Monday, April 5, 2010

Come Home, Hokie

The 32 stones encircling the reviewing stand in front of Burruss Hall forms a memorial dedicated to the 32 students killed on the campus of Virginia Tech, April 13, 2007.


Once again, time for the Boston Marathon rolls around - the second Monday in April, Patriots Day in Massachusetts. It's unfair to that storied race, but each year its arrival triggers a different kind of memory for me - the murder of 32 students and scholars at Virginia Tech. Both events occurred on the same day in 2007 - Monday, April 13.

Today, a semi-circle of 32 "Hokie stones" fronts the stone reviewing stand in front of Burruss Hall. Buses stop there and tourists walk around taking pictures of the memorial, just as I have done.

When tragedy brushes close you pause, or stop, or maybe even make a turnaround. But then you go on. Because that's what humans do. You go on, but you don't forget. Going on is required. Forgetting is not part of the deal.

So I go on, but I remember. This was my tribute to the fallen Hokies. This is my memory. From the Herald-Citizen, April 29, 2007.


When the gunman carried out the bloody massacre at Virginia Tech Monday last week, his shots pierced the hearts of Hokies everywhere. A scattering of that mourning community lives in Cookeville.

But you don’t have to be connected to that university to appreciate the enormity of the tragedy. The gunman snuffed out 32 of the best and brightest, and injured several more. Scan the list. You only have to look at photographs of their engaging smiles, reaching out from a time now snatched away, and read their biographies to see that these fallen were extraordinary. Their talent and accomplishments humble me.

Here is one: in high school he ran track, played football and basketball, played the trombone and was valedictorian. To mention even one is to unfairly omit the others. Nonetheless, here is another example: he was scheduled to graduate in a few days with a triple major and a 4.0 grade average. A leader in the VT band, he spent his summers working at a camp for special-needs kids.

The list of gifted victims stretches out, including also a number of staff members. Some, like the two professors from the Engineering Science and Mechanics Department, had drawn international attention for their research.

All snuffed out.

The loss! Our country can’t replace such gifted persons. Their university can’t replace them. And now their stricken families and friends can only mourn their passing. It is a loss the whole nation feels. One of the e-mails pouring in to VT said simply, “We are all Hokies now.”

I myself dug out an old hat I hadn’t worn in a few years. I wasn’t sure I still had it. But there it was, mashed flat at the bottom of the stack. I smoothed it out and pulled it on, a white hat with the familiar maroon “VT” on the front. It’s the hat I wore when I first ran the Boston Marathon, a race, incidentally, held again, for the 111th time, this Monday last, the very day of the tragedy at VT. Once more, I wear that hat.

We are all Hokies now.

That Monday morning I had just finished my last track workout before the Country Music Marathon, the hardest one I attempt, running nine long intervals at 5k pace. I walked into the snack area and the TV was on. It showed a squad car and police running with drawn weapons. A shooting had happened. This time it was at Virginia Tech.

“That’s where I went to school!” I said to the only person present, a young woman sitting at a table watching. Then I left. It is a sad measure of how familiar such scenes have become that I don’t even remember if the TV reported one or two dead.
Just another day in America.

When I got home, I decided to check the story again, and switched on the TV. I watched incredulously. The fatalities climbed past 20, heading toward the eventual total of 33, the number we all now know.

A shaky video a student made with his cell phone showed Norris Hall while the shots rang out. It showed the corner windows on the second floor that belong to the office I occupied when I was a professor there. The shots were coming from the classrooms a few steps from it. I watched in disbelief.

Most of the slaughter took place in those second-floor classrooms. I knew the rooms so well. I had both taken and taught classes in them, taking graduate courses toward a Ph.D. while teaching undergraduate engineering classes. Eventually I earned the degree, accepted the professorship and moved from my graduate student cubicle to that corner office.

The student’s video yanked me across the misty stretches, back to that long ago time and place, back in spirit to Norris Hall—now become a scene of unfolding horror. The shots rang out time and again. I sat in my study sobbing.

Altogether I’d lived out three and a half intense years in that building, afraid I’d never master the arcane mathematics of continuum mechanics, pursuing what seemed at times impossible dreams - dreams no different from those snuffed out with each student cut down. Madness honors no dream.

Burruss Hall, the main administration building, sets adjacent to Norris Hall. In front of Burruss a stone reviewing stand looks out over the drill field. On Sundays when the campus was quiet, I’d take my son to that place. He was old enough to be in grade school then. We’d launch our rubber powered model plane out over the field. The little model sailed across an expansive view of sunshine and grass.

And peace. The timeless stone buildings stood silent guard, speaking not at all about the horror fated to unfold there. Spirits of the fallen fill that space today, buoyed by the defiant cry “Let’s go Hokies!”

One day the peace will return.


  1. I will remember that day forever. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  2. You are right, we are all "Hokies" now.