In Tragedy’s Shadow
Blacksburg Confronts a Harsh Reality: Its New Status as a Metaphor on the Map
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.