Blacksburg was the "sleepy little college town" in the mountains then, home to a small agricultural and mechanical/military school and little else. You could count the traffic lights and have fingers left over. V.P.I. was essentially all-male and all-white; being a member of the corps of cadets was the norm. Foreign students and women on campus were not. The student body generally came from rural and small-town Virginia, where it was highly regarded. A turkey was the school mascot. It was so not UVA, William and Mary, or Hollins. It was not even V.M.I.
Things change and stuff happens. By the time I graduated from high school V.P.I. was beginning its remarkable transformation into a major university. My lackluster high school record and vague aspirations did not make me highly sought after college material. But V.P.I. took a chance and accepted me. They had probably seen worse. After purgatory at their Danville Branch I finally arrived in Blacksburg in the fall of 1966.
Evidence of the major commitment to transform Tech was everywhere: new buildings, overflowing dorms, expanding academic programs, a much larger and more diverse student body (though still not enough girls), and a major emphasis on athletics, mainly football. We even managed a traffic jam on some Saturday afternoons in the fall. Off-campus housing grew, a fine off-campus book store opened, along with a decent restaurant or two. Long hair and an underground newspaper appeared. The 60's arrived at Tech and Blacksburg sometime in the 70's, but it arrived.
I should have been happy at Tech and Blacksburg, but I was not. Blacksburg seemed like the end of the earth. I called it Bleaksburg, a reference to more than its weather three seasons of the year. Driving into town one Sunday I nearly ran off the road laughing at a road sign where someone had written "armpit of the nation" under the word Blacksburg.
The school's administrators - many holdover's from its days as a military school - seemed to be truly hostile to students. Their martial vision of what college life should be was not my vision. It was a conservative campus and I was, without much self consciousness, becoming quite liberal, at least by Virginia standards. I began to enjoy walking on their grass.
My first fall on campus saw the football team invited to what I believe was its first bowl game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. We were to play the University of Miami. I remember walking across campus one cold, cold night headed downtown for some food (I hated the food at Shanks) and seeing a student-made sign hanging in the wind. "Beat Miami" it said. Blacksburg, Miami. Blacksburg, Miami. Hunkered into the wind I had a hard time wrapping my mind around any idea that contained those words together. Yes, true to my school, I did drive what seemed like halfway across America in my Corvair to attend that game. But I wanted out.
That would not be easy. I had just changed majors, from engineering to political science. PoliSci allowed the most electives at Tech and this would give me the chance to pretend I was at a liberal arts college where, by that time, I discovered I wanted to be. My academic record at that point was not much better than my high school record, making a transfer problematic. And there was a war on and a military draft, not something to be taken lightly. I needed that 2-s deferment. And I doubt I could have convinced my parents that it was a good idea to transfer. After all they were paying for my little adventure in academia.
My salvation came from an unlikely series of events. That January a friend at UVA invited me to Charlottesville for a week-end. He said he would get us some dates from Mary Washington College and we would have a great time; might get lucky. I was all for a great time and good luck, so plans were made. That Friday came and with it a snow storm. I said what-the-hell and made for Charlottesville. The weather worsened and I was lucky to make it to campus. The train from Fredericksburg was canceled, as were the events of the week-end. What to do? He had a friend who had just returned from a semester aboard a ship that had sailed around the world. We went to see him. Still very much overwhelmed by the experience, he told stories for hours. When we left he gave us literature about the college program and said we should apply as soon as possible. Sounded good to me.
Fast forward and I returned from that Semester at Sea with a larger view of myself, my world, and Blacksburg. Virginia Tech would continue to annoy me from time to time as it seemed slow closing the gap between what I wanted of it and what it could deliver. But I finally had matured enough to begin to take advantage of what it did offer, and to appreciate that wonderful place in the Virginia mountains, Blacksburg.
I now have two degrees from Tech, having returned in the '80s for a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning. My wife also has two degrees from Tech. She grew up just outside Blacksburg. Her sister in-law works in Norris Hall, second floor. I have wonderful friends in Blacksburg who worked for Tech for many years. Even though I also have a degree from UVA and have great respect for the University, I am a Hokie. I have marveled at Tech's growth, been amazed at the transformation of Blacksburg into a world-class small city. So watching the news over the past few days has been hard.
The violent death and injury of so many students and faculty at the hands of a psychopath renders words inadequate to convey the horror. One cannot look into the faces of horrified students and anxious or grieving parents without becoming one of them. Trying to make sense of it all seems overwhelming. And yet that is what each of us will try to do, needs to do. The young man with two handguns shot at us all.
As tragic as the events of last Monday morning were we have the ability to make them worse. And we will. I could feel it as I was watching the first reports on CNN. Even as the news was happening I could feel the ramp up to what was coming: the second guessing, criticizing, the self-righteous placing of blame, the spin in service to political agenda. Even before we had time to learn the fate of friends and family, grieve, or learn the name or fate of the gunman, the process was well underway.
Our TV hosts struggled to learn just where Blacksburg was and fumbled about trying to describe a university they knew little about. Tech was both a major university with 26,000 students and "insular" according to Brian Williams, who also placed it in the Smoky Mountains. While we were all trying to reconcile the image of a peaceful, semi-rural college environment with violence we usually associate with our urban areas or foreign theaters of war, the talking heads moved from conveying what little they knew about the horror unfolding on campus to asking leading questions and poking around trying to find an angle. They think they are reporters.
It bled and it led for hours on end. After asking students what they saw or heard Wolf Blitzer and the other CNN reporters (I use the term loosely) made a point of asking if they still felt safe, if they blamed the University and if the were planning to transfer. It took a while before they stopped seeming surprised when the students usually said they loved their school, the community, and had not considered leaving. I thought generally the students interviewed sounded much more thoughtful than their hosts. And without the "like, you know what I'm saying." I was proud of them.
Once it appeared that the gunman was dead and there was a two hour gap in the shootings the focus shifted to finding a way to question the University's handling of the situation. Well before any of the details were to fill out the timeline our TV hosts were pouncing, safely behind the camera miles away from danger or responsibility past filling commercial-safe airtime. Without possibly having the facts with which to assess situation they began to invite questions of competency of local law enforcement and the judgment of school administrators. When will we come to understand that when someone prefaces a statement, "I don't understand why ___", they really don't. You are being set up.
Soon "experts" with little or no knowledge of the specifics began to appear and try to shape our view of the tragedy. Dr. Phil appeared early. We eventually heard from Ted Nugent (FOX?) who said this would not have happened if students were allowed to legally carry guns on campus. He did not mention bows and arrows. Can they work in Springer next? If we were not dealing with a real human tragedy, real suffering and loss, this would almost be funny. It is not funny.
Once we learned the gunman was a student and was born in South Korea the press was perplexed. Even though he had lived in the US most of his life - since he was 8 years old - he was Korean. Since South Korea is an ally of the United States it has been difficult for the press to figure out how significant that was or how to play it. Now if he had been from the Middle East...
Few bothered to remark that the killer was a young man and that young men are have almost exclusive ownership of this type of serial murder. You assumed the killer was male, didn't you? I did. I didn't expect the male-dominated media to go there and they didn't.
We now know he was recognized as a loner and "troubled," and had come to the attention of the school as such. He had received at least some attention from mental health and law enforcement professionals. The NYTimes gave us this morning, "Officials Knew Troubled State of Killer in ’05." Well he was not a killer in '05. He was just a student with problems, probably not that unlike any number of other students on campuses from coast to coast. The headline whispers that the "officials" are now partially responsible for the crime. I am sure that these professionals wish now they could have seen into the future and done something. But I doubt even Cho Seung-hui could have done that in '05.
Being "troubled" and dead brings us to the possibility that the tragedy includes Mr. Cho. While I am sure many would recoil at this so soon, the compassion and forgiveness that my Christian countrymen so often trot out as a model for others, might not be misplaced for this very mentally ill young man and provoke wonder how he became so bitter and twisted. No, it is much easier and entertaining to now find fault with the living, those doing their very best to ensure safety of others when that still, unfortunately, was not sufficient.
Yes, I am sure campus police and other university officials wish they had done some things differently Monday morning. Given the contents of the package Mr. Cho sent to NBC that morning between shootings it is certainly possible only the location, names and number of future victims would have changed. What is likely however is that the number Mr. Cho's victims will continue to grow as some try to use the tragedy for their own ends.
Regarding making sense of it all, once again our dim-bulb President got it wrong. He said on campus trying to mean well,
It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone - and they leave behind grieving families, and grieving classmates, and a grieving nation.Well, George, making sense of things is what what people at Universities try to do, and with some success. The question is what sense we will make of it. Don't try to suggest impossibilities at a place based on possibilities. And they were not in the "wrong place at the wrong time." A convenient cliche, but again off the mark. They were in the right place, Blacksburg, Virginia Tech.