One Week Later, Blacksburg Begins to Move On

Aidan Riley, 3, cheers for the Hokies during Friday's baseball game against Miami. Virginia Tech dropped all three games in the series, but some say the victory is in moving forward. Behind Aidan are his parents, Chris Riley, who teaches volleyball at Tech, and Tara Riley.
Aidan Riley, 3, cheers for the Hokies during Friday's baseball game against Miami. Virginia Tech dropped all three games in the series, but some say the victory is in moving forward. Behind Aidan are his parents, Chris Riley, who teaches volleyball at Tech, and Tara Riley. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Virginia Tech sophomores Kelly Doyle and Katelyn Phelts decided the time had come to go fishing. So they grabbed their dogs, put some corn on a hook and headed to the Duck Pond on campus for an afternoon outside.

Since the mass shooting at Virginia Tech a week ago today, the two animal science majors mostly had stayed home, hanging out in their apartments with friends, going online, watching movies and just being sad together.

"You can only take so much grief," said Doyle, 20, her freckled shoulders sunburned from the afternoon, during which she hooked three catfish. "People are ready to get out of their houses, do stuff and be happy now."

Afterward, the friends headed to the Drillfield, the grassy area at the heart of campus where loudspeakers blared oldies music and the restaurants of Blacksburg laid out a free spread. "Nothing can keep a college kid away from free food," said Phelts, 19.

Maybe it's because the first horrific week has passed. Maybe it's because spring has finally come to this rural corner of southwestern Virginia. Whatever the reason, the pall of gloom is unmistakably lifting from the Virginia Tech campus and its surroundings.

"People are ready to get outside and live their lives again," said Michael Hubbard, a vendor selling pasture-raised meat at the Blacksburg Farmers Market, which went ahead with its grand opening this weekend, although it canceled the bluegrass band, face-painting and magician. "It's like after 9/11. At some point, you have to move on."

The campus was filled all weekend with orange- and maroon-clad alumni, visitors and students from nearby universities, everyone feeling the need to head to the remote college town of Blacksburg. Freshman Saylor Allf said it felt like a football weekend "with people everywhere."

Classes resume today after being suspended last week because of the tragedy, with students deciding for themselves whether to finish the year. The university said Thursday that students who choose not to return to classes because of the trauma of the shooting will get credit for their courses with the grades they had earned so far.

Joselyn Takacs, a Virginia Tech sophomore who lost her French professor during the shooting and whose college radio station colleague Kevin Stern suffered two gunshot wounds, said she knows Prof. Jocelyne Couture-Nowak would want her to get on with her life.

"She had such a joie de vivre," said Takacs, who was helping a vendor sell his pansies and homemade jams and jellies at the market. "She would want us to look at her life as a celebration and not just dwell on the tragedy.

"I can just hear her telling us that," said Takacs, her eyes welling up at the thought. "I've been working with the plants, and it's made me feel better, looking at new life. It's getting better day by day."

Her boss, Ronald Holdren, wearing a Virginia Tech T-shirt, said he picked the most colorful flowers he could find on his farm to bring to the market to try to make people smile.

Cindy Cook, a blacksmith who sells iron hooks, candlesticks and towel racks, said business was so brisk that she needed to get back to her workshop to replenish what she had sold. "It was so good to see everybody again," she said. "This is a small community. We've missed each other. Nobody needed to say anything. We just hugged."

Moving on doesn't mean forgetting, though. And that was evident at Blacksburg's Ancient Art tattoo parlor.

Tracy Reed, who works at one of the university dining halls and lives in nearby Christiansburg, was one of 40 people who have come to the shop in the past few days to get a Virginia Tech remembrance tattoo.

Reed opted for a $100 tattoo with a VT ribbon above the date of the massacre, April 16, 2007, a present from her soon-to-be sister-in-law Amanda Woolwine, who got a remembrance tattoo on her hip the day before.

"I work with a lot of students," said Reed, 29, hunched face-down on a chair while tattoo artist Richie Richardson inscribed the tragedy on her lower back. "It has taken a toll on me, too." She said she got the tattoo because "I always want to remember."

Richardson said the remembrance tattoos were the only ones anyone was asking for this past week. He said most customers wanted either the Hokie bird or an orange and maroon VT ribbon over the date of the massacre and under the word "remember."

Salem Copty and Andy Ferris came with three friends from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to spend the afternoon relaxing and sharing a hookah pipe at the Shesha Cafe and Hookah Lounge.

"We wanted to see what it was like here," said Copty, a freshman from Jerusalem, blowing smoke rings into the air. "We just wanted to come."

At the community picnic on the Drillfield, footballs flew in the air, soccer balls grazed the grass, Frisbees soared overhead and hundreds of people spread out blankets or stretched out on the grass, turning their faces toward the evening sun.

"Today was the first normal day we've had," said Martin Rogers, a Blacksburg resident who sat listening to the music and greeting people he knew along with his wife and 12-year-old daughter, who was antsy to get back to school after a week of canceled classes. "I worked in the yard."

But for some, the tragedy was still too raw.

One college couple stood in the long line for food holding hands and talking. All of a sudden, the young woman pulled away from her partner and stormed off, saying, "You don't understand. All I want to do is cry."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company