Sunday, May 13, 2007

Victims honored at Va. Tech commencement

Victims honored at Va. Tech commencement

By KRISTEN GELINEAU and SUE LINDSEY, Associated Press Writers 47 minutes ago

The image most people have of Kevin Sterne is harrowing: a photo showing a tourniquet wrapped around his wounded leg as rescue workers rushed him out of Virginia Tech's Norris Hall.

But on Saturday, there was a new image of the 22-year-old former Eagle Scout: jubilant and full of life as he limped across the stage at the university's Cassell Coliseum using a crutch and displaying a grin to accept his degree in electrical engineering.

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered Sterne in one of the most poignant moments of the morning commencement ceremony at the College of Engineering.

It was one of several campus ceremonies in which individual colleges and departments handed out diplomas to students, including posthumous degrees to those killed in the April 16 attack at a dormitory and classroom building.

The College of Engineering was hit particularly hard, with 11 students and three professors killed in the shooting.

Engineering Dean Richard Benson was overwhelmed, his voice breaking at times, as he spoke about the slain.

"Forgive me," Benson said quietly as he paused to collect himself while commemorating professor Kevin Granata, who was shot in a hallway as he tried to save students during the rampage in which 33 people were killed.

The widow of G.V. Loganathan accepted a teaching award in honor of her husband, a man Benson said students fondly regarded as the best professor they ever had, the kindest person they ever met and incredibly wise.

Another slain professor, Dr. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was remembered by the dean for his "profound courage" in blocking his classroom door so his students could escape out the windows. He was among those killed by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who took his own life.

Professors, students, their families and friends wept openly as those attending the political science department's ceremony were asked to remain silent while a bell chimed for each of nine slain students and their posthumous degrees were awarded.

Professor Edward Weisband said he has vivid memories of each of them in class, "attentive, bright, caring."

He promised their families that their children's empty seats "shall always remain in any class I teach."

As the overflow crowd rose to honor several of the department's six injured students who were able to attend, Weisband said, "We take inexpressible joy in your survival."

At an English department ceremony, nearly all of the 135 graduating students and many faculty members stood when asked if they knew someone killed or injured in the shooting spree. The crowd of several hundred rose and applauded loudly as posthumous degrees were awarded to sophomore Ross Abdallah Alameddine and senior Ryan Clark, who was one of two students killed in a dormitory before the gunman moved to the classroom building.

English professor Nikki Giovanni read "We are Virginia Tech," a poem she penned hours after the rampage that infused a campus convocation with strength the day after the shootings. She was inspired, she said Saturday, by the desire to convey that "what we do is more important than what is done to us."

The individual school ceremonies continued the theme of striking a balance between celebration and sorrow that began with a university commencement event Friday night.

While one engineering student's mortarboard read "This 2 shall pass," and one bore the name of victim Jarrett Lane, another graduate's said "4 HIRE." Students tossed around an inflatable beach ball and booed when it was confiscated.

Faces were somber as the dean commemorated the dead, but graduates broke out in cheers and tossed their mortarboards in the air as the ceremony concluded.

At the English department ceremony, department chairwoman Carolyn Rude said this year's commencement could not leave behind the heart-rending events of a month ago, but she said tragedy can be used to heal.

"It does its best work within us if it enhances our resilience, our wisdom and our ability to care," she said. "It finds its best expression in our will to honor the lives of those we have lost."

Virginia Tech awards diplomas to slain students

Virginia Tech awarded diplomas Friday to students killed by a classmate last month during a mass shooting rampage, with the university president calling them "innocent and beautiful young minds."

Thousands of students wearing caps and gowns crowded into the university's stadium to receive their degrees in a bittersweet ceremony just four weeks after fellow student Cho Seung-Hui shot dead 32 people on the rural Virginia campus.

Pictures of the 27 students and five teachers were shown on the stadium's huge screen while their names were read aloud to the crowd of students, faculty and families.

"We wish to pay tribute to those innocent and beautiful young minds who wholeheartedly joined the university community seeking knowledge and growth," university president Charles Steger said.

"And to the dedicated professors who were devoted to imparting that knowledge and nurturing that growth," he said.

"They wanted to make their mark as individuals, to be a part of the greater world and make it better -- and those of us assembled here tonight can attest that they succeeded," he said.

Retired general John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, praised the university in his commencement address to the 3,600 new graduates for the way it dealt with the tragedy.

"After the terrible events of April, I now know that Virginia Tech is an even greater place than most imagined," Abizaid said.

"Calm, steady leadership, compassion and teamwork in times of crisis and in the aftermath of crisis have a way of showing the character of a place and this place has great character."

In the rampage on April 16, Cho, 23, a South Korea-born, US-raised English major, shot dead his 32 victims in two campus buildings.

Two students were killed at a dormitory early in the morning, and 30 people were killed in a separate building around two hours later.

In between, Cho mailed to NBC news a package of writings, still images and videos in which he posed with guns, hammers and knives and ranted about the evils of the rich.

Police and university officials said after the tragedy that some professors and local police had pushed him to seek treatment from mental health professionals while he was at the university.

Days after the shooting, the university announced that graduating students would not be required to finish their final coursework for the year to help troubled students and victims cope with the shock.

It also announced, after discussions with the families of the murdered students, that they would all be awarded degrees and graduation certificates.

Posthumous diplomas were awarded to nine of the dead students Friday, while the 18 others were to be presented at individual college and departmental convocations Saturday at the university in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The families of victims were also to be given class rings, a traditional American graduating prize that students can purchase.

"There are 3,000 to 4000 people (to whom) ... this is very, very important, one of the major milestones in their lives," Larry Hincker, the associate vice president for university relations, told AFP by telephone.

"But at the same time there is unquestionably a bittersweet nature to it. This university is still mourning a terrible tragedy," he said.

"It's something that people are struggling with, but we wish to try to find the right balance to remember, recognize and memorialize those that we've lost, and at the same, recognize the many thousands who accomplished something quite significant in their lives," he said.

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