RICHMOND — Silence and sorrow hung over the Stuart C. Siegel Center afternoon as an estimated 1,200 VCU students and Richmond residents filled the coliseum to collectively mourn the victims of Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech.
Community and university leaders, including Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, spoke about grieving and the need for solidarity during times of crisis. VCU President Eugene P. Trani, who is in Brazil, offered his condolences to all those affected by the tragedy via a recorded video message.
John Bennett, senior vice president of finance and administration at VCU began the procession.
“You and I, all of us, changed our schedules, rearranged our lives, altered our priorities, to be here today,” Bennett told the attendants, many of whom were teary-eyed and dressed in Tech’s colors, maroon and orange. “Today, we are all Hokies.”
Wilder articulated what many in the audience were feeling above all else: disbelief.
“Those of us in Virginia looking to the quiet mountains in the western part of our state — the most bucolic scene on a campus that’s known for its quietude — to see something like this happen, it’s riveting,” he said. “It makes us all come to understand that it can happen anywhere.”
The mayor stressed unity in providing relief to those who need it and also unity in grief.
“To the extent that we can commit our efforts, our every motive should be to be certain that we are a brotherhood of men and women living together, that we are each other’s brother’s keeper,” Wilder said.
Citing Genesis 4:9, Chris McDaniel, president of the Interfaith Campus Ministers Association, elaborated on the theme of brotherhood.
“Are we are our brother’s keeper? The obvious answer is ‘yes,’ ” he said. “The proof is in the fact that with events like what took place — mass murder, mass killing that takes place — we all feel a part of it.
“Our business is to love and care for each other,” McDaniel said. “Our business is to be eternally vigilant in looking out for each other. That’s the only way we’re going to prevent something like this from happening again.”
Brothers James and D’Arcy Mays, both Tech alumni and associate professors of statistics at VCU, shared their memories of the campus from their student days. Both said they could not comprehend how a quaint college town like Blacksburg could become the setting of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
“I couldn’t imagine that Blacksburg. … just about every home football game, I have been back,” D’Arcy said. “That is not the Blacksburg that I know. That is not the Virginia Tech that I know.
As a token of sympathy, James raised his keychain, which included a Hokie emblem, and asked everyone who had a pair to shake them in the air, as is the tradition at Tech football games.
“This is a message out to those Hokies everywhere that need our support,” he said, as the rattle of thousands of keys rang across the Siegel Center.
Student representatives from VCU’s Monroe Park and Medical Center campus student government associations offered words to convey how students are coming to grips with the violence that seized Tech.
“I don’t really have a lot to say, because what do you say when something like this happens?” said Megan Shandelson, Monroe Park campus student body vice president. “As students, we are in a very unique position today, because they’re students, and we can reach out to them in a way that no one else can.”
Representing the Medical Center campus, Giza High, president-elect of the MCV SGA, said medical students and professionals have to deal with death and pain on a daily basis. “But no amount of training or years spent in a hospital can prepare one for this magnitude of death so close to our campus,” she said.
The convocation ended with Board of Visitors member John Sherman leading a prayer and Corey Boone, president of NAACP at VCU, singing an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Most of their heads bowed or propped on friends’ or family members’ shoulders, audience members exited the coliseum in silence. In the lobby, many lined up to write messages on banners to be sent to Tech, while others consoled their sobbing companions.
Allyn Clark, a freshman finance major from Roanoke, said overcoming shock has been the biggest obstacle for her. She knows Derek O’Dell, a Tech student who was shot in the arm.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Clark said. “I can’t even believe it still.”
“It’s just like everyone says,” said Chris Stevens, a VCU junior also from Roanoke. “If you’ve been to Blacksburg, it’s just something that’s not even thinkable to happen in a town like that.”