Tragedy changes identity of Virginia Tech

I was having lunch Monday when one of my friends in Atlanta called.

"Did you see the news?" she asked.

I knew immediately what she was talking about. My friend knew I went to Virginia Tech.

"You know, I lived next door to that dorm, Ambler Johnston. It was known as AJ, I've never heard it called Ambler Johnston," I said. "And I had classes at Norris Hall too, the building where the major shooting happened."

"Isn't it scary?" she said.

"Yeah," I said. But once we hung up, I thought it was not scary. It had been a long time since I was a student at Virginia Tech. A long, long time ago.

I was a freshman majoring in engineering at Virginia Tech in the mid-1980s, long before Beamer Ball, Michael Vick or Hokie Nation.

But the buildings I saw on the news were exactly as I remembered them, the greystone facade, and overall grayness of the school. The snowflakes in April and the howling wind.

I lived in Pritchard Hall as a freshman and sophomore, next door to AJ where Cho Seung- Hui shot his first two victims, before the shooting at Norris Hall two hours later, the largest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.

And I had many classes in Norris, most of which I skipped. But I know the building well, because my brother once had an office in it. My brother earned his doctorate in engineering as well as his undergraduate and master's degrees in Blacksburg. He went straight through. My brother frantically tried to call his former adviser but didn't get through on the first day. Luckily, his adviser was not on campus that day. I no longer have any connections to the school. It's difficult to keep in touch with my friends from Tech, much less any professors. But I still have an affinity for the campus.

As I watched the events unfold with great sadness for the victims and their families, I was proud of the way the students conducted themselves on TV. They showed a lot of grace under such tragic circumstances.

Had this happened during my time, I would have slept through the whole thing. I liked afternoon and evening classes, so I scheduled my first classes of the day at noon, and usually got up about 15 minutes before, put on a hat (not a maroon one) and ran across the drill field.

I didn't take advantage of the highly rated engineering program. At my engineering school orientation, the new class sat in an auditorium in Randolph Hall, next door to Norris. The professor told us what to expect from the program. He told us to look to our left and our right, and said those people will not be there in four years. A few people looked at me.

I left the school after my sophomore year, and eventually graduated at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, my hometown. But when people ask me today where did I go to college, I always say Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech is not the kind of school where one wants to be a loner. We had three quarters back then, instead of two semesters. My first-quarter freshmen chemistry class was in an auditorium with 500 students. I became best friends with high school acquaintances because we needed each other on the big campus. And there were all the new people to meet. You needed friends so you could get notes from them if you missed class or skipped class. You wanted friends as come-with guys to go anywhere, to lunch, to the bookstore or to bars or parties. There was too much social pressure for you not to have and need friends.

There has been plenty of second guessing about the university's decision to not close classes after the first shooting. I'm not sure how you can lock down a campus in a short time, and for how long?

Last August, classes were closed when an escaped inmate allegedly killed a hospital guard and sheriff's deputy off-campus. That was a rare event until this week, closing classes and murder in Blacksburg.

During my freshman year, when we came back from Christmas break, it was so cold the pipes froze in my dorm. We had no heat or hot water for several days. We had to go to adjacent dorms like Lee Hall or AJ to shower. But our beers stayed cold outside of the mini-fridges in the dorm room. And classes were open as usual.

What's scary is that Virginia Tech will now be known and identified as a college Columbine, a reminder of every time some deranged gunman goes on a rampage. A label and memory that may equal or be greater than what the place is really like 99.9 percent of the time - a peaceful, safe campus where snowflakes fall on windy April mornings.

E-mail staff writer Hue Ha at hue.ha@gwinnettdailypost.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.