In Tragedy’s Shadow

Blacks­burg Con­fronts a Harsh Re­al­ity: Its New Sta­tus as a Metaphor on the Map

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Neely Tucker

BLACKS­BURG, Va. — Big cities, big places, they don’t worry like this. Shoot­ing sprees, mass death — they don’t be­come linked in the na­tional con­scious­ness to their mo­ment of suf­fer­ing. Small towns, lit­tle-known places, they of­ten do. It’s not fair, but it’s still the way it is.

Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City, even Pearl Har­bor. Tragedy tends to stick.

John Rowan, pro­pri­etor, Ren­dezvous Tat­toos, Main Street, Blacks­burg, Amer­ica: “This is the last place in the world where you’d ex­pect some­thing like this to hap­pen, and here we set a record for it, the worst shoot­ing in the coun­try.” You want to know sur­real? The Univer­sity of Mi­ami base­ball team came to play a se­ries against Vir­ginia Tech on cam­pus this week­end. It was the first reg­u­lar cam­pus event since 32 stu­dents were shot to death by a fel­low class­mate. The Hur­ri­canes were plan­ning to bring an ex­tra cop to Blacks­burg so they’d feel safe. Read the above sen­tence again. This is a joke, right? A town of 40,000, more than half of them col­lege stu­dents, a rural pocket of off-the-in­ter­state Amer­ica, a town with zero mur­ders in the pre­vi­ous year, a

place where the crime re­port for the year reads 22 bur­glar­ies, seven sex of­fenses, six weapons vi­o­la­tions, 194 liquor law vi­o­la­tions — and Mi­ami thinks this place is rough?

This is what Blacks­burg is be­gin­ning to con­front. Re­al­ity vs. the mo­men­tary na­tional im­age.

USA To­day head­line: “Prospec­tive Stu­dents, Their Par­ents, Might Re­con­sider Their School Choice.” The Akron Bea­con Jour­nal: “Vir­ginia Tech went from a well-re­garded pub­lic school to a name ut­tered in hor­ror.” End­less television and In­ter­net pic­tures of Se­ung Hui Cho with a gun point­ing dead at the cam­era, the Amer­i­can fas­ci­na­tion with death and guns and mur­der, an­other grisly icon, Char­lie Man­son’s gaze, John Wayne Gacy’s clown cos­tume, Ted Bundy’s smile.

Word as­so­ci­a­tion: I say, the Univer­sity of Florida, in Gainesville, the Ga­tors. You say . . . Ta dum, ta dum. You say, na­tional cham­pi­ons, right — foot­ball, bas­ket­ball?

Did any­body say Danny Harold Rolling?

He was a se­rial killer who, in Au­gust 1990, broke into three apart­ments in Gainesville and killed five col­lege stu­dents. Rolling killed all of his vic­tims with a hunt­ing knife, sex­u­ally as­saulted most of them, de­cap­i­tated one stu­dent and left her head on a shelf. It was huge news at the time.

The slay­ings were “by far the most hor­rific thing that had hap­pened in Gainesville and in the Univer­sity of Florida com­mu­nity,” lo­cal pros­e­cu­tor Bill Cer­vone told wire ser­vices when Rolling was ex­e­cuted last year.

Gainesville, like Blacks­burg, is small-town Amer­ica. Like Ann Ar­bor, Tuscaloosa, Colum­bus, Col­lege Sta­tion, it is in­her­ently en­twined with the lo­cal univer­sity. Gainesville didn’t be­come in­sep­a­ra­bly linked with a killer who once tor­mented the peo­ple there.

That Hokie pride thing you’ve heard about?

It’s real, it mat­ters, and maybe it’s what will move Vir­ginia Tech from be­ing mo­men­tar­ily syn­ony­mous with mass mur­der to just a small town where some­thing very bad once hap­pened.

As a pub­lic ser­vice, we hereby pause to ex­plain the mean­ing of the word “Hokie.”

It doesn’t mean any­thing. It’s an old Ap­palachian ex­cla­ma­tion, like “rah,” or “hur­ray.”

The school be­gan life in 1872 as Vir­ginia Agri­cul­tural and Me­chan­i­cal Col­lege, and the state later added Polytech­nic In­sti­tute to that ti­tle, which be­came so long that ev­ery­one just called it “VPI.”

In 1896, a com­pe­ti­tion was held for a new school cheer. The win­ning en­try: Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy. Techs, Techs, V.P.I. Sola-Rex, Sola-Rah. Poly­techs - Vir-gin-ia. Rae, Ri, V.P.I.

A few years later, a coach said his foot­ball team gob­bled their chow, which in leg­end led to the nick­name “Gob­blers,” which led to a guy who trained a turkey to gob­ble on com­mand and to pull him around the foot­ball sta­dium in a cart. There is no ex­plain­ing this. You just have to be from the coun­try to know that a trained turkey, col­lege foot­ball and bel­low­ing fans is com­bustible ge­nius.

Buried out here in the back end of Vir­ginia, an in­tense if not prickly pride was born. Tech, Moo U — with the vet­eri­nary school, the agengi­neer­ing ma­jors — was al­ways the poorer cousin to the lit­er­a­ture and clas­sics ma­jors over at the Uni- ver­sity of Vir­ginia in Charlottesville, which didn’t even use live­stock for the school mas­cot.

From the Fiske Guide to Col­leges, as quoted in the Los An­ge­les Times last week:

“The an­nual ‘big game’ pits the back­woodsy Hok­ies against the aris­to­cratic, snobby Cav­a­liers from the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.”

To this day, those tra­di­tions per­sist, with Tech al­ways try­ing to make up ground to its richer, in-state col­le­giate cousins. U.S. News and World Re­port, in its 2007 col­lege rank­ings, puts U-Va. at No. 24 and the Col­lege of William and Mary (in Wil­liams­burg) at No. 31.

Vir­ginia Tech, af­ter years of upand-com­ing progress, is tied for 77th.

That’s not bad, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the in-state tu­ition for un­der­grads is $5,772, and Tech out­ranks the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee, Auburn and so on, and that the en­gi­neer­ing school ranks in the top 10 for pub­lic univer­si­ties.

But, re­gion­ally, con­sider: Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity, about an hour up the road, charges tu­ition of $34,650, and ranks No. 17 in lib­eral arts schools in the same mag­a­zine rank­ings.

Tech — you pull in one en­trance, you get the smell of barns and cow dung. Fur­ther on, there’s a patch where they do turf grass re­search.

Then there’s Mr. Jef­fer­son’s univer­sity.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence in her­itage of in­sti­tu­tions, be­tween us and the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, but there’s prob­a­bly not a dime’s worth of ac­tual dif­fer­ence be­tween the stu­dents now,” says Thomas C. Til­lar Jr., Tech’s vice pres­i­dent for alumni re­la­tions. He points out that the school’s re­search and en­gi­neer­ing schools are draw­ing top stu­dents from around the na­tion and in­ter­na­tion­ally, not kids who couldn’t cut it over in Charlottesville.

There are more than 192,000 liv­ing Hokie alums out there, and Til­lar says the school has been over­whelmed with sup­port since the shoot­ing.

“In 48 hours, $300,000 came in for a spe­cial fund to help the stu­dents’ fam­i­lies, the school,” he says. “There’s been an out­pour­ing of sym­pa­thy and sup­port. Peo­ple un­der­stand that the stu­dents, and the univer­sity, in a way, were vic­tims of a com­pletely sense­less shoot­ing. . . . I hear so many peo­ple say­ing, ‘I’m so proud of my univer­sity, of how well the stu­dents are rep­re­sent­ing us on television, in the me­dia.’ ”

The town seems to be­lieve the bad news is tem­po­rary, too.

Let’s go down to Main Street, stop into Poor Billy’s Seafood Restau­rant.

Here’s Eric Sch­mid, nurs­ing a Bud. He grew up here, left for D.C. and a life tend­ing bar, now he’s 45 and back tak­ing care of his el­derly dad. He used to live in Sil­ver Spring, pay­ing $1,700 in rent; now he rents a nearly iden­ti­cal place in Blacks­burg for $500.

What’s the other dif­fer­ence, D.C. and down here?

“There’s noth­ing to do.” Good­na­tured laugh. “Peo­ple are so friendly. They speak to you on the street. My wife, she’s from Philly, she’s like, ‘What’s with th­ese peo­ple?’ ”

What’s the dif­fer­ence in town from when you were a kid?

“Michael Vick. He put this town on the map. The foot­ball team? You used to have to go to Roanoke to do any shop­ping at all. Af­ter the foot­ball team got re­ally good, ev­ery­thing changed.”

(This is true. Til­lar cites a surge in stu­dent ap­pli­ca­tions af­ter the elec­tri­fy­ing quar­ter­back led the Hok­ies to the na­tional ti­tle game in 1999.)

Out­side, dark­ness is fall­ing. It’s rain­ing and cold.

Around town, on cam­pus, there are orange and ma­roon rib­bons, the school’s col­ors, tied in bows around lamp posts, park­ing me­ters, trees. By morn­ing, a thick fog will blan­ket this lit­tle com­mu­nity set back near the moun­tains, a place where dozens of television trucks thrum into the evening, where re­porters with cre­den­tials dan­gling from their necks fill the ho­tel rooms, where po­lice and fed­eral agents in wind­break­ers ride around cam­pus. Each group is look­ing for some­thing that isn’t there: clues, an­swers, any­thing that might be an ex­pla­na­tion for heart­break and loss and mass mur­der.

Sch­mid wan­ders over for din­ner — sushi and a cold beer — with Cary Hop­per, the ami­able owner of Kent Jewel­ers.

“Ev­ery­one in town feels re­ally close now, but it will dis­si­pate,” Hop­per is say­ing, talk­ing about the na­tion’s “nanosec­ond at­ten­tion span” and pass­ing fas­ci­na­tions — Don Imus or Anna Ni­cole Smith or Brit­ney Spears’s shaved head. “Things will be fine. They’ll still play foot­ball games in the fall, bas­ket­ball games in the win­ter. Sooner or later, all this will just be some­thing peo­ple who live some­place else will as­so­ci­ate with Blacks­burg. The school, the town, the kids, they’ll re­cover. They’ll be fine.”

That feels right. That feels fair. That feels like, in a warm restau­rant in a small town, with loud voices and laugh­ter and familiar faces, what pass­ing time may bring.


Fog shrouds the cam­pus of Vir­ginia Tech Fri­day morn­ing. “Peo­ple un­der­stand that the stu­dents, and the univer­sity, in a way, were vic­tims,” says Thomas C. Til­lar Jr., an alumni re­la­tions of­fi­cial.

Rib­bons line the streets of Blacks­burg, in me­mory of the 32 vic­tims killed.


Wait­ress Feli­cia Jack­son is one of many lo­cals who think that Vir­ginia Tech and the town can re­cover their rep­u­ta­tion.

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