Victims on everyone's mind at graduation

Published May 12, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. - That it would be a day of beginnings, of propelling forward, was clear from the moment the sound of Pomp and Circumstance spilled across the thousands gathered Friday night in Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium.

When the graduates filed in, the crowd was already standing, their cheers already deafening.

About 5, 000 students graduated from the school, just four weeks after a student gunman shattered the rural tranquillity of the campus, killing 32 people in what became the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history. Twenty-seven of those killed were students, and all received posthumous degrees, their names and accomplishments printed in the ceremony programs.

They would not be left out Friday night.

Shortly into the ceremony, university president Charles Steger read a letter from President Bush:

"Your actions in the face of great tragedy demonstrate the power of compassion and the indomitable spirit of a proud and determined university. We will always remember the lives that were taken, and we hold their families and friends in our hearts, " he read. "Your careers at Virginia Tech have prepared you to forge your own path forward, and the opportunities now before you are limited only by the size of your dreams."

Some of the victims' families shuffled into Cassell Coliseum, for the graduate ceremony, and Lane Stadium, for the undergraduate ceremony, among the other proud parents. Others chose not to.

"It is our sacred duty to mourn those who lost their lives so suddenly and tragically and to help their friends through these most difficult of times, " retired Army Gen. John Philip Abizaid, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, said in his commencement address. "It is also our duty to recognize this commencement and to congratulate these families and these graduates for work accomplished and work yet to be accomplished."

That balance seemed to be the goal for everyone here.

Hours before he was to graduate, Vincent Caluori, 23, of Springfield, Va., took his parents to the drill field where the makeshift memorials that sprouted after the shooting continue to grow. Under a white-and-blue tent sit thousands of scribbled notes, along with "VT" insignias made out of everything from popsicle sticks to dried daisies and baby's breath blossoms.

Caluori stood outside, in front of flowers and mementos that had been left for his friend Ryan Clark.

"He will get all three of his degrees, " he said. "I just kind of wish I could come back for another year and see how this place rebounds. It is a weird way to end it."

Abizaid said that a day before his speech, he and his wife had strolled among the memorials on the drill field.

Before April 16, Abizaid said, he believed he would be speaking at "the normal routine sort of commencement." After that day, when Seung Hui Cho fired 170 rounds, killing 32 people and injuring 29 more before killing himself, it was clear he wouldn't.

"I would have never thought I'd have to deliver such a speech, and in my worst dreams, I would never have wanted to, " Abizaid said.