stood out.

"She wasn't afraid to say what she thought about her work and her classmates' work, which is how you learn," said Ricchio, noting that Gonzalez had earned an A in the class. "What's nice about her is she participated consistently.... She liked to share with everyone."

Friends swapped memories of Gonzalez, admiring her "everlasting" spirit.

"She was a warrior; she fought for her dreams," said student Alysia Elnagar. As a teaching assistant in the school's basic design class, Gonzalez showed Elnagar and others enrolled in the freshman-level course how to use power tools.

When Gonzalez's mother arrived, the crowd at the intimate gathering fell silent.

The quiet remained for nearly 20 minutes as, one by one, they walked forward to place flowers at the memorial that included a drawing of Nohemi.

Beatriz Gonzalez stood watching, hair blowing in the breeze.

By 4 p.m., the student union was filled with mourners. The overflow crowd outside stood craning their necks to hear the eulogies of teachers, administrators and family members.

To senior Alex Schumacher, Gonzalez was the beating heart of a tight-knit group of about 20 students in this year's senior class of industrial design majors. After returning from Paris, she was to graduate this spring.

Timothy P. White, the chancellor of the California State University system, read aloud a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. poet laureate.

Gonzalez's boyfriend of nearly four years, Tim Mraz, sobbed as he recalled how they met. They were both working as teaching assistants in shop class.

"She ran that place, man, she owned it," Mraz said. "She was first one in, last one out; there all night."

His voice quavered as he thanked classmates, friends and the community for support before assuring them that her spirit remains at the school she so loved.

"She'll always be with us," Mraz said. "She'll still be roaming these halls, like she always does."

As the sun set over the campus, mourners slowly filed out of the student union and moved across a courtyard to a brick-paved plaza.

The crowd of several hundred held candles while the solemn lyrics sung by a choir filled the chilly air: "Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand."

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