Jocelyne Couture-Nowak

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak

Hometown: Montreal, Canada

Location: Norris Hall

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Profile: Before Jocelyne Couture-Nowak moved from rural Canada to Virginia, she wanted to be sure of one thing: that her family would be safe.

She checked out schools for her two daughters. She looked for a good neighborhood.

They moved to Virginia Tech around 2001 when her husband was hired as head of the horticulture department.

Her friends say she had several passions in life but the biggest were her children, her gardening and her Francophone heritage.

Couture-Nowak was killed in Norris Hall, where she was teaching the French she loved so much. She is now mourned by her two daughters and her husband, a skilled gardener.

Born in Montreal and raised in Nova Scotia as the eldest of five children, she met her Polish husband Jerzy Nowak in the small town of Truro, 100 miles north of Halifax. She taught French part-time at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, and her husband ran the horticulture department.

As an Acadian and a lover of the French language, she worried that her two daughters would lose their mother tongue as they grew older. She was taking a linguistic course at Nova Scotia Teachers College and realized how the English-dominated environment might affect her daughters.

"We had passionate discussions into the wee hours about education," said her teacher at the time, Heather Parker, who later became a close friend. "We had a dream of having our own school for our children."

So Couture-Nowak, Parker and a third mother, Nicole Bagnell, banded together in 1996 and fought to establish the area's first Francophone school.

Looking to build support, they went to preschools with pamphlets, said Bagnell, "then we divided up the phonebook looking for any names that sounded French."

After the school was established, she taught there as a substitute teacher and helped bring a French pre-school program to town as well.

"It was always about the children with her," Parker said. Like the time Couture-Nowak helped Parker build a flower bed: She had Parker watch where the children ran and built the bed around those pathways.

"She was very concerned about what her kids would see on TV, that it wasn't too much violence," Bagnell said.

At home in Truro and later in Blacksburg, Couture-Nowak's love of gardening produced an overflow of plants and flowers. Years later, family and friends in Nova Scotia still remember the abundance of floral sights and scents in her yard.

They also recalled her vibrant sense of life. "She was always swimming and cross-country skiing," said her aunt Suzanne Couture in French. "She was full of life, and she was dead-set against any kind of violence."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made special mention of Couture-Nowak in a speech in Ottawa this week. The agricultural college where she once taught flew flags at half-mast. And friends -- both in Virginia and in Truro -- talked about her legacy.

The agricultural college is planning a scholarship in her name. Virginia Tech is doing the same. And the école acadienne she founded in 1997 has grown from 36 students to 118. The school's first class of seniors graduated just last year.

"We used to take hikes in the woods," Parker said, "she touched and smelled and felt everything."

-- William Wan, The Washington Post


© 2007 The Washington Post Company