We were supposed to form an arch.
Just prior to the start of the 3.2 Run In Remembrance, one of the many events Virginia Tech conducts each year to commemorate the tragic shootings of April 16, 2007, participants line up on the massive green space known as the Drillfied to form a symbol photographed from a helicopter. A giant VT one year. A commemorative ribbon, another. This year the plan was to form an arch.
In the hour before the run, participants from all walks of life ambled in from every direction. Virginia Tech students formed the majority, but families with small children were frequent. Moms and Dads with current students. Grandparents. Alumni like me seemed plentiful. An endless parade lined up and strolled through the memorial, silently reading the names of those killed.
At the appointed time for the photo, contradictory signs urged the crowd to assemble in the form of a large . . . . . blob. An excited, smiling blob basking in the unusually warm sunshine. Quite the contrast from the snowflakes which swirled on the morning of April 16, 2007.
Maroon was the uniform of the day, and those not wearing it were conspicuous in their choice of attire. Most wore the free t-shirt that accompanied the free race entry. “We run. We serve. We remember,” it said across the front. “3.2 for 32,” read the back, the number of students and faculty killed on April 16, 2007, and a number no Hokie will ever forget.
“What’s a Hokie?” is a question often asked by those understandably unfamiliar with the University’s traditions. “I am,” is the response most often heard since April 16, 2007, from students, alumni, faculty and the broader community of Hokies.
The blob that formed on the Drillfield on April 15, 2017, a day short of the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, was perhaps the gleefully predictable result of 6,000 more people showing up to an event expected to draw 10,000. My own participation was the product largely of coincidence, but a needed pilgrimage nonetheless.
I’ve run the 3.2 Run in Remembrance each year from afar in Missoula, Montana. Each year wishing I was surrounded by those who shared the unwanted bond of being connected to a tragedy.
Yet, the tragedy is not what bound us together. We were already Hokies, members of a community defined by the University’s motto, Ut Prosim, translated as That I May Serve. The shootings did not unite us. We were already united. We already served.
April 16, 2007, blasted the world’s spotlight on our community, expecting to see it fall apart. It didn’t. It gathered together in grief and did what we all expected it to do. Prevail.
Our humorous inability to form a photogenic arch was replaced minutes later by an impressive ability to honor the fallen with a moment of silence. Marked only by the appearance of an arch of 32 white balloons rising above the start line, the crowd of 16,000 grew remarkably silent. Thirty-two seconds later, another arch of orange and maroon balloons rose up and we were off on the run.
The route led us around campus on a parade of many favorite sites. The Drillfield. The Duck Pond. Lane Stadium. The University pep band played at one corner as the Hokie Bird provided mimed encouragement. Spontaneous call-and-response cheers of “Lets Go! . . . . Hokies!” broke out sporadically along the route.
At Lane Stadium we were given the pleasure of running down the tunnel and slapping the Hokie stone for good luck, just as the football team does when running onto the field before games to the frenzied, jumping crowd of Hokie fans and the blaring sounds of Metallica’s Enter Sandman. Displayed on the stadium’s massive video screen was an aerial photo of the Drillfiend with participants of a prior year’s anniversary spelling out a massive “VT Thanks You.” A thank you to the world for its response to a grieving Hokie community.
A community picnic on the Drillfied capped off the run. Tired and elated runners and walkers enjoyed slices of pizza, sub sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. Some played games of cornhole. Laughter and discussions of how each person fared through the hilly 3.2 mile course were the order of the late morning.
No one talked about the tragedy. We didn’t need to. We knew why we were there. Our collective presence said more than enough.
As the last walkers made their way to the finish line, I moved around campus remembering old classrooms and marveling at new ones.
Norris Hall, the scene of most of the shootings, is still there. The University could have changed the name. Could have town it down. It did neither. Instead, it gutted the interior and rebuilt it into the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. A conscious choice not to hide from the past.
The signs identifying the building are as prominent as the memorial which now frames the iconic Burruss Hall, the underbelly of which I navigated in 1987 to receive my college ID.
The memorial itself is the product of students who, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, chose a remarkably emblematic tribute to the fallen. Members of the group Hokies United plucked 32 heavy Hokie Stones – the distinctive, chiseled limestone blocks that clad the University’s Gothic architecture – from a nearby construction site and arranged them in a semi-circle (an arch, if you will) at the base of the reviewing stand in front of Burruss Hall.
Later ideas to place a more permanent memorial elsewhere on campus were rejected. The makeshift memorial simply fit who we are as a community, now replaced by a more finished version with 32 larger Hokie Stones engraved with the names of those we will not forget. It is hard to imagine a more prominent place on campus for any memorial. Again, a conscious decision not to hide from – or forget – the past.
With the run over, large groups spilled onto Blacksburg’s Main Street, happily handing over cash to add to their collection of Hokie gear, filtering into bars for a post run beer, and packing restaurants for celebratory meals. Others took great advantage of the chocolate fair lining College Avenue and Draper Road, the “L” shaped hub of social life where the University greets downtown.
For a bit of nostalgia, I stopped in at the London Underground, a pub that remains largely unchanged from the place I had my first beer in college. It was a shared pitcher or two of Killians Irish Red, what counted for premium beer back then in a rural southwest Virginia town.
The dart lanes are still there and I could picture my friends toeing the worn, wood strip in the floor, arms cocked, eyes narrowing in on the bulls eye. My first beer somehow improved my accuracy. The second, not so much.
A brief, heavy rain shower sent the maroon-clad crowd scurrying temporarily for cover, but not dampening the enthusiasm of a day well spent.
It was, in a word, perfect.
I went to the run by myself. I saw no one I knew. And I was never alone. That is the enduring legacy of community.
This morning, Sunday, April 16, 2017, I set out on a training run under Blacksburg’s sunny skies. My interest in extra sleep and desire to run through Virginia Tech conspired unwittingly to put me on campus at 9:43 a.m., the moment the shootings at Norris Hall began and the point the University recognizes those lost with a moment of silence.
I watched from the War Memorial Chapel, whose eight pillars frame the Drillfied, representing Brotherhood, Honor, Leadership, Sacrifice, Service, Loyalty, Duty, and Ut Prosim.
With their lives remembered, I resumed my run in my own quiet reflection. Arriving back at my black rental car, my eyes caught the the number of the parking space I’d randomly chosen earlier, marked in white paint on the black asphalt. The number? 32.
Related: Can You Do the Impossible? Reflections on the Boston Marathon Bombings and Virginia Tech Tragedy