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‘Lionhearted in kindness’: Colleagues remember slain UNLV professors

Updated December 9, 2023 - 11:23 am

Slain UNLV professors Naoko Takemaru, Patricia Navarro Velez and Cha-Jan “Jerry” Chang were each remembered fondly by their grief-stricken colleagues Friday.

“She was lionhearted in kindness, lionhearted in generosity, lionhearted in humanity, the point of liberal arts,” Associate Professor Margaret Harp said of Takemaru, who was identified by the Clark County coroner’s office Friday as one of the three professors killed at UNLV on Wednesday.

“And I have no doubt she was lionhearted in her final moments,” Harp said.

Takemaru, 69, of Las Vegas, was an associate professor who was the head of the school’s Japanese Studies Program. She died of multiple gunshot wounds, the coroner’s office said Friday.

Takemaru, Navarro Velez, 39, and Chang, 64, were killed when a gunman opened fire in Beam Hall, home of the university’s business school.

A fourth faculty member, who has not been identified, was shot and remained hospitalized Friday.

Officers identified

During a press conference at UNLV on Friday afternoon, university police Chief Adam Garcia also identified the two officers who shot and killed the gunman, 67-year-old Anthony Polito. They were UNLV detective Nathaniel Drum and officer Damian Garcia. Drum has been employed by the university police department since 2017, and Garcia was hired in 2018.

Colleagues of the three professors who were killed also spoke at Friday’s press conference, sharing fond memories of their coworkers.

Naoko Takemaru

Harp said Takemaru was an “inspiring teacher” who was hired in 2003 to develop the Japanese Studies Program at UNLV.

Takemaru oversaw that program and taught upper-division classes on Japanese language, culture and business, according to the university’s website. She was the author of the 2019 book “Women in the Language and Society of Japan: The Linguistic Roots of Bias.”

She had also won the William Morris Award for Excellence in Teaching from UNLV’s College of Liberal Arts.

Takemaru was also a woman of many talents, Harp said, having previously performed as a professional concert pianist, and being known for her embroidery and holiday chocolate baking. She was also a cat lover, and her office at UNLV was covered in cat pictures, puzzles and calendars.

In a statement released prior to Friday’s press conference, UNLV President Keith Whitfield said Takemaru was “incredibly dedicated to her students.

“Processing the loss of three cherished UNLV faculty members is horrendously difficult, but we are heartened by memories of them and their remarkable and lasting impact on our university, on their students, and within their professions,” he said in the statement.

Patricia Navarro Velez

Professor Jason Smith, chair of UNLV’s accounting department, recalled Navarro Velez’s “larger than life personality, infectious smile and genuine kindness.” She loved baking and was known in the office for her creme brulee and macarons.

“She loved gatherings,” Smith said. “The more the merrier, she’d say.”

Navarro Velez, an assistant accounting professor, started working at UNLV in 2019, after earning her doctoral degree from the University of Central Florida. She had also attended Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce, where she grew up.

Navarro Velez and her husband were the proud parents of four children, Smith said. She is also survived by her parents, three sisters, a brother, many nieces and nephews and countless friends and colleagues.

Cha-Jan ‘Jerry’ Chang

Professor Keah-Choon Tan said he had worked with Chang, a professor of management information systems, since Chang came to UNLV in 2001.

Chang is survived by his wife and two children, Tan said. He was a rigorous researcher who loved teaching and his students.

“He was always calm and even tempered,” Tan said. “He never seemed to get angry.”

Tan said that his friend was so dedicated to teaching, he had talked about donating his body to medical research. Although UNLV’s medical school does not conduct such research, Tan said Chang will get his wish, and his body will be donated to a different institution.

‘Love and support’

Whitfield thanked those in Las Vegas and throughout Nevada for the outpouring of support in the days since the killings. Earlier Friday, Whitfield said he and other UNLV officials met with President Joe Biden during the president’s visit to Las Vegas.

“He offered love and support for UNLV, and we appreciate the support of President Biden,” Whitfield said.

Whitfield also went over UNLV’s plans for the rest of the semester, including the cancellation of final exams and the continuation of commencement ceremonies.

“I think after one of the worst days — the worst day, for this university — it’s appropriate, even though it’s difficult, that we continue on and be able to celebrate our graduates,” he said.

Garcia said university officials will be reviewing UNLV’s safety protocols in the coming months, and that he plans to increase the number of officers on campus in the meantime.

The Metropolitan Police Department on Friday called for anyone with video of the shooting inside Beam Hall to contact the department. The interior of the building has no cameras, and investigators are trying to piece together the gunman’s movements on Wednesday, Garcia said.

“We certainly are going to look at and determine whether or not additional safety measures are going to take place related to video and cameras,” he said.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240.

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