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Emotions Spill Out On Campus

April 17, 2008

By Carlos Santos

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Some students wrote letters to the families of the victims. Some meditated or prayed at the War Memorial Chapel. Some helped plant trees of remembrance.

The events offered to help the minds and souls of Virginia Tech students attempting to make sense of the anniversary of the awful massacre were broad and deep and apparently well-appreciated.

"It helped a lot more than I expected it to," said Jay Williams, a Virginia Tech senior who listened to Tech President Charles W. Steger and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in the morning and then helped plant two oak saplings to memorialize two victims in an afternoon ceremony in front of Hillcrest Hall.

"I really, really feel it helped. I don't think people expected all this to bring it back like it did," he said.

The memory of the massacre was rekindled in sharp detail by exhibits at the student center and Holtzman Alumni Center. Hundreds of students waited in line for hours to see the student-center exhibit that included photographs taken on the day of the killings as well as some of the 87,000 items of condolence Tech received from all over the world.

Those items included, for example, an Indian blanket; sketches of the faces of all 32 victims; and a letter from a Richmond-area woman whose young son had started selling lemonade to help the school. He had raised, and enclosed, $400.

Other correspondence was equally poignant. "My heart fell to my feet" on hearing of the shootings, a Michigan woman wrote, enclosing an afghan to help comfort the school. Another woman sent leg warmers though "knowing there's nothing I can do to make up for the terrible thing that has happened."

"It showed me how the whole country helped our school," Matt Stephens, a freshman from Pennsylvania, said of the exhibits. "It showed how far we've come in one year. I didn't know any of the victims. But it still affected me. It still changes you and affects you the rest of your life."

Students could pray at the Jamestown Room at the Squires Student Center or at the open sanctuary at Blacksburg Baptist Church, where counselors were available.

There was group singing and dancing in the school's Commonwealth Ballroom and poetry readings and songs sung at the Dietrick Dining Center. Many students met in small groups on the Drillfield, where they talked, ate and played.

Emily Keown, who teaches art at Tech, was helping students express their thoughts and concerns with paint and pen.

Lining a table in the school's Old Dominion ballroom were boxes with the names of victims into which students and others could place a sealed letter. The boxes will be sealed and placed at the Drillfield memorial before being given to the families of the victims.

"They're done in the tradition of amulets," Keown said. "As a token of love."

Students also could paint stones — which have become freighted with symbolism after stones anonymously appeared on the Drillfield as a memorial the evening of the killings — or kites.

"We're moving forward, but we're not forgetting," Keown said. "We're leaving a message for our community."

The oak plantings, to remember honor students Austin Michelle Cloyd and Maxine Shelly Turner, were attended by about 100 people. The ceremony, which included friends and family shoveling dirt to help plant the trees, was done wordlessly under a bright blue sky and to gentle music.

Bryan Cloyd, Austin's father, smiled throughout the event, as did his wife, Renee, who also helped shovel soil around the saplings. He pointed to a massive oak whose trunk base was 5 feet in diameter.

"I hope the trees we're planting today will provide shade for students to read under," said Cloyd, whose daughter loved to read. "I'm told these oaks will live over 200 years."

Contact Carlos Santos at (434) 295-9542 or csantos@timesdispatch.com.