Their graves will be side by side in the historic Virginia cemetery where so many members of their family are buried.
Erin Peterson, just 18, gunned down in her French class at Virginia Tech almost nine years ago.
And now, her father, Grafton Peterson, 57, who died last week of a heart attack. Might as well have been heartbreak.
Grafton never got over Erin’s death, and neither did his wife, Celeste. Erin was “their compass,” Celeste said recently as she prepared to bury her husband next to her daughter at Rock Hill Cemetery in rural Loudoun County on Saturday.
Grafton had been through a lot, suffering in private decades ago after Carla, his daughter from another relationship, died of cancer when she was 8. But his second devastation was much more public: He will be remembered as the father who refused to settle with Virginia Tech and the state after Erin was killed on April 16, 2007, by fellow student Seung Hui Cho in one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
“There was never a moment when he would give up,” Celeste recalled. “He was never going to back down. It’s the way we were raised.”
The Petersons and the parents of Julie Pryde, another slain student, used a wrongful-death lawsuit to push for answers from Virginia Tech and state officials. They contended that the university should have issued a campuswide alert after two students were found shot to death in a dormitory, the prelude to Cho’s massacre.
The Petersons and the Prydes won a victory in Montgomery County, Va., Circuit Court when jurors found that the state was negligent. The two families were awarded $4 million each, an amount later reduced to $100,000 each. But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the verdict, ruling that “there was no duty for the commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts” by Cho after he shot two students in the dorm.
A few hours later, Cho chained shut doors at Norris Hall and murdered 30 more people before killing himself.
After Erin was killed, Grafton and Celeste were sick with grief.
“We didn’t know how to deal with the floodwaters coming up around us. We were grabbing at branches,” Celeste said. “We asked: ‘Should we kill each other? Should we do some kind of suicide pact?’ ”
Erin was Grafton and Celeste’s only child, captain of her basketball team, inspiration to other students. As a young girl, Erin tried to cheer up an adult fighting cancer. “Erin said, ‘You know why I like giraffes? Because they’re always looking up.’ ”
So instead of giving up, her parents looked up.
They fought for her in court. They talked about Erin every single day, right up to the day Grafton died.
In the years after the massacre, Grafton threw himself into his work as a construction superintendent to keep his mind busy. The last thing he helped build was a Walmart in the District.
Meanwhile, his health was deteriorating. When he was laid off recently, Celeste said, it was a blessing.
“He was doing so much better,” Celeste said. “His health was improving. He was feeling really, really good. He was actually sounding optimistic.”
They were getting ready for the annual gospel benefit for the Erin Peterson Fund at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Centreville, Va., on April 16, the ninth anniversary of her death. Grafton was planning a golf fundraiser in September. A group of boys they mentor through the fund were going see “Othello.”
And then, on March 18, the heart attack. And the end.
Grafton will join his daughter at Rock Hill Cemetery, a place lovingly tended by his 85-year-old father, Vernon Peterson. Since 1955, Vernon has been the curator of his family’s story and the history of dozens of other African American families buried in the tucked-away cemetery.
Much of Vernon’s family is buried here: his mom and dad, an uncle, aunts, nieces and nephews, siblings.
On Wednesday, the late-afternoon sun wasn’t strong enough to warm the early spring chill as Vernon Peterson looked down into a newly dug open grave, making sure everything was ready for Grafton’s interment.
“I’m going to put my son in there Saturday,” he said. “Didn’t think I’d be burying him. But he always said he wanted to be by his girls.”
As he grieves for Grafton, he wonders what will become of Rock Hill. He has long struggled to find a volunteer caretaker to take over from him.
Grafton never said he’d be willing. But his father still harbored hope that his son might change his mind. Maybe it would happen when he died and was buried beneath the headstone he’s already had engraved.
On Saturday, into the earth beside Erin, Vernon Peterson will bury that last piece of hope as well.
To buy tickets to the April 16 memorial gospel celebration or contribute to the benefit event, go to erinpetersonfund.org.