Monday, August 20, 2007

Virginia Tech memorial: Carved in memory

The semicircle of stones on Tech's Drillfield becomes a permanent memorial.

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BLACKSBURG -- The first notes of "Amazing Grace" swelled up from the Marching Virginians as the families of fallen Hokies walked up a gentle hill toward a newly dedicated memorial to their children, fathers, husbands, brothers, sisters and one wife and mother.

"They will be greatly missed," Virginia Tech President Charles Steger had said of the dead a few minutes before. "And they shall not be forgotten."

Thousands of people, many wearing maroon Hokies United T-shirts, stood in the midday sun Sunday to be part of the dedication of a memorial to the victims of Tech student Seung-Hui Cho.

The memorial is an enhanced replica of one that grew in front of Burruss Hall in the hours after the April 16 shootings. Hokies United placed one stone for each person killed that day. That simple memorial became a center of mourning and remembrance. When the university set up a committee to determine the form a memorial to the victims should take, the committee decided it could do no better than to emulate that spontaneous memorial. The stones from that original memorial were given to the families of the victims at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony.

The heart of the new memorial is a semicircle of Hokie stones, each with the name of someone who died during Cho's rampage carved into it. But the memorial is not just to the dead, Steger said. It is also meant to be a monument to the strength and courage of the survivors of that day.

Richard Pumphrey, a Lynchburg College professor whose son and daughter graduated from Tech years ago, drove in Sunday morning for the dedication. Pumphrey had claimed a spot on the Drillfield by 10:30 a.m. The event was scheduled to begin at noon.

"It's hard to put your finger on it," Pumphrey said, trying to explain why he'd come. "I think it's a thing of solidarity."

He said he was hoping the ceremony would bring the community some kind of closure.

On a blanket not far away with her children, Megan Hicks had much lower expectations. Her husband teaches at Tech. A friend of the family -- the mother of friends of her children -- died that day. She and her family came to support that friend's family.

For Hicks, closure seemed too much to expect from a Drillfield ceremony.

While Hicks and Pumphrey waited in the shade, Father John Grace was holding Mass in the War Memorial Chapel at the east end of the Drillfield. The New Testament reading for the day came from Luke. Jesus was telling his disciples that he'd come to set the world on fire, to sow division, even among families.

April 16 was a real division, Grace said. One man divided himself from the community that day and everyone else was victimized by the decisions that man made.

Tech should understand more than any other campus "the preciousness of life and the power of community."

Community -- the Hokie community, the larger academic community, the larger geographic community -- was a theme that recurred all day. From the iconic "We are Virginia Tech," to T-shirts proclaiming "Some were lost. Some were saved. All were affected," the gathering crowd and the people who addressed them spoke of community strength, community suffering, community responsibility to carry on the work of those who died.

But the other side of some of those T-shirts had a different message: "In memory of Jarrett Lane."

Lane was a 22-year-old Narrows native who was killed April 16.

It was a reminder that the grief at the heart of the larger community so often invoked Sunday is personal indeed.

Steger proclaimed the hearts -- but not the spirit -- of the Hokie Nation to be broken. He called on the campus community to dedicate itself anew to learning, to discovery and to service to others.

"We must not be afraid," he said. "We are Virginia Tech."

Before the speeches began, Pumphrey said he hoped the ceremony would mark the end of one phase of the community's recovery and the beginning of another.

"Now it's time to move forward," he said. "Not to ignore the past, but to mark it and move forward."

Within minutes of the dedication's end -- with the past marked and the first day of classes less than 24 hours in the future -- it looked as though the campus community was moving forward.

Business was booming at the campus bookstore and at a nearby tent where posters were for sale. The line at a sandwich shop at the edge of campus stretched onto the sidewalk. Many of the waiting patrons wore their identity on their maroon T-shirts: "We are Virginia Tech."

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