The Final Emotion

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

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