With Every New Tragedy, Another 'Strong' Campaign

dayton shooting memorial Dayton Strong

People visit a memorial in the Oregon District, where a mass shooting early Sunday morning left nine dead and 27 wounded, on August 07, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

By Philip Marcelo, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — In Ohio, a heart-shaped mural with the phrase "Dayton Strong" hangs in front of the bar where a gunman killed nine people.

In Texas, "El Paso Strong," written in red, white and blue, adorns homemade banners after a shooter killed 22 at a Walmart.

In California, where a gunman killed three people at a garlic festival, black fundraising T-shirts bear the words "#GilroyStrong."

"Strong" has become an inescapable part of how this country heals after tragedy. It's embedded in social media posts, makeshift memorials, pins, stickers and other mementos of grief.

But before Dayton Strong, El Paso Strong and Gilroy Strong memorialized the nation's latest shootings, there was Boston Strong.

The phrase was the city's rallying cry after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and wounded scores more at the finish line of the storied race.

"Jersey Strong" was a refrain for some after Superstorm Sandy inflicted damage in New York and New Jersey in 2012, but T-shirts that used "Boston Strong" in the wake of the marathon bombing helped push the phrase into the national lexicon.

Christopher Dobens, who helped create those shirts, says he has mixed feelings about the unexpected legacy.

"It's heartbreaking to see that it keeps having to come up," the now 25-year-old Beverly, Massachusetts, resident, said Wednesday. "That's the part that hurts the most. That so many places around the world are having to use this mantra because they're being hit with terrible tragedies."

Dobens was a student at Boston's Emerson College when he and fellow student Nicholas Reynolds decided to create T-shirts to help raise money for victims in the hours after the terror attack.

Inspired by cyclist Lance Armstrong's Livestrong cancer foundation and the U.S. Army's "Army Strong" slogan, Dobens said they initially came up with: "Stay strong, Boston strong."

They cut it down simply to Boston Strong and printed it out in bold, yellow letters on blue T-shirts — the colors of the Boston Marathon. The shirts went on to raise $1 million for the city's fund for victims as well as other local charities.

In the years since, it has been used after mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; a country music festival in Las Vegas; and the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, among others.

And it's not just shootings.

"Houston Strong" described the Texas city after Hurricane Harvey barreled through in 2017, causing 68 deaths.

"I had no idea it would ever manifest itself this way," said Armstrong, who resigned from the Livestrong charity in 2012 after his doping scandal. "I think it signifies confidence and reminds people that we can come back or recover."

Dobens said that as long as people are using the phrase for the right reasons, he supports it.

"Looking to help those who are in need, that's really the heart of it," he said. "It's about making sure we're a community and that we're all in this together and helping each other through these dark times."

Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.

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