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Planting Trees in Memory of Lives Lost

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Planting Trees in Memory of Lives Lost

Remembrances

Planting Trees in Memory of Lives Lost

Planting Trees in Memory of Lives Lost

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Richard Shryock, Virginia Tech's chairman of foreign languages and literatures, lost two faculty members and 15 students in his department in last April's shootings. A year later, he's planting trees in quiet reflection over their loss.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Richard Shryock was headed out of Blacksburg this afternoon. He's the chairman of the foreign languages and literatures department at Virginia Tech. Two of the department's professors were killed along with 15 of their students one year ago. Today Professor Shryock said he'd be seeking quiet in the country.

P: I'll be going to a piece of land that my wife and I recently purchased which has trees and some meadows in it, and we'll be going there and actually planting a couple of trees and just spending some peaceful time there in the nature and join the solitude of it all.

BLOCK: Have you been thinking for a while that what would be most fitting to do on this day?

P: Yes. There's a balance that I need to - I just need to achieve between, you know, what's fitting in terms of remembering the day and also what's fitting for us individually. The emotions in our department here, Foreign Languages and Literatures, still run very deep about this. We're very profoundly impacted and because we lost two of our colleagues, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak in French and Jimmy Bishop in German, as well as 15 of their students. And in many ways, I think, for many of us given the scale of things and - it's still very fresh for us. Its still - the wounds are still very raw.

BLOCK: How are you remembering - thinking about the two colleagues that you lost there?

P: Well, it's hard not to think about them. We have a close-knit department here and their memories' present to many of us in just a lot little things that they used to do. Whatever that we still remember or what, you know, what they contributed and what we've lost over this past year.

BLOCK: What are some of those little things that they keep them in mind?

P: Sometimes it can just be some of the most banal things. In our department we have a lunch room where faculty gather to eat, and if they want to, and both Jocelyne and Jimmy were regular attendees of this, in fact, that was the last place that I saw Jocelyne alive.

And whenever I go in there, I - actually I think of both of them. And because we spent many hours there just having very enjoyable lunches together and exchanging conversation, talking about teaching and just talking also about, you know, life and gardening and what not.

There had been a number of things that have been done to honor our colleagues. With Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, the French instructor there, a group of student have put together a program to honor her by teaching French to elementary school students. And an after school program called Teach for Madame.

And that's gotten a considerable amount of media attention both locally as well as nationally. And actually a week ago, Friday, they were received by the French ambassador.

BLOCK: You know, I think in times of great crisis sometimes what happens is that in the immediate aftermath, you run on adrenaline. For me, it was that way after 9/11 in New York and that didn't touch me, I think, anywhere nearly as directly as I'm sure this touched you. I wonder if you went through much the same thing that the magnitude of what happened maybe hit you sometime after...

P: Oh, yes.

BLOCK: ...April 16 last year.

P: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Because in the days and weeks following April 16 as department chair, I just had an endless amount of things to do. How to, you know, determine grades when an instructor has been killed and getting us through to graduation. Then at the end of May, my wife and I went to France as we - she's also a professor of French, and we go there to do research. And was really - once I got in France and was in a little bit less-structured environment that a lot of emotions started coming out, and there in this rather idyllic setting with, you know, a lovely view of the Mediterranean, it was just - a lot of emotion came out, it was very, very difficult for both of us.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. It can hit at unlikely times, I'm sure.

P: Yeah. And it was, as you said, when - you know, with losing the structure of all these little day-to-day tasks just allowed the whole amount of emotion to come out in a much stronger way.

BLOCK: I know there had been a number of changes made at the university and also on the state level about security and access to mental health records and threat assessments. Do you take any comfort on that? Do you feel, maybe, any safer than you did a year ago?

P: Those things helped a little bit, but there is still very easy access to guns in this country, and even with the implementation of all those things, it would be very easy for someone to come on campus and start shooting again or anywhere else for that matter, any public place. So I don't particularly feel safer, but at the same time, I don't feel threatened either.

BLOCK: Have you noticed as this anniversary has approached, have you noticed any changes in your students? Have they seemed more agitated, more uneasy?

P: Oh, definitely, definitely, yes. I get, now, so many reports from faculty, you know, at my department that - just students breaking down and, you know, and crying, and students having difficulty concentrating. You can see it on some students' faces.

This time is bringing back a lot of memories and there was a quote in today's student newspaper from one of the families who talked about, you know, we're moving forward, but then all of a sudden, it's like someone hits the rewind button and, you know, you're back again to how you were feeling last April. I think that's true for a lot of people.

BLOCK: Professor Shryock, when we started talking, you mentioned you'll be planting trees today.

P: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: What kind of trees are you planting?

P: Well, so far, we've just purchased some redbud trees which grow very well here in Virginia; they're in bloom right now. And there are a lot of flowering trees in this area, and we might go back out and buy a few more to put in the ground. My wife and I are just going take things as they come, see how we feel because this has been very difficult for us and so, we're not assuming that we're going to be able to do this or do that today.

BLOCK: Well, Professor Shryock, thanks very much for talking with us. We appreciate it.

P: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: Professor Richard Shryock is chairman of the foreign languages and literatures department at Virginia Tech.

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Virginia Tech President Haunted by Shootings

Virginia Tech President Haunted by Shootings

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Virginia Tech President Charles Steger during a news conference in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, hours after a gunman killed 32 people on campus. Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger during a news conference in Blacksburg, Va., on April 16, 2007, hours after a gunman killed 32 people on campus.

Mannie Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

An unidentified man grieves April 15, 2008, at a memorial of 32 granite blocks representing each of the people killed a year ago by Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Mario Tama/Getty Images hide caption

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Mario Tama/Getty Images

An unidentified man grieves April 15, 2008, at a memorial of 32 granite blocks representing each of the people killed a year ago by Seung-hui Cho at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Look out the window of Charles Steger's office at Virginia Tech, and you can just see the edge of the simple memorial to the 32 students and faculty who died at the hands of Seung-hui Cho on April 16, 2007.

Most of the time, someone is there, day or night, pausing by one or another of the stones engraved with a name.

So much changed that day last year, including the idea of what it means to be a college president: Steger, president of Virginia Tech, had to quickly shift from academic, fundraiser and booster to crisis manager.

"Even today, you can't believe it actually happened, you know," he says about the campus shooting. "There's something about it."

No Frame of Reference

Steger, 60, grew up in Richmond and is an architect by training. Except for a short stint practicing architecture for a firm, he's been at Tech since he was 18 years old. He is a private person, hard to draw out.

"I like people, you know. It's not that I wish to be withdrawn from people. But I try to spend a little time every day alone and just sort of, as the Buddhists would say, kind of be centered," he says. "Once you can do that, you can cope with most anything that comes along."

Steger became known to most people a year ago, when reporters shouted questions at him during a news conference held just hours after the shootings.

After Cho shot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in a dormitory, the campus police figured, wrongly, that the crime was domestic and isolated. So they didn't try to warn the campus that a killer might be on the loose.

About two hours later, Steger got word that his police were questioning a suspect, Hilscher's boyfriend.

"I'm thinking, thank God, this is a horrible tragedy. How do we deal with it?" Steger asks.

That's about the time that Cho was chaining the doors at Norris Hall.

Then Steger saw the SWAT team running past his office to Norris. He heard gunshots.

"It's hard," Steger says. "You have no frame of reference for this, and certainly I didn't."

And there wasn't much time for him to get one. In 11 minutes, Cho killed 30 more people and wounded more than two dozen others.

'I Never Considered Resigning'

Shortly after the shootings, the school had a room set aside for families of the victims, "and I was there a couple of times a day," Steger says. "You don't know what to say. What can you say?"

Some families read Steger's muted style as unfeeling and defensive.

And for some people, Steger will always be the president who didn't warn his students after the first shooting.

There are still calls by some families that Steger should resign. He says he understands, but he doesn't agree.

"That sort of shock and anger and looking for some reason why this horrible thing happened, it's a very complicated problem, so you have to understand that," he says. "I never considered resigning."

Steger stands by his belief that he acted appropriately at the time, given the information he had in front of him.

At Home

Every month or so, Steger has lunch with students on campus at the Inn at Virginia Tech. He meets with a different group each time. The Inn is the same place families gathered last year.

At a recent lunch session, Steger is at home with his students and they are at home with him.

Junior Jillian Lytle tells him how recruitment tours have gone up this year, a surprise. There's talk about the under-funded library and questions about why there's only one Arabic language professor.

There are students who are down on Steger, who feel that he blew it. But others are fiercely protective of him.

After lunch, Steger shakes hands and disappears into the crowd.

Remembering

At the memorial, senior Ryan Smith walks the curve of 32 stones. Each has a flower or two beside it: a red rose, a yellow daffodil.

Smith says the people who criticize Steger don't know he bears the consequences of the shootings every day.

"A lot of times in the group settings he is very calm, he is very composed, and that's why he is our president," Smith says. "But sometimes, when you can just have a small side conversation, you can see the hurt."

Smith recounts a time last year when he and Steger cried together. They were talking about the moments when it all comes back.

"He said for him it was just sometimes when he's flying out and he looks out the window and he sees the world from a different perspective from that high up, and you realize just how fragile and yet how connected we are," Smith says. "And he said that silence and that looking down ... it gets to him."

Up there, all alone, Steger told him, is where it really hits him.