They say that each generation is shaped and perhaps defined by a particular event. My parents, US baby boomers, had ready answers to where they were for both the assassinations of JFK and MLK , the Vietnam draft, and more flippant events like the Beetle’s break up. My generation, whatever it is called, has a long list of newsworthy events before we hit college; Challenger exploding, Berlin Wall tumbling down, collapse and capitulation of the Soviet Union, Black Monday, etc, etc, etc. Shortly after graduation there was 9/11 and a few years later, Katrina. For those of us in the financial industry there were starkly terrifying moments when the US – indeed all of western civilization – looked to be on the verge of economic collapse in 2008.

However, for me, one day beats them all. One day that shall live infamous in my mind forever. One day that still fills me with equal yet infinite amounts of both sorrow and rage. That day is April 16th, 2007.

Words, Like Actions, Have Meaning

Let us not perform the mistake of verbal capitulation that the news agencies do when discussing 4/16/2007. This was not an ‘ unfortunate event that took place.’ It most certainly was not an ‘unforeseen tragedy.’ This was a brutal, bloody, premeditated series of murders. And these murders were not the act of some anonymous ‘deranged madman.’ This massacre was committed by Seung-Hui Cho. The day April 16th, 2007 an evil man declared his own private war on the students and faculty of Virginia Tech.


Let me tell you of the people whom lived on the 5th floor of West AJ in the time I was a freshman. We call(ed) it 5West.

Brilliant engineers, a likely future senator, editors, publishers, teachers, business owners, and industrialists. Sons and daughters who would grow up to be moms and dads. Artists and soldiers, sailors and singers, airmen and musicians. People whom I would see perform uncommon acts of kindness, charity, and valor. Young men and women hailed for both their creativity and honor. Damn fine, talented people.

Those freshmen that I knew then, were more than your average pickup team. They were among the best period.

I’ll never be able to speak in depth about the students that inherited the dorms of West Ambler Johnston. Nor am I tell you about all the students that took classes in the Norris engineering building just like we used to. I can read about them but I don’t know them the way I knew the men and women of 5west. I do know they studied topics from advanced hydrology engineering to the German language. Just like us. Some were cadets, some were civilians. Some were students, some researchers, and others taught. Just like us. Some didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up but they knew they were making great progress. Again, just like us.

They were just like us.

Perhaps they were just like you.

And they were murdered for that reason, nothing more.

Ut Prosim

“Ut Prosim.” That I might serve is the motto of the university. It stems from our roots as a military institute where citizen soldiers would earn a degree before leaving to serve this country. The tradition survives in the Corps of Cadets today. It also was manifested on April 16th, 2007 when teachers and students alike performed the ultimate service of placing their bodies in harms way. Some like Professor Librescu held the door shut while Choi fired mercilessly in. His service and sacrifice allowed others to live. Librescu was not alone. Other Hokies barred entryways to buy time for others to jump out of 2 story windows of the Norris building.

Not all service is sacrifice

“That I might serve” should not be interpreted as a call to sacrifice oneself. May fate hold it that no one reading these words ever have to endure what those victims did that day. But there is one thing we all might do, each day. When and where we find evil we must be unafraid to call it by name and provide the service of dealing with it on our terms lest it come and deal with us on it’s own.

Much has been made about the university’s response. Was it fast enough, was it appropriate, who was to blame? This only matters so far as it can help prevent the next tragedy. The only absolute in this mess is that one evil person killed and killed many. They became victims for the simple acts of being achievers and pursuing their dreams.

“In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
-Ayn Rand.

I can’t tell you what occurred in Cho’s corrupted mind to begin this rampage. By all accounts he was a man clearly disturbed. What I cannot understand was how, in a leading, prominent university was he granted access? What was on his application that made Virginia Tech accept him as a student? Clearly the man had poor grades, antisocial tendencies, few skills and limited command of reality. By comparison what must have been the freshman applications of the men and women of 5west or the multitude killed on 4/17/2007 is outstanding. 

Were no other students rejected by the university better suited to attend than he? By what compromise of values was he admitted? Perhaps that root would be the better place to investigate than reviewing email logs or radicalizing gun control.

Where Were You When…

I can tell you where I was & what I was doing that day. It was early in the week and I was at work at a profession that Virginia Tech (and the friends I met there) prepared me well for. I was anticipating seeing many of those friends again in a reunion at the Spring Football game to be held on the Blacksburg campus that very weekend. Each year I go back to that Spring Game. Before 2007 it was to rejoice in the values of my friends, values I sought to emulate. When I return this year, as it was when I returned in 2008 and 2009 the celebration will be muted. But the reunion and the celebration will go on.

What seminal events shaped your generation? How did it change your actions and what do you do to honor the memory?

Comments (7)

Sometimes we find that the world is not friendly, but at the same time when bad things happen we find new friends and build lasting relationships.

My daughter was a senior when Columbine happened and I will always remember that day. Thank the Lord that when I had to move I didn’t choose that school in Littleton for her to go too.

What is important is when bad happens we are allowed to talk about it. This is part of healing. Thank you for sharing this part of your life.

Healing does take time, but we do have to concentrate on the good that can come out of it.

Debbie, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the parents involved in either of these situations. I am glad your daughter was OK!

I do hope some good comes of it. It is just difficult to imagine how.

Thank you for sharing your personal experience as well!

Thank you for sharing your feelings and your essay. My husband and I are Boomers. His birthday is Nov. 22. He was a child when JFK was assassinated, so every wish of “Happy Birthday” has a shadow attached. I was a child then, too. A friend at recess told me that the President had been shot. I called him a liar. Oops. And then in the years following, I watched America change.

But probably the incident that touched me the most was 9/11. We live two hours outside NYC. A couple of years prior to that, I had stayed at a conference at the hotel then nestled between the towers. That conference had fed into my dreams and hope for the future, so it was an emotional weekend for me. I remembered coming “home” each night to my hotel room to open the curtains and gaze at the Twin Towers that rose up like giant sheltering trees and dream of possibilities. I had no idea those skyscrapers would be so vulnerable, so their destruction – along with the accompanying deaths and subsequent plunge into war – shook me even more.

Thank you for sharing, Rhonda. As a native New Yorker, born and raised, 9/11 was a significant event for me and my family as well. Several internships had me in World Trade at the Port Authority office to request plans.

As a kid I would skip school and take the train to the city and subway to the financial center. It was like you could hear the heartbeat of the world in that plaza.

I will have a more elaborate article this September, too. I agree with you completely; those towers were the manifestation of dreams and possibility. Well said and thank you.

Mi Lai was it for me, I am a vet, and remember all those things, but Mi Lai was what defined me. I determined never to follow order blindly ever no matter what. I was alway obedient, ready to carry out orders, but here was our forces acting like WWII Nazis. Sadly history repeats itself as it did in the latest conflict. The end does not justify the means. Ghandi, when he was near death from a fast, was implored by his doctors to drink some meat broth. Ghandi, a strict vegetarian replied,”Even for life itself, we can not do some things.”

Bruce, all I can say is ‘wow.’ My father, also a Vietnam in-country veteran seldom speaks of the war but when he does the intensity of the lessons imparted never cease to amaze. To be honest I had to look up My Lai – they don’t teach that one in school.

One constant of history is that we fail to learn from it. Not only that, we fail to recognize the need to study it. I hope that your example, and indeed all of the examples we have been discussing, will serve as a stark reason why we need to. And why we need those who witnessed history and recognize the patterns and lessons to share their hard-won wisdom.

Thank you.

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