In Blacksburg, a Solid Reminder of Lives Lost
Memorial Created From Hokie Stone Draws Thousands to Campus Dedication

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.

She had a student whose sister was shot four times, and Vance remembered how he came to class that following Monday, shirt tucked in, and politely asked if he could stand and address the class. " 'I know you have questions. My sister was in that room where so many were killed,' " Vance remembered him saying. "And for 10 minutes, no one spoke. And by the end of half an hour, no one was quiet."

Vance said she was glad to see the memorial was not hidden off to the side, "in a corner, so we wouldn't have to be sad."

"People are very afraid of grief and a devastation like this, but they needn't be," she said. "I think our problems will increase if we pretend we've moved on completely. . . . We're changed now, and it would be unwise to pretend it hasn't changed us."

University Landscape Architect Matthew N. Gart said the goal was to honor as much as possible the initial memorial. An early discussion to place the stones in alphabetical order gave way to preserving the original, random order.

"It came down to honoring the spirit of what the students originally did," Gart said. "We just especially embellished that original layout in a more permanent fashion."

That a 33rd stone -- one for Cho -- also sprouted in that original memorial came into the discussion as well, he said. Before construction was finished, a woman crawled under the fence, asked workers for a few moments and then started counting the stones, Gart said. She was upset there wasn't one more.

"There are still people who want 33," he said. "It really is a deep, spiritual issue for people."

Lang, 37, a man with sunburned biceps and a perpetual layer of dust on his boots, said he would have had a hard time cutting a 33rd stone.

"If someone does something like that, they don't deserve to be remembered or recognized," he said.

Lang missed Sunday's ceremony and regretted not seeing the culmination of two months of work. People have stopped him in grocery stores to ask if he was the one who made the stones. He shirks uncomfortably under their attention.

Preparing the stones was an emotional process, especially when it came down to sandblasting each name on the smooth, sloped top of each stone, he said.

"When you actually put the names on, sandblast them on, you remember," Lang said. "Every one you do makes you think about what happened."

At the end of the ceremony, each family was given the original stone from the temporary memorial. But because there were a few divorced parents, identical stones had to be made for eight of the victims. Lang cut those as well. He also shaped small, paperweight-size ones for family members.

Reema Samaha's family, of Centreville, received one. After Sunday's ceremony, when the field was mostly cleared, they lingered by the slain teenager's stone. Her mother, Mona Samaha, said she liked the purple and pink hues that streaked through it.

"She liked colors," Samaha said, adding nothing more.

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