Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Students, stories shape French teacher's memorial

"I enjoyed every class I had with her. I wish I could have had every French class I am ever going to have with her," student Colin Goddard said.

BLACKSBURG -- Jocelyne Couture-Nowak loved speaking French so much that she refused to talk to her nephew in English when he visited, to help him get better at it.

Ginette Couture told that and many other stories about her sister Tuesday at a memorial service for the adjunct professor of French who was killed on the Virginia Tech campus with 31 others April 16.

Hundreds sat or stood on the grounds of the Peggy Hahn Horticulture Pavilion to remember a woman called "Jo Jo" by her family and "Madame" by her students.

Speaking near the end of the ceremony, after many other speakers had made people both laugh and cry with their stories, Couture said, "Thank you for remembering her. Thank you for talking about her. She's not just another number -- not just another statistic."

Colin Goddard, who was shot three times in the attack that killed Couture-Nowak and so many others, was helped from a wheelchair to the podium, where he said, "I enjoyed every class I had with her. I wish I could have had every French class I am ever going to have with her."

In remarks laced with French phrases his teacher would probably have loved to hear, another student, John Welch, said Couture-Nowak was a joy to be around. He said she was passionate about both her heritage as a French Canadian and the institution for which she worked.

"I know when I get across that big Drillfield in the sky for one last class with Madame, everyone will know what a Hokie is," Welch said, referring to the center of Tech's campus and its mascot.

Richard Shryock, chairman of Tech's Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, said Couture-Nowak's engaging personality helped make her an ideal teacher of intermediate French, which is often the first university-level course for students who may go on to study the language in greater depth.

"She not only prepared them to continue," Shryock said. "She inspired them to continue."

Even though Couture-Nowak's husband, Jerzy Nowak, is head of Tech's Department of Horticulture, Couture-Nowak seemed to be the boss when it came to the family garden, joked Megan Hicks, a neighbor.

"Such memories now make us cry for a while," she continued. "But it is followed by a smile. We look forward to smiling more than crying."

Shortly before the ceremony ended with a singing performance, Nowak read prepared words to his wife: "Jocelyne, my darling, if heaven exists, this is your heaven. You are surrounded by family and friends you cherish, by students you respect and passionately help to succeed. By kind people who love you and respect you for who you are.

"We all honor you in this peaceful garden, this great university and this wonderful community that you and I embrace as our home. Now, listen to the music."

Her song, of course, was in French.

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