Cassell Convocation Starts the Healing Process for Virginia Tech Communityby Anthony Della Calce
April 17, 2007
A basketball arena was turned into a place of prayer and healing for the Virginia Tech community Tuesday afternoon. A convocation held at Cassell Coliseum, Virginia Tech’s on-campus basketball venue, brought together thousands of maroon-and orange-clad students seeking to find comfort and support in wake of Monday’s shootings.
Family, friends, teachers, Blacksburg residents and other members of the Virginia Tech community joined the students. In fact, Cassell Coliseum could not fit all the thousands of people who turned out so many were sent to Lane Stadium to view the convocation on the scoreboard’s big screen.
Inside Cassell, the atmosphere was understandingly somber. Many people sought comfort in conversations with those around them. But the voices were hushed as a sense of silence seemed to prevail over the dimmed noise. Indeed, many people sat silent, letting their facial expressions speak for them as they waited for the convocation to begin.
It was really important for me to come here, said junior Molly Reed, an animal and poultry sciences major from Boyds, Md. Hopefully this event will bring us together and we call all show our Hokie Pride, she said.
As Reed and others looked on, the somber sounds of the Highty-Tighties, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets band, echoed through Cassell. In between songs, no one spoke. The hum of an air conditioner and the occasional cries of a baby were all that could be heard.
At about 2:15 p.m., the ceremony finally began with the presentation of the colors by the Corps of Cadets and the playing of the National Anthem by the Highty-Tighties.
When the convocation began, Zenobia L. Hikes, vice president of student affairs, offered opening remarks. Hikes moderated the convocation and was one of several distinguished guests who spoke to a grieving audience in an attempt to reach out to the Virginia Tech community and begin the healing process.
We have gathered here to “share in our sorrow,” Hikes said.
“(The victims) will never be replaced in our hallways or in our hearts,” she said.
“With the help and support of each other and our brothers and sisters all over the world, we will eventually recover, but we will never forget,” Hikes said.
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger followed Hikes’ opening remarks. As he walked to the podium, he received an extended standing ovation, which was no doubt a sign of support from the Virginia Tech community.
“We have come together to mourn and grieve all the while hoping to awake from the horrible nightmare,” Steger said.
“Words are very weak symbols in times like this,” he said.
Steger thanked law enforcement for their ongoing hard work and dedication in dealing with the shootings and their aftermath. He emphasized the counseling available to students, faculty and staff. “(We are) grateful we do not have to travel this path alone.”
Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine spoke next and also received a standing ovation. He stepped to the podium, looked around and began: “What an amazing community this is.”
Kaine, who was in Japan at the time of the shootings, quickly cancelled the remainder of his scheduled two-week Asian trip. He and the First Lady of Virginia, Anne Holton, flew back to Virginia to be in Blacksburg for the convocation. “There is no where else we’d rather be than with you here today,” Kaine said of himself and his wife.
Kaine said students, faculty, friends, and family should be grieving. He said anger and despair were natural emotions to have in response to this tragedy. But, “as you wrestle with your sadness,” Kaine said, “do not loose hold of unity and community.”
“The world needs you, they were watching you (yesterday) â€¦ they saw you respond in a way that built community,” he said. “This is a remarkable place, do not let hold of that sense of community,” Kaine said.
President George W. Bush followed. Like Kaine and Steger before him, he too received a standing ovation. First Lady Laura Bush made the trip with the president and she sat and watched with the rest of the crowd as Bush delivered his speech.
“(You have) a passionate and resilient community at Virginia Tech,” he said during his remarks. “Reach out to those who ache for sons and daughters who will never come home,” Bush said.
“People who have never met you are praying for you,” he said.
Although it does not seem possible right now, such a day will come when Virginia Tech will return to normal, Bush said.
Indeed, that day seemed very much unimaginable given the current cloud of grief hovering above the campus and the entire Virginia Tech community. But before the convocation was over, it would seem within reach.
As several other speakers followed - community religious leaders and other Virginia Tech leaders, including members of the university support and counseling programs - members of the audience leaned on one another, wiped each other’s tears and shared embraces.
The anguish was still clearly expressed on the faces of students as Nikki Giovanni, an alumni distinguished English professor at Virginia Tech and celebrated author, came to the podium for closing remarks. They were brief, but they were powerful.
“We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while,” she said. “We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech.”
Giovanni ended her emotionally-charged speech with the words, “We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.”
Everyone immediately stood and clapped as Giovanni stepped away from the podium. In a time when words seem so inadequate, it was Giovanni’s words that lifted an entire grieving community.
The crowd eventually began to cheer as Giovanni urged them on. Finally, a chant of “Let’s Go Hokies” broke out. It was a chant had been uttered many times within the walls of Cassell Coliseum. But now it took on new meaning.
The repetition of those three simple words took on the task of starting the healing process for students and everyone within in the Virginia Tech community. The cheer was a much-needed emotional release.
“Let’s Go Hokies” reminded the entire Hokie Nation that it can and will recover in due time. Someday soon, maroon-and orange-clad fans will pile into Cassell Coliseum for a Virginia Tech basketball game. And unifed Hokies will cheer not as a grieving community but as fans: “Let’s Go Hokies.”