Somber commencement

Families of 27 victims at Va. Tech accept degrees for them

May 12, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- From a distance, they looked like any other family members at a graduation. Mothers in crisp dresses clasped their husbands' hands. Younger children walked awkwardly behind them.

But these families were different. They were not accompanied by a young adult wearing a cap and gown. They came to Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium yesterday in the names of their dead children.

Among the nearly 4,800 degrees awarded at yesterday's commencement ceremonies were 27 given posthumously to students who were killed during a shooting rampage April 16.

"While we are saddened by the loss of those who cannot be here today, I believe that they would want this ceremony to commemorate both the tragedy of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow," said keynote speaker Gen. John Philip Abizaid, the former commander of the United States Central Command. "I believe that they look down upon this gathering with dignified pride."

Nearly 3,600 undergraduate degrees were conferred last night, hours after almost 1,200 master's and doctoral degrees were awarded in a separate ceremony. Today, undergraduate diplomas will be awarded at smaller ceremonies for various academic disciplines.

Last night, graduates paraded into the stadium, craning their necks to find friends and family members in the stands. Some waved excitedly when their faces appeared on giant TV screens. But reminders of the killings, which happened not quite four weeks ago, were inescapable.

Virginia state troopers stood in the stairwells, scanning the crowd, estimated at 30,000. Security was at a high level to allay the fears of parents and students, university spokesman Mark Owczarski said.

About 28,000 students are enrolled at Virginia Tech, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the usually quiet college town of Blacksburg. The town's peace was shattered April 16, when senior Seung-Hui Cho opened fire in a dormitory and academic hall, killing 32 people before taking his own life. The university did not award a posthumous degree to him.

Last night, university President Charles W. Steger spoke of the "innocent and beautiful young minds" of the student victims and the dedication of the professors who died.

"Our hearts have been broken, but our spirit - that Hokie spirit, which has captured the admiration of millions - remains strong, and our resolve is strong," he said.

Many graduates and their families described yesterday as bittersweet. They took time between lunches and parties to tour memorial stones that have been laid for the slain students and teachers.

A constant stream of families, many wearing T-shirts that said, "Hokies United," shuffled slowly around the memorials. Often the only sounds that could be heard were quiet sobs, the slap of flip-flops on students' feet, and students explaining in low voices that this stone honored a neighbor or a sorority sister.

Maggie Heitz, 22, a senior accounting major from Mount Washington, visited the stones with her mother, brother and grandfather.

"We're all trying to embrace graduation while dealing with [the tragedy] at the same time," she said. Heitz said she believes that she and her classmates will only grasp the magnitude of what they have experienced once they have left Blacksburg.

In the Squires Student Center, volunteers unloaded boxes of cards and letters from around the world. Thousands of paper cranes poked out of a plastic container. Tables were heaped with bracelets, stuffed animals, crocheted angels and crosses made from tongue depressors. "The condolences haven't slowed down," Owczarski said.

Lindsay Hughes, 23, who graduated with a degree in biology, brought her extended family to the memorial sites soon after they flew in from Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday night.

"Our daughter is going to graduate, and everyone else isn't that lucky," said Diane Hughes, 57, choking back tears before the ceremony.

At the graduate school commencement, family members of victims walked onto the stage to accept posthumous diplomas. The parents of Jeremy Herbstritt, a master's student in civil engineering, held hands as they walked off the stage, followed by their other children.

For the nighttime ceremony, the victims' relatives sat in folding chairs on the field. The graduates, with decorated mortarboards and orange and maroon collars, sat behind them.

As a band played somber music, Steger, the university president, embraced or shook hands with each of the family members as images of the dead students were projected on a screen.

In those moments, the students whose lives ended on a chilly Monday morning became official graduates of Virginia Tech.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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