- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

BLACKSBURG, Va. — When the world showered Virginia Tech with gifts of comfort after a student killed 32 persons on campus, it fell to Steven Estrada to find a place to put everything.

Mr. Estrada wasn’t sure he was the one for the job. He had worked at the university only a month, as a temporary hire to do the student center’s budget. The California native was so new to the state that he didn’t even know of Tech’s rivalry with the University of Virginia.

“It started with e-mails,” Mr. Estrada said. The volume was huge from the beginning, requiring hours to print and paste the condolences on boards. Flowers began to arrive. Then the mail came, first as letters, cards and drawings, graduating to boxes in a variety of sizes.

“They got bigger,” he said. “They got heavier.”

One supportive message came engraved on a 150-pound rock from the Mississippi River. Dave Butler sent a lime-green hood from a car he raced at Langley Speedway bearing a VT logo and the names of the students and faculty members Seung-hui Cho killed April 16 before taking his own life.

A painting of an expansive tree from the State University of New York at Morrisville weighed more than 100 pounds and arrived on a semitrailer. It took a power screwdriver to open the container.

“One guy wanted to donate a motorcycle,” university spokesman Larry Hincker said.

Mr. Estrada couldn’t handle this alone, and his colleagues were all stretched thin as the campus struggled in the aftermath of the shooting rampage. He didn’t know anybody in Blacksburg, but when he scoured the community he came up with 80-plus volunteers.

They showed up faithfully, filling all available display space in the cavernous three-story student center with daily deliveries of quilts, flags and banners signed by thousands.

People often feel a need to give as an act of comfort after a death, but also as a way to help restore order, said Brian Britt, a Virginia Tech professor of religious studies.

“There was something particularly upsetting about these shootings in this bucolic environment that made people feel particularly unsettled,” he said. “One way to ward off evil is to give gifts.”

Flags came from the White House, from the Statue of Liberty and from colleges everywhere. One was from the Iraqi town of Tikrit.

“Mostly every day it was, ‘Where do I put this?’ ” said Mr. Estrada, who remains in awe of the speed at which creative expressions were bestowed. Detailed weavings and quilts that would take months if not years to make arrived in a month. Caricatures of the 27 students and five faculty members killed arrived right after their images were made public.

“This person would have had to work night and day,” he said.

The volume of tender expressions has been at the same time soul-soothing and overwhelming to university officials, who have no space to keep it all on display and no time to plan what is to become of it.

It took a week to move everything by truck to a storage building for cataloging, which is expected to take student workers until the end of the year. The Library of Congress sent staff to advise Tech on what to save and how to save it, Mr. Hincker said.

Another task that looms is thank-you notes. Mr. Estrada said the list of givers runs 1,000 pages in a database.

Still on display are the rock from Itawamba Community College that was hauled in the trunk of a car from Tupelo, Miss., the car hood and two maroon-and-orange quilts from so many coverlets that Mr. Estrada said “you couldn’t count them in a day.”

Some of the gifts were intended for victims’ families.

Marlena Librescu, widow of Holocaust survivor and shooting victim Liviu Librescu, came one recent afternoon to collect a portrait painted of her husband and an engraved wooden plaque.

The artist who carved the curly maple plaque was moved by the account of Mr. Librescu barricading the door to his engineering classroom with his body so his students could jump to safety out second-floor windows.

Mr. Estrada also has been impressed with the motivation of volunteers. One from Massachusetts, whom he would identify only as “Jeff,” interrupted a trip after he heard reports of the shootings. Jeff has prostate cancer and has been given less than a year to live.

“He wanted to help,” Mr. Estrada said.

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