Slain Child Alters Lives After Va. Tech

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

The waning days of summer and the crisp promise of fall have a bittersweet feel this year for Peter Read, the father of Virginia Tech shooting victim Mary Read, a 2006 Annandale High School graduate.

His daughter's friends, who had been frequent visitors at the Read home in Annandale over the course of the summer, left a profusion of flowers on her grave at the cemetery and drifted away -- most of them headed back to school.

Read and his family traveled to Blacksburg for Virginia Tech's first football game of the year and the moving tribute to the 32 victims of the shooting massacre. But watching the orange balloons take flight just as the football team took the field to thunderous cheers was a difficult moment for Read's wife, Cathy, who was Mary's stepmother.

"It was a hard transition," she said. "All of a sudden, life's carrying on and Mary's not at the football game."

There was also the release Aug. 30 of the governor's panel report on the events leading up to the shootings. The report found fault in how the university had handled mental problems exhibited by Seung Hui Cho, the gunman, and the university's actions the day of the April 16 massacre.

Although Read said he continues to believe that the panel should have held specific officials at the school accountable, his greatest fear is that the continued quest to chronicle Cho's troubled history and the system's breakdowns will overshadow his daughter's memory, as well as that of other victims.

"The last couple of weeks have been hard for all the families, and you don't have to guess why," said Read, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "We've all expended a lot of emotional energy on that."

To counter that emotion, Read and his family have tried to immerse themselves in planning three memorials in his daughter's honor.

First, they are planning for a $100,000 endowment for scholarships at Virginia Tech for students majoring in interdisciplinary studies, like Mary, the 19-year-old who dreamed of becoming an elementary school teacher. Her parents also plan to continue the second year of another scholarship -- about $2,000 -- for an Annandale High School student in the band, where she had played clarinet.

And band members hope to plant a wildflower meadow in Mary's honor on a median along Braddock Road, although permission hasn't been granted.

"I just want people to realize, not just with Mary, but all the victims, that multiple efforts are going on to memorialize them and remember them and carry forward what's important to them," Read said.

At other Fairfax schools, students came back to class with lingering reminders of the other students lost in the tragedy.

At Westfield High School in Chantilly, the families of victims Erin Peterson and Reema Samaha have established foundations that distributed several scholarships at the end of last year, according to Fairfax County schools spokesman Paul Regnier. The "spirit rocks" by the student parking lot that friends had painted remain a tribute to the girls, as is a mural for the Class of 2007, Regnier said.

At West Springfield, the alumni association is raising funds for a sign to designate the track and stadium scoreboard in honor of the other local victim: Leslie Sherman, a Tech sophomore who, as a high school student, ran on the cross-country and track teams and played basketball at that school. The county School Board must approve the naming of the track.

For the Reads, the remainder of the year will be counted by poignant milestones: the first Thanksgiving without their daughter, the first Christmas holiday. They recently returned from a long-planned family vacation with Mary's four siblings to Keuka Lake in Upstate New York. Her absence, they said, was keenly felt. She was going to learn how to water-ski this summer, her stepmother noted.

Such memories, such thoughts, Peter Read said, "they are always scattered through every day, little moments."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company