Springtime at Johns Hopkins University transforms the campus into an outdoor gallery of youth, a profusion of students moving from one intense period of their lives to the next.
But one senior, Sue Hubbard, has something more permanent, more painfully intense, on her mind: erecting a campus memorial to honor the boyfriend who will not be graduating with her next month, a young man murdered in the full bloom of his potential.
Rex Chao, 19, was a gifted student, a widely admired violinist, a political junkie whose glamorous internship with New York congresswoman Susan Molinari made him stand out among his classmates. But since he died two years ago, the memories of his murder have swallowed up the memories of his accomplishments.
"Every time someone on campus says Rex's name, it invokes a terrible, bad thing in people's minds," says Hubbard. "I thought that having a beautiful statue in his honor would mean people could see his name as something positive as well."
Her quest has been freighted by painful recollections.
Hubbard and Chao were a campus couple, sophomores drawn together through their love for classical music. They both played in the Johns Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, Chao the violin and Hubbard the flute.
One night in April 1996, as they were walking back to their dorm, they were stopped near the library by an estranged friend of Chao's. When Chao refused to talk with him, the Hopkins senior pulled out a .357 Magnum, shot Chao in the back of the head and shot him again as Hubbard stood by helplessly. The horrifying crime was unprecedented on the Hopkins campus.
While Hubbard left for the rest of the semester, counselors visited the dorms and set up special hours in the Homewood counseling center - a practice that has continued each year near the anniversary of the murder.
Chao's killer, Robert J. Harwood Jr. of Bradford, R.I., is serving a 35-year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. But shock and anger have continued to afflict the Hopkins community, just as they have torn apart the lives of Rex Chao's family and friends.
Sue Hubbard decided to do something about it. Rex deserved a memorial that would stand for the energy and promise of his brief life, she decided.
He deserved something that was more evocative, more Rex, than a plaque or a tree or a scholarship.
Maybe a statue ... a statue of a musician ... a bronze statue of a young musician lost in the world of his violin.
Rex Chao grew up in Long Island, the only child of an investment broker and a social worker, both first-generation Chinese immigrants. Devoted to music since his boyhood, Chao spent summers at music camps, refining his skills on the violin. At Hopkins, he continued his musical studies, performing in a student orchestra at the Peabody Conservatory as well as at Homewood.
"Rex was pretty amazing on violin," Hubbard says, "but he would never have become a musician full-time because he was far too interested in politics."
He was a 19-year-old student with a bust of Franz Schubert on his desk and a portrait of Ronald Reagan on the wall. While many of his friends were musicians, others sought him for his political acumen, his leadership of student Republicans and his insatiable appetite for CNN and political lore.
"If you told Rex where you were from, he'd know your congressional representative, what happened in the last three or four elections in that district, even the weird independent people who won," says Chao's friend and Republican soul-mate, Amy Claire Brusch. "You could say, 'Talk about the transportation bill,' and he would go off and know everything about it."
Chao could also talk for hours on the phone to his friends, friends to whom he was devoted and generous. When one of his suite mates had to travel out of town, for instance, Chao volunteered to go to his music classes and take notes.
Relaxed in some areas of his life - a tidy college room was never Chao's thing - the sophomore was clear about his priorities. While he was playing the violin, nothing else existed. While he was interning for Molinari, he would work until the last train left for Baltimore.
Rex Chao showed a depth of commitment to the things he loved. Sue Hubbard understands that: It's the kind you need to raise $60,000 for a statue despite exams, internships, job interviews and unexpected dilemmas.
It was the first time the college had been approached by students seeking approval for a statue to honor a dead classmate. Hubbard had joined with classmate Brusch to create the Rex Chao Memorial Committee: six seniors dedicated to raising support for the statue.
When they approached Larry Benedict, dean of student affairs at Hopkins' Homewood campus, he found the idea creative, and gave his blessing. Hubbard went on to gather support from university President William Brody, fellow classmates, college trustees and architects of the building where the statue will stand eventually.