Friday, April 17, 2009

An uplifting remembrance on second Virginia Tech Anniversary

The Virginia Tech community embraces the future while reflecting on the past.

Video: Virginia Tech holds candlelight vigil in remembrance

Video by Chris Zaluski | The Roanoke Times

BLACKSBURG -- The second anniversary of the April 16, 2007, shootings at Virginia Tech on Thursday brought together many of the same people, feelings and events as a year ago. But subtle differences revealed a university another year removed from the tragedy that took the lives of 32 faculty and students before the shooter killed himself.

Instead of messages to those lost, poster boards on the Tech Drillfield were filled with notes of thanks to law enforcement officials. The constant line of visitors that formed a daylong semicircle around the April 16 Memorial last year was replaced by an intermittent stream.

About 20 members of the media were in attendance for events, one-twentieth of last year's total. The crowd of spectators at the memorial ceremony at noon could be measured in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Displays showing the outpouring of support from the world after the shootings were smaller and less obvious.

April 16: Virginia Tech's Day of Remembrance

Morning: "3.2 for 32" memorial run

Noon: Memorial service

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While acknowledging that emotions are different from a year ago, Tech President Charles Steger told the crowd gathered at the ceremony that the community is still healing.

"We all know that cheerful faces that we see today often belie turmoil that lies within ... the journey is not over, but we've made progress," he said.

Steger finished his speech as he did last year, quoting Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" as he tried to articulate the push and pull of a community moving forward but not forgetting.

"Let us today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing," he said.

While turnout for the noon commemoration ceremony was smaller than a year ago, thousands turned out for the candlelight vigil, making up a crowd that appeared to be as large as the one last year.

The vigil ceremony was simpler and shorter. Emily Mashack, president of the Student Government Association, gave a short speech encouraging those gathered to use the lives of those lost to inspire them to live well.

"We will still continue to move forward without ever forgetting the 32. ... For each day is a gift and each moment a blessing," she said.

As a name was read, a person lit a candle from the ceremonial candle at the memorial and stood next to the victim's stone. Friends, family and wounded students were among those who formed a semicircle of lit candles around the memorial.

As the names were called, the spectators began lighting their candles. By the time the last name was read -- Brian Bluhm -- the Drillfield was filled with people holding lit candles.

The vigil, and the day's events, ended with the university's familiar chant of "Let's Go! Hokies!"

The day began with the same chant as some 4,000 runners started a 3.2-mile run to honor those killed. The "Run in Remembrance" was a new event and began at 8 a.m. with the release of balloons into the air representing the lives of those lost and the Tech community.

But rather than silence broken by the solemn tolling of a bell like last year year's commemoration ceremony release, this was followed by cheers and the "Let's Go! Hokies!" chant as runners approached the Drillfield.

Spectators and runners said the event was a good way to start the day on a positive note.

"I feel so happy every time we do something like this as a school," said Tech senior Cameron Burkholder. "To hear all the feet running together, literally, I teared up. Because it just feels so good to be part of something, to be part of a family."

Nice weather for a second year in a row brought people out to the Drillfield to throw Frisbees and lie in the sun. Booths offering counseling and water gave out more of the latter as people worked up a sweat in the afternoon. Chris Flynn, director of Tech's Cook Counseling Center, said the nice weather was a boost for those coping with the anniversary.

"This is such a beautiful day and it's just so inspiring to see the families out here," he said. "I really think it [healing] is about spending time with people you care about."

One event that drew more people than last year was a dance performance in honor of slain student Reema Samaha. Moved out of a space in Squires Student Center that limited attendance last year to Burruss Auditorium, the series of dances and music drew an audience that filled more than half of the 3,000-seat auditorium.

Samaha was a member of multiple dance groups at Tech, including Contemporary Dance Ensemble, the event's host and organizer.

Colin Goddard, a Tech graduate who was wounded in the shootings, attended the dance performance after visiting Norris Hall for the first time since it was refurbished to house communal learning space and Tech's new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

Goddard, shot four times while in French class on the building's second floor two years ago, said he felt OK going back inside. He gave tours to friends he met at Northern Illinois University when he visited the campus in February for the anniversary of a shooting there.

He explained in some detail where he was sitting and what happened as he stood in the room, which no longer resembles the classroom of two years ago. He said he actually felt better after telling people his story and re-entering the building. With new lighting, carpeting, wood paneling and several other changes, the wing where the shooting occurred has been transformed. The university declared traditional classes will no longer be held in Norris.

The university canceled classes on April 16 for the second year in a row and announced earlier this year that it will not hold classes on that date again until 2012 -- when most students who were on campus in 2007 will have graduated.

But the university plans to always hold some kind of event to recognize those lost.

Goddard said the day's events were helpful this year, but he's thought a lot about whether he wants to return to campus for future anniversaries.

"I thought, 'Is this something I want to do on this day for the rest of my life?' I don't think so," he said. "But I mean, I'll never not reflect on this day. ... Right now, I'm glad I'm here."

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