BLACKSBURG, Va. – It's a dignified memorial, simple and sad, 32 stones in a semi-circle set up on a hill overlooking Drillfield here in the center of campus.
Just steps away is Norris Hall, one of the signature limestone buildings that make up Virginia Tech's beautiful campus, and the place where 30 of these names were gunned down on April 16 in the worst mass murder in modern American history.
This promises to be a solemn and serious place Saturday when tens of thousands of football fans return home to, yes, watch the Hokies win, but mostly to prove that this school and its remarkable spirit can't be silenced by even the sickest of events.
On Saturday, students and parents, alumni and visitors, will gather around and watch the names pop off those stones.
There's Lauren Ashley McCain, a freshman from Hampton, Va., killed while learning elementary German. Brian Bluhm and Juan Ramon Ortiz-Ortiz, from Iowa and Puerto Rico respectively, murdered sitting next to each other in the front row of an advanced hydrology class. Emily Hilscher, a freshman shot in her dorm room. Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old engineering professor who survived the Jewish Holocaust only to give his life blocking his classroom door so his students could escape out of a window.
On and on the names go. Each one representing not only a life lost but family and friends forever dealing with immeasurable grief.
Each is part of a day that shook this school like no other, made everyone initially question everything. How? Why? Who? Questions that ran so deep the center stone of the memorial tried to make some kind of sense of it with a hopeful rally cry.
"We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech."
Virginia Tech is prevailing. The proof is not just what will happen Saturday, when on national television the mountain air will be shared by moments of silence, flapping flags and streaming tears.
The proof is really hot and hazy afternoons such as Thursday, when students poured out of classrooms and cut through campus. They pushed past this haunting memorial, past the Norris Hall bushes with branches broken when terrified kids jumped into them from the third floor, and past West Ambler Johnston Hall where the massacre started early that morning.
This remains sacred ground, but it is also a live, vibrant place. The students racing by are mindful and respectful but they are also college kids. They need to get to class, get back to the volleyball game behind the dorm or get a coffee with a friend.
Thursday, the main quad of this campus looked like any other. Frisbees flew, soccer balls were kicked and professors strode with briefcases and purpose. Some students rode bikes. Some waited for the bus. Others tried to recruit freshmen to their organizations, from the crew team to the car club.
This was an American college in full force, a new year, a new day, refusing to be stopped or silenced.
"Our university is strong," school president Charles Steger said. "We have tremendous pride in who we are. There is an indomitable Hokie Spirit."
Across campus, in a tense press conference, Steger was battling off a call for his job as he went through a 300-page task force report on how his school handled the before, during and after of its most horrific day. It was tough answers to difficult questions, both of which will continue.
He tried his best while trying to remain as positive as possible, trying to show that Seung-Hui Cho wouldn't define this place going forward. Of course, the fact Cho still had 200 rounds of ammo when, surrounded by police, he finally used one on himself says this could have been even worse, that the memorial could have been even bigger, sadder and even more awful.
Such sober realizations are why Virginia Tech is the last place that would put too much emphasis on a football game. Perspective is everywhere now. To the names on the stones and those who loved them, the game against East Carolina means nothing, of course.
Except in meaning nothing, it will mean something, too. It is the same as those Frisbees flying in the field, those kids laughing across the way. Sometimes nothing is everything in college, the best part of it all.
"I see an excitement and commitment and love of this place that has always been prevalent, but I think the tragedy of April 16 has strengthened that even more," Steger said.
Yes, it's just football, but "that kind of collective experience is a very powerful and emotional force in bringing people together," he said. "We have a much deeper, emotional and psychological task ahead of us. And this helps."
At noon Saturday, after the ceremonies and emotion around campus, inside Lane Stadium there will be tackling and passing and, most of all, cheering. At first that noise will be because of what happened in April, but eventually it will be just because of what happened that very instant on that very field.
For a school rocked to its core four-and-a-half months ago, this show of strength will, even just for a moment, mark another return to normalcy.
And as the roar of the crowd rushes out of the stadium, across campus and past this sad circle of stones, it will speak forever in the hills of Blacksburg that, indeed, they will prevail, they are Virginia Tech.
- Virginia Tech
- Norris Hall