RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Look out the window of President Charles Steger's office at Virginia Tech and you can just see the edge of a simple memorial to the students and faculty who were killed there a year ago today by Seung-Hui Cho. Thirty-two died in all. Over the last year, Charles Steger's role as college president has evolved. He's gone from Virginia Tech's academic leader, fundraiser, and booster, to crisis manager.
Dr. CHARLES STEGER (President, Virginia Tech): Even today, you can't believe it actually happened, you know, there's something about it.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Libby Lewis went to visit Charles Steger and has this report.
LIBBY LEWIS: I've come to Blacksburg on a tough day, the day the families say whether they'll accept a settlement from the state or whether they'll sue. So this is not the best time…
Dr. STEGER: That's okay.
LEWIS: …for you to just…
Dr. STEGER: I'll try to do my best.
LEWIS: …let loose.
And he does try, but he is hard to draw out. I learned more about him by talking with his brother and his colleagues and his students than by interviewing him. He's 60, he grew up in Richmond. He's 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.
You're a private person.
Dr. STEGER: I'd say that's true. That doesn't mean - I like people. You know, it's not that I wish to be withdrawn from people. But yeah, I try to spend a little time every day alone and just sort of, you know, as the Buddhists would say, kind of be centered and be - once you do that, you can cope with most anything that comes along.
LEWIS: A year ago, a lot of people heard his name for the first time when reporters shouted questions at him.
Unidentified Reporter: President Steger...
Dr. STEGER: Yeah.
Unidentified Reporter: Would you talk about this very difficult process of notifying the families?
LEWIS: That news conference held hours after the shootings signals Steger's new public life. After Seung-Hui Cho shot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in a dormitory, the campus police figured wrongly the crime was domestic and isolated, so they didn't try to warn the campus a killer might be on loose. About two hours later, Steger got word his police were questioning a suspect, Hilscher's boyfriend.
Dr. STEGER: So I'm thinking, Thank God, you know, this is a horrible tragedy, how do we deal with it.
LEWIS: 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.
Dr. STEGER: It's hard - you have no frame of reference for this, and certainly, I didn't.
LEWIS: There wasn't much time to get one. In 11 minutes, Cho killed 30 people and wounded more than two dozen others.
Dr. STEGER: The next day, we had a series of the other rooms set aside for the families and I was over there a couple times a day. You know, you don't know what to say, or what can you say?
LEWIS: Some families read Steger's muted style as unfeeling, defensive. And for some people, Charles 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.
Dr. STEGER: 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 I never considered resigning.
LEWIS: He stands by his belief that he acted appropriately, given the information he had. Every month or so he 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 the families gathered last year. Today it's lively and Steger's at home with his students, and they're at home with him. Junior Jillian Lytle tells him recruitment tours have gone up this year, a surprise.
Dr. STEGER: So how many tours a day were you guys doing last year?
Ms. JILLIAN LYTLE (Junior, Student at Virginia Tech): I think we were doing them every hour…
Dr. STEGER: Yeah, it was a…
Ms. LYTLE: …in August last year…
Dr. STEGER: 'Cause they come right by my office.
LEWIS: There's talk about the underfunded library, and questions about why there's only one Arabic language professor. Later, I hear there are students who are down on Steger, who feel he blew it. But the ones I encounter are fiercely protective of him. After lunch, Steger shakes hands and disappears into the crowd. I head for the memorial and senior Ryan Smith joins me. We walk the curve of 32 stones, each has a flower or two beside it - a red rose, a yellow daffodil. He tells me stories about the three victims he knew. Ryan Smith says the people who criticize Steger don't know he bears the consequences of the shootings every day.
Mr. RYAN SMITH (Senior, Virginia Tech Student): A lot of times, in the group settings, he is very calm, he's very composed and that's why he's our president. But sometimes when you just have a small side conversation, you can see the hurt.
LEWIS: Smith tells me about one time last year when he and Steger cried together. They were talking about the moments when it all comes back.
Mr. SMITH: And 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 he realizes how fragile and yet, how connected we are. And said that silence and that looking down just, it gets to him.
LEWIS: Up there all alone, Steger told him, is where it really hits him.
Libby Lewis, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Go to npr.org for a slide show looking back at the worst mass shooting in modern American history and its aftermath at Virginia Tech.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.