Degrees Given Posthumously To Ala. Tornado Victims

This weekend, the University of Alabama will award degrees to students who would have received them this past spring had a devastating tornado not postponed graduation. During ceremonies, the school will honor the six students killed in the storm. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this weekend more than 4,000 students at the University of Alabama received their diplomas. Most were supposed to walk across the stage last spring, but a huge tornado - a Category F4 - tore through the city. It was one of dozens of storms that ravaged the South, causing massive damage and killing hundreds, including six University of Alabama students.

NPR's Kathy Lohr attended the weekend ceremonies that honored the graduates.

KATHY LOHR: Students and their families crowded into Coleman Coliseum for the delayed commencement. But this was a celebration mixed with sadness. Tyee Eason came to watch her friend graduate.

TYEE EASON: You see a lot more families here. It's a lot more tears being shed here today that I would normally have seen.

LOHR: After the procession of students, University President Robert Witt acknowledged families who lost their sons and daughters, and each degree was handed out posthumously.

YDSTIE: Morgan M Sigler. Accepting the degree on Morgan's behalf are her parents, Allen and Vega Sigler.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Sigler was an art major from Bryant, Alabama. She wanted to be a graphic designer. After the ceremony, Vega Sigler said the past few months have been difficult.

VEGA SIGLER: It's bittersweet because she's not here. But it does acknowledge her accomplishments. She would be proud that we got her diploma.

LOHR: Sigler and her husband, Allen, say they think about their daughter Morgan, and what happened last April, every single day.

SIGLER: I just miss her calling to tell me about her day.

ALLEN SIGLER: And whenever she'd come in, my heart would always just come alive, just the way she made me feel when I got to see her. And I miss that. I truly do miss that.

LOHR: Despite their grief, the Siglers say it is important to document this moment, their daughter's final achievement.

Students and parents say they're grateful the tornado missed most of the campus but it hit homes, apartments and businesses just a half mile away, and destroyed some of the poorest parts of Tuscaloosa.

Among the graduates, Joy Doherty says the tragedy has forced people to recognize the tough challenges ahead.

JOY DOHERTY: Some of the needs that are being met in this city are needs that were here long before the tornado ever came. And I think the tornado just changed the hearts of a lot of the people here, and maybe it made them morr aware of some of those needs that needed to be met.

LOHR: It's clear Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama are strongly connected. The student population represents one third of the city. And thousands of students stayed even after classes were canceled, to help in the search and initial clean-up. So much still needs to be done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOHR: At a candlelight vigil, Student Government President Grant Cochran was shaken as he talked a bit about each student who died.

GRANT COCHRAN: Scott, Danielle, Ashley, Melanie Nicole, Morgan, Marcus. The memories are so precious.

LOHR: Scott Atterton played basketball and wanted to be a coach. Ashley Harrison loved her black lab, and planned to become a lawyer. And Morgan Sigler was a daddy's girl who was learning to play golf so she could spend more time with her father.

COCHRAN: We will always love you, miss you, be inspired by you, work harder because of you.

LOHR: Cochran thanked the families for sharing their sons and daughters. He said softly: We loved them, too.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Tuscaloosa.

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Correction Aug. 12, 2011

A previous headline incorrectly stated that the commencement was a year after the tornadoes in Alabama. The tornadoes actually happened in spring 2011.

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