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Graduating Tech students balance joy, grief
Families receive class rings, diplomas for slain students

By Kristen Gelineau
Associated Press Writer

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Struggling to balance grief with a graduation celebration, an emotional Virginia Tech President Charles Steger handed out class rings to the families of 27 slain students Friday night, remembering them and five teachers killed in a shooting rampage as people who were simultaneously serious and fun-loving.

They loved horseback riding and tennis. They were musicians and dancers. They were kind and compassionate, talented and unique, he told 3,600 graduates and a crowd of nearly 30,000 friends and family. They were Hokies.

“Although so young, they had managed to accomplish much,” Steger said. “In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well.”’

Shattered dreams

Less than a month ago, gunman Seung-Hui Cho wrought devastation on this campus, a hail of bullets shattering dreams forever. While Steger acknowledged the emotional wounds may never heal, he urged the graduates to move forward and celebrate life.

“Please know that moving on — moving on is not the same as forgetting,” he said. “We shall not forget. Yet, one senseless burst of violence — as horrible and hurtful as it is — will not turn us from our essence.”

As images of the slain students and faculty flashed on a huge screen at Lane Stadium, Steger and Provost Mark McNamee handed out the rings and received hugs in return. Diplomas were to follow in smaller ceremonies Saturday, though Cho’s family will receive neither. He killed himself as police closed in.

A general’s words

Retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, praised the graduates for their quiet courage, dignity and poise in dealing with the tragedy. And though they must honor the lives that were lost, they must not be paralyzed by the past, he said.

Survivors have a responsibility to realize the dreams and aspirations of the slain.

“While we are saddened by the loss of those who cannot be here today, I believe that they would want this ceremony to commemorate both the tragedy of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow,” he said. “I believe that they look down on this gathering with dignified pride.”

Students, parents and faculty rose to their feet and cheered as Abizaid thanked Steger for “holding things together” in a time of tragedy.

In many ways, the evening ceremony seemed like most commencements. Grinning students jumped and down and waved as their faces appeared on the stadium’s giant screen while “Pomp and Circumstance” played and a faint drizzle fell.

Students chanted “Hokies!” and the stadium’s stands twinkled with constant camera flashes from the graduates’ proud family members. Students decorated their mortarboards with “VT” and “Hi Mom.”

But the speeches, while marked by hope, were also laced with sorrow.

“Rest assured, we will define ourselves by where we have been and where we will go,” class historian Jennifer Weber said.

Some of the victims’ families couldn’t bear to attend graduation. Others said they had no choice but to come.

“We have to. This is right for us,” said Peter Read, whose freshman daughter Mary Karen Read was among those killed.

Earlier in the day, Steger and others addressed about half of the nearly 1,200 graduate students who received master’s and doctorate degrees. Nine slain graduate students were awarded posthumous degrees.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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