The Final Emotion
General Manager and Managing Editor
Apr 18, 2007
I am in the business of writing, of articulating my thoughts, of putting into words what others may only sense as a blur of feelings. I have never backed down from the challenge, be it capturing the emotion of a landmark victory, the pain of an agonizing defeat, the triumph and heartbreak that are part and parcel of athletics, even the horror of 9/11 over five years ago. It is my calling, my passion, my God-given talent. But I fear this ... this is too much.
I am not speaking lightly when I say that I cannot comprehend the loss suffered by the families, friends, and loved ones of this tragedy. I have tried to imagine what it must be like to suddenly lose someone close to you in this way. But I can't. I have a wife and three children, and when I try to put myself in that place, that terrible place where so many people have been thrown with no recourse, I can't.
It has only been two days since it happened, but it feels like forever. I am exhausted from being exposed to the brunt of it, from the message boards to the constant news coverage, to the conversations of family and friends, to the scenes on the Virginia Tech campus. Others have said they can't sleep. Not I. When I have fallen into bed past midnight the last two nights, sleep has come easily. It's getting up the next morning that has been difficult.
We never thought this would be us. We have watched these kinds of tragedies from afar, but this one has hit us where we live. The media have descended from around the world, poking, prodding, and worst of all, trying to place blame. An immense amount of pressure has been brought to bear on the Virginia Tech community, first by Cho Seung-Hui himself and then by the crush of international attention. While some of the coverage has been compassionate, much of it has not been, and some of it has bordered on cruel and sensationalistic. None of this surprises me, but being at the center of it still stings, and it changes your perceptions forever.
As I searched for meaning in what happened, I finally found it. I found it in the incredible poise, control, and togetherness shown by the Virginia Tech family. The true character of a person, group, or institution shows itself under pressure, and what the Virginia Tech community has shown us is grace, cohesion, intelligence, and compassion.
I have always thought that there was something different about Hokies, and the last few days have proven it. We always talk about the passion that Hokies have for Virginia Tech, about the special connection they feel to the university, and this tragedy has shown that talk doesn't ring hollow. If it wasn't true, if there wasn't a special bond between members of the Virginia Tech community, then they would have flown apart in the face of this adversity. They did not. They drew together and showed the world a united front.
Those interviewed by the media refused, for the most part, to be drawn into the baiting questions that sought to place blame on university president Charles Steger and the Virginia Tech Police Department. The very students who were in danger Monday let the world know where they stand when they applauded Dr. Steger at Tuesday's convocation service. The vultures were circling, hoping to pick the bones, but the people at Virginia Tech refused. They showed what it means to be Hokies. They drew together.
The students in particular have exceeded my expectations. We tend to think of them just as kids. Loud, shallow, self-centered, focused on the trivial, often spoiled. Adorned with body piercings, tattoos, and too much facial hair.
What we have seen instead, in the countless interviews of students on news channels up and down the dial, are bright, articulate, respectful individuals that any university would be flattered to call its own. Well-groomed, well-spoken, wearing dress clothes, ties, even suits, patiently answering questions, keeping their composure in the face of more than most of us will ever experience. I am on the one part humbled -- they are better people than I was at their age -- and on the other part proud. Well done, students of Virginia Tech. You are representative of the type of people Virginia Tech is admitting and producing -- you, not Cho Seung-Hui -- and I am proud of both you and my university.
From the beautiful and gifted Reema Samaha to the cheerful, intelligent and talented Ryan Clark, Cho's victims were pictures of inspiration. These were not vapid, self-centered individuals. It is sad that their lives were cut short, but perhaps the way they conducted those lives will inspire others. They make me wish I could go through college again, to be more like them.
By the nature of what I do for a living, my window into the Virginia Tech world is athletics. Among the fans, athletics is about passion. It is about pride in victory and anguish in defeat. These emotions are always strong, always out of proportion to the importance of the games themselves, but I have always felt that with Virginia Tech fans, there was something beyond the typical fan relationship with their sports teams. Now that I have seen that passion and togetherness extend beyond the playing fields and the stadiums and coliseums and into the glare of this awful spotlight, I know it to be true.
Being a Hokie is not a mercenary relationship. It is not a business proposition. It is not an exchange of goods and services for money. It is a shared bond, a love that comes from somewhere we don't understand and can't explain to others. We do not take from this university; it gives to us. Perhaps when we first arrive on its campus, we have our own selfish interests in mind, but by the time we leave, we are transformed. We are Hokies.
It is sad and tragic that this happened to us. Because we love this university, we are devastated by what happened here. But if it was necessary for us to suffer in order for others to benefit, it is a burden we will bear, because our motto -- Ut Prosim, That I May Serve -- tells us that's what we must do. If our tragedy brings you together, if our loss makes you safer and makes you value what is important in life, if our suffering is not in vain, then we are prepared to shoulder this load ... so you don't have to. That has always been the mission of this university, and we are honored to carry it out.
Do not let the deaths of these 32 victims be in vain. Look into your hearts and see what it teaches you, and how you may be better because of what we have gone through. And know that when the bodies are in the earth, when the media has left, when others have moved on and life resumes its course, that for us, there is only one emotion left: Love. Love for this university, love for the people who died on April 16th, 2007, and love for those who are left behind.
Remember this, and what happened here will not have been for naught.
William Neal Stewart
Virginia Tech, BSEE 1987