Early in the morning on April 22, a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle arrived at the Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee, with intent to kill. He succeeded in murdering four people, but his gun was wrestled out of his hands by a man named James Shaw Jr. before he could do any more harm.
The incident was covered by news outlets all across the world, but most mainly focused on Shaw or the shooter himself—but the true scope of this saga extended well beyond those two.
It would be impossible to tell the tale of everyone affected by the events of that night, so instead we’ll shed some light on three people with incredible stories that have gone overlooked: a father of four, his mother, and the waitress who changed both of their lives forever.
Michael, the Survivor
April 21 was quite the day for Michael Garth Sr, even before the incident. After a trip to the hospital for the birth of his wife’s goddaughter, Ruby, and awaiting his daughter’s high school graduation that week, he learned that a good friend who had been away for awhile had just returned home.
“He’s a rapper and he was at the studio recording a song,” Garth told Humanity. “I just so happened to see him on Facebook Live … and I saw that he was in the studio, so I rushed over just to be a part of it.”
Garth and his friend spent a long time in the studio. When it became late, Garth gave his buddy a ride home, stopping at a Waffle House along the way.
When they arrived, the two men were about to sit at the bar but a waitress named Virginia Stanley asked them to move, seating them at a different table. She had a big load of dishes that night and she didn’t want to get the men wet. Little did she know the true impact of her actions.
The shooter arrived shortly thereafter but, because Stanley asked them to move, Garth and his friend were safe from harm.
“All I can remember is just being grateful and thankful for being spared that day. I’m still kind of coming to grips with what happened,” Garth said.
When Garth returned home that night, he was astounded by what one of his children did for him.
“My wife and I were watching the news coverage of the situation and my youngest son woke up and I don’t know if he could sense that something wasn’t right … but he just kind of came and jumped in my lap and he sat in my lap and was like ‘I love my daddy,’” Garth said. “I kind of had a moment there of appreciation because I almost didn’t make it back.”
Vickie, the Caring Mother
Garth’s mother, Vickie Davis, wasn’t even in the United States on the day of the incident! Davis was vacationing in Aruba when she heard the news about the shooting.
One of her friends called her shortly after she heard about the shooting on a news report. Davis assumed that her son was fine, but her friend urged her to call to see if he was okay.
Davis called her daughter and asked, “Is Michael OK?” That’s when she learned that he was at the Waffle House during the shooting. Davis was shocked to hear the news.
“I would’ve taken the next flight from Aruba if I’d have known!” she told Humanity.
When Davis returned home, she made it her mission to do something nice for the waitress who saved her son’s life. While this might sound simple, tracking down this waitress proved rather challenging.
She tried reaching Stanley at the Waffle House a couple times, but the woman was taking time off. Eventually, she ran into Stanley when she was getting tires. Stanley recognized Davis from an interview she had done on TV and Davis recognized the waitress through a Waffle House badge she had on her shirt.
Thus began their friendship.
Over the course of the past few months, Davis has been assisting Stanley in all sorts of ways, from getting her medication to helping her pay for a service dog through a GoFundMe account. Yet one particular gesture stood out to Stanley above all else.
Virginia, the Unlikely Hero
Having worked at the restaurant on the day of the shooting, Stanley noticed that the night leading up to it felt different than most and not in the way you’d expect.
“Normally it we have a little rough crowd every now and then but that night, everyone was happy. People were singing. It was actually a wonderful night,” Stanley told Humanity.
This made the contrast even greater when the shooter walked in. Stanley’s fiancé, Douglas Lauderdale, was with her at the time and the two were forced into a tiny corner under the cash register while the man opened fire.
“[Lauderdale] was laying on top of me and the only thing that was going through my head was ‘this man is about to come around the corner and kill my fiancé and me,’” she said.
Luckily, that did not happen. Unfortunately, though, one of Stanley’s coworkers, who she used to joke around with, passed that night. Reflecting on this, it gave Stanley a new appreciation for life and how short it is.
“I’m ready to start living life because before, I just went through life working and not really enjoying it,” she said. “Now I’m ready to get married and have a family and kind of start my life basically.”
Stanley initially planned on getting married in July but she didn’t have enough money to buy a dress for the wedding—that’s where Davis stepped in.
Davis knew of a bridal store called Glitz that gave free dresses to military wives and servicewomen. She hoped that, despite Stanley’s lack of military history, the store would be willing to make an exception, given what she’d been through.
On July 11, the store had a giveaway for first responders and firefighters. By speaking to the corporate office, Davis was able to ensure that Stanley could get a dress that day too.
“On that day, I met them there and I asked the ladies that were already in line … if they would let her go in front of them because her PTSD is so bad that she can’t deal with people and noises,” Davis said. “The bridal store already had a private room in the back for her so that she wouldn’t have to go through all the noise and all the people.”
When Stanley received the dress, she couldn’t help but cry. She never thought she’d get to own something that nice.
“I was astonished … I’m a regular person … for someone to reach out to me like that and give me the dress of my dreams … to have the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen—it touched my heart,” she said.
It’s unclear when Stanley will walk down the aisle in that dress, as her big event has been put on hiatus for the time being. However, she’ll have her wedding fully paid for when she does, thanks to Davis and her connections with various nonprofit groups.
“Mr. Garth and Ms. Davis, they’re just amazing people,” Stanley said. “I wish there was a lot more people like them in this world.”
“I just want [Davis] to know that I love her with every bit of my heart and I appreciate her and her son. I’m never ever going to forget them, ever in my life.”
The Community Comes Together
Since the night of the shooting, Garth, Davis, and Stanley have all noticed a greater sense of togetherness in their community. The phrases “Waffle House Strong” and “Antioch Strong” became commonplace.
Garth recalled his wife and a few of her friends giving a wheelchair-bound victim a free makeover. Stanley said the Waffle House she worked for donated all of their savings for a month to the families of victims.
The hero from the incident, James Shaw Jr., was very visible in his community after the shooting, even joining Garth, Davis, and their family and friends for dinner one night.
“It was good for my daughter and my grandkids to see a hero, and to know that this man saved Mike’s life,” Davis said.
Shaw has stayed in contact with them since. Davis now considers him as part of her family.
It’s clear that, despite the horrors of April 22, Antioch has come out strong and more appreciative of life than ever before.
“People in the community have been trying to come together and do things for each other, try to uplift each other,” Garth said. “They’re taking something that was so negative and so terrible and try to get some good to come from it.”
It just goes to show that even a gesture as small as asking someone to move their seat or giving them a dress can have an enormous positive impact!
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This article was originally published on Humanity.