In Blacksburg, a Solid Reminder of Lives Lost

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va., Aug. 19 -- Tudor Lang picked the strongest stones. Big slabs of gray-colored rock that he could saw and chisel down to the planned foot-wide squares. A weaker stone might break in the wrong place, might crumble. These had to be solid, Lang said.

A stonemason at the Virginia Tech quarry, Lang had the task of cutting the 32 stones that were unveiled Sunday as the official memorial for the victims killed on campus April 16. For two months, the stones took shape at a facility tucked away at the end of a gravel road just off campus, but Sunday, in a noon dedication ceremony, they were given a permanent, centrally located home on the Drillfield in front of Burruss Hall. There the stones would remain, forming a perpetual half-moon shape.

An estimated 10,000 people attended the dedication, and by the time the national anthem started playing, a sea of maroon and orange flooded the field. Many were students, but others had driven hours to attend.

A few people fell ill under the searing heat, amplified by the crowd, but most stood for the entirety of the ceremony, from the presentation of colors to the tolling of a bell 32 times. On April 16, student Seung Hui Cho fatally shot that many people before turning the gun on himself.

"On April 16, 2007, the peace that comes with learning was shattered on our campus, and the academy forever changed. As a result of the horrific tragedy that day, our hearts have been crushed, our spirits shaken and our minds and bodies left weary," said Zenobia L. Hikes, vice president for student affairs. "None of us anywhere in the world were mentally prepared for a tragedy of this magnitude in higher education."

Hikes said she hoped the memorial would serve as a reminder for years to come of the souls lost, along with their unrealized potential.

Stephanie Harvey lost a cousin, Matthew Gwaltney, in the shooting, and her family has journeyed from Hillsville, Va., to the site every weekend since. Sunday, she sat with her husband in folding chairs that had "Hokie" written on the backs.

"We just feel drawn here," Harvey said. "There's a lot of love and peace here. I think I come to feel that."

The memorial stones are made from rock called Hokie stone, a local limestone used in many campus buildings. "It is most fitting that this tribute is of Hokie stones, stones that have been strengthened by the pressure they have withstood for eons," Va. Tech President Charles W. Steger said. "These simple limestone rocks found only in the Appalachian Mountains have been part of a symbol of Virginia Tech for more than a century."

The location was chosen long before any plans for the final stones were drawn.

The night of the shooting, Hokies United, a student organization, placed 32 stones on the Drillfield, planting the seed for what bloomed into a makeshift memorial of candles, letters, flowers and stuffed animals. In the days and months that followed, it became the spot where students and others in the campus community came to talk to lost friends, leave cards and soak in the magnitude of how many lives were gone.

"I'm still raw," Jane Vance, who teaches a course in the creative process at Va. Tech, said as she stood there Sunday.

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