- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

Commencement ceremonies at Virginia Tech on Friday marked the end of what will be known as a horrible school year at the Blacksburg campus. Less than a month after a gunman killed 32 persons and himself, the campus has the task of rebuilding a sense of normalcy for when the new school year starts in August.

It is a process that takes years, say officials at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Florida in Gainesville. Those two schools have the unfortunate distinction of having been the sites of mass murders.

There is a fine line between memorializing the victims and trying to forget the villain. Should the school always remember or try to erase the bad memories of that awful day? Should Norris Hall — where most of the Virginia Tech victims were killed — become a shrine or a pile of rubble? Virginia Tech officials have not said what their plans are for the building.

At the University of Texas, it has been more than 40 years since Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 persons from the roof of the Texas Tower, the campus’ signature building.

That building remains. The university had no choice — it had to remain standing, says Gary Lavergne, director of admissions research for the school and author of the book “A Sniper in the Tower.”

“That crime took place in what literally is the registered trademark of the University of Texas,” Mr. Lavergne says.

In fact, all these years later, there is little evidence of a mass murder. The university did not have a memorial or plaque until this year, Mr. Lavergne says. University officials originally tried to raise money through donations for a larger memorial, but the money never materialized.

“I would suspect it is difficult to raise funds to memorialize a violent act,” Mr. Lavergne says. “If someone is interested in donating money to the university, they probably would donate it for research or in a way that will make lives better.

“The university has received some criticism about that over the years,” he says. “There were even accusations that there was denial that the event had ever taken place. What happened was the university didn’t dwell on it. In my opinion, that was probably the wisest thing to do.”

Mr. Lavergne says college is a place where young people are full of promise, where many opportunities and experiences lie in front of them. Yes, it is horrible when lives come to an untimely end. It also is horrible to relive it.

“A university has everything to do with life,” he says. “It is where people come together to learn how to better their lives. It would be tragic to be defined by an angry young man with a gun.

“The biggest challenge for Virginia Tech in the long run is how to balance memorializing innocent people with the mission of the school. Do you want an angry young man with a gun to tell you what to do with one of your buildings?”

The plaque at Texas sits near Turtle Pond, a quiet, reflective spot on the campus. The open area where people were shot and killed is the same place where new freshmen gather for orientation and where 8,000 diplomas are awarded at graduation each spring.

Those events, Mr. Lavergne says, are examples of affirming life, not death.

At the University of Florida in Gainesville, there has been a similar balancing act.

It was the first week of classes at the university in 1990. The usual festive atmosphere quickly turned into one of fear when five young persons were found murdered in off-campus apartments over three days.

Unlike the Virginia Tech massacre, in which the shooter turned the gun on himself, police did not know who they were looking for and when or whether he would strike again.

“Thousands of kids did leave that first week,” says Linda Gray, who was the assistant vice president for news and public affairs at the university in 1990 and worked for the school for 28 years before changing employers in 2002. “We told them they did not have to go to class, but we did not cancel classes. To have canceled would not have been what we were about.”

Though Gainesville briefly was a ghost town, all but about 500 of the 37,000 enrolled students returned to campus the next week. Police soon announced they had a suspect; it turned out to be the wrong man, however. Danny Rolling eventually was arrested and convicted for the grisly crimes.

Most of today’s University of Florida students were small children in 1990. Many, of course, have heard of the murders, but the passage of time has turned it into a legend not far removed from a “Friday the Thirteenth” movie.

Florida, like Texas before it, tried hard not to become “Murder U.”

“We did everything we could to make sure our university was bigger than this horrible thing,” Ms. Gray says. “In the middle of the storm and the aftermath, we asked ourselves if it would ever be the same. The truth is, our campus became better. It won’t be the same for the people who lived through it — they won’t forget it. But you don’t want future people to live through it.”

The Florida murders were the catalyst for important changes in the community, she says. More money was allocated for better lighting and security phones at all state universities in Florida. When it was determined that the killer had entered apartments through sliding glass doors, an apartment owners association was formed, and off-campus housing had to undergo a police safety inspection to be on the approved list. Florida officials helped formulate a campus crisis plan that was used by other universities.

About a week after the Gainesville murders, students painted the names of the victims on a section of a wall near campus. A local resident maintained the wall for 10 years, repainting the names of the five victims whenever they faded or were painted over.

In 2000, the keeper of the wall announced that she would not be maintaining it anymore. Five palm trees, each bearing the name of a victim, were planted as a more permanent tribute. In 2002, the Interfraternity Council at Florida took over maintaining the wall. Fraternity members maintain the paint and plan to install a plaque explaining what happened.

Rolling was executed last fall for his crimes. For Florida administrators, it brought back many memories about the university’s darkest days.

“For Virginia Tech, I sympathize with what they will have to go through on the anniversaries of the murders,” Ms. Gray says. “In April of 2008, there will be stories, and people will have to relive it. Then there will be five years, ten years. Then it may slow down. Eventually, kids will say, ‘What’s that they are talking about?’ But for the administration, it will affect them forever. Even now, every time I give a talk about 1990, I nearly come to tears.”

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