Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stones will comprise permanent memorial at Virginia Tech

After the April 16 shootings, mourners placed a stone on the Drillfield for each victim. Now Virginia Tech will formally honor the 32 students and professors.

Stones of the 32 shooting victims at Virginia Tech.

Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

After the April 16 shootings, mourners placed a stone on the Drillfield for each victim. Now Virginia Tech will formally honor the 32 students and professors.

Memorial rendering

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The day before a new academic year begins, Virginia Tech will pause to remember the Hokies who died April 16 and dedicate a monument on the Drillfield to their memory. An official announcement will be made today.

"We'll all be together again for the first time," Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said, explaining why university officials chose Aug. 19 for the dedication. The ceremony will begin at noon.

The monument will be a more permanent version of the arc of stones Hokies United placed on the Drillfield after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and professors and wounded two dozen more people before killing himself on the second floor of Norris Hall.

The stones, at the foot of the Drillfield viewing stand in front of Burruss Hall, quickly became a gathering place for mourners who left flowers, notes and mementos for those who died.

For a while at least, the ad hoc memorial included a stone for Cho. The new version will not.

Matt Gart, the university's landscape architect, said the new stones will be set in place next week. They wait on pallets at the Hokie stone quarry, where quarryman Tudor Lange etched the names of the people Cho killed into them -- one stone for each victim.

Those Hokie stones will sit in a bed of crushed gravel, with a paved walkway replacing the semicircle of grass that had been worn brown by the steady march of mourners.

Each new stone will lie in virtually the same spot as the corresponding original.

"The university community, and particularly the students, has become attached to this location," Tech President Charles Steger said in a June news release announcing plans to build an "intermediate" memorial. "It seems only appropriate that we continue this tradition with something more substantive while we begin the process of looking elsewhere on campus for a permanent and fitting memorial to honor the memory and lives of our fallen students and faculty."

The university won't call the soon-to-be-dedicated memorial "intermediate."

"We're going to call it the April 16th Memorial," Owczarski said Tuesday.

It's just one of many.

Just off campus in a churchyard, 32 flags fly -- a national flag for each person killed on campus April 16.

Decals and magnets commemorating the losses seem ubiquitous.

But it seems that Hokies and their supporters hunger for something more to mark the crime and honor the victims. Some people want a permanent memorial across the Drillfield from War Memorial Chapel. Former Roanoke City Manager Bern Ewert suggested a memorial trail connecting the Tech campus to Roanoke and Smith Mountain Lake.

Immediately after the shootings, hundreds of banners, thousands of origami cranes, 250 hand-cut wooden hearts and myriad gifts, cards and other signs of condolence began arriving from other universities, colleges and schools. For a while, they came at the rate of 100 day.

The Library of Congress sent help to sort and archive the flood.

Memorials sprouted online.

All the while, flowers, messages, flags, ribbons and other mementos accumulated around those stones.

"Things to this day are still left in remembrance," Owczarski said Tuesday.

While other markers of the tragedy have faded or disappeared, that line of stones has retained its power to draw mourners.

"I don't think you can find a moment of the day when people aren't paying their respects there," Owczarski said.

The practice continued even while men operating a backhoe and dump truck prepared the ground nearby for a walkway, while a little front end loader scooped and smoothed the ground.

It would have been easier to mark off a semicircle from the base of the viewing stand and set the stones equidistant along that arc, Gart said. But that would have been a different memorial.

"It was kind of a committee decision, 'Let's keep the original spirit of the Hokies United memorial,' " Gart said. "I think it was a good choice."

The victims' families have been invited to the dedication, but Owczarski said he doesn't know yet if they'll attend. Aside from the date and time, the only thing certain about the ceremony so far, Owczarski said, is that Steger will do the actual dedication.

Plans for a permanent memorial are also "to be determined," Owczarski said.

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