It is unusual to see even one pedestrian on Georgetown Pike – particularly after dark – but on Wednesday evening, April 18, hundreds of people could be seen cautiously navigating the barely-there shoulders of the Georgetown Pike segment that runs between River Bend Road and Wincrest Place in Great Falls.
“I am absolutely amazed at how many people came out tonight,” said Charla Jenrette, president of the National Capital Region (NCR) chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, and a 1998 graduate of Virginia Tech. “The turn-out is just incredible.”
On Monday morning, April 16, the Virginia Tech community was forever changed when student Cho Seung Hui went on a killing spree on the school’s Blacksburg campus. By the time Seung Hui finished his attack and took his own life, he had killed an unprecedented 32 victims – most of whom were students. His rampage was the worst mass murder of this kind in U.S. history.
IN RESPONSE to the tragedy, St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls collaborated with the National Capital Region chapter of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association to arrange a candlelight vigil. Last week, a St. Francis church member who is also a graduate of Virginia Tech contacted church rector Rev. Penelope Bridges and inquired about the possibility of holding a service. Bridges then called Charla Jenrette, who was immediately eager to organize a vigil. On Tuesday, April 17, Jenrette called Bridges to ask how much space the church had.
“She said ‘this is getting really big, how many people can you hold?’” said Bridges. “I told her that we can seat 300 in the church, but we also have a field.”
As it turned out, St. Francis was very fortunate to have that field. Due to the turnout, the service had to be moved outdoors, and those who did not arrive early were forced to park along the precarious shoulders of Georgetown Pike, or in nearby neighborhoods, and then traverse up to half a mile to get to the church grounds.
“All the immediate neighbors were so gracious and hospitable,” said Bridges. “They offered their streets and their driveways for parking and shined flashlights on their lawn for people who were walking.”
Boy Scout Troop 673 from Great Falls United Methodist Church assisted with parking and directing traffic, and the Difficult Run Jazz Band loaned the church its sound system.
“It actually worked out nicely in the field because it was an echo of the previous evening vigil at Virginia Tech,” said Bridges. “It was so touching to look out on that field and see so many young people. They needed to be together, they needed somewhere where they could grieve and that’s what Episcopalians do – we’re a community church and it’s important to us to be an open place to the community.”
She estimates that there were approximately 1,000 people at the event.
“It was overwhelming,” said Bridges. “It was by far, the most people we have ever had at St. Francis.”
Alumnae Jennifer Organsky, who completed her graduate studies at Virginia Tech in 2001, said it was moving to see everyone band together for support during this time of tragedy. “I’m so amazed by the amount of people that showed up tonight – I mean, I expected this because I know how close-knit of a family Virginia Tech is, but it’s still gratifying to see just how many did come out,” said Organsky.
As chapter president, Charla Jenrette opened the service and introduced the other speakers. Bridges led the service and was followed by Jack Hutchison’s reading of the victims’ names and the poem “We Are Virginia Tech.” A bell was rung 32 times in honor of each victim, and attendees observed a moment of silence, followed by a rousing crowd chant of “Let’s go Hokies!”
“I broke up all over again when I gave my speech,” said Jenrette. “Those Hokies that were killed were part of our family. I love Virginia Tech – I have always said I wanted to retire there and I still do, because the people are so amazing and there is such a sense of community there.”
At the vigil, Jenrette also announced that Friday, April 20 would be “Orange and Maroon Effect Day,” in honor of those who were killed during Cho’s murderous rampage. She encouraged everyone – regardless of whether or not they had any affiliation with Virginia Tech – to wear the school’s colors on April 20.
IT WAS not only Virginia Tech alumni who attended Wednesday night’s vigil. Alumni from numerous other schools also came in a show of solidarity during this time of crisis.
“I’m just here to show my support,” said Kim Wierzbieki, a graduate of West Virginia University.
Several local news stations covered the event and donations were collected for the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund to help the families of those who were killed.
Laura Lew, a 1995 Virginia Tech graduate, said that it was heart-wrenching for her to watch Monday’s tragedy play out on the news.
“I was almost in disbelief because it seemed so surreal to be seeing these pictures on TV, and I just kept thinking this could not be happening at the school where I had so many fond memories,” said Lew. “I really grew up there and found out who I was.”
Lew’s husband Christopher Kehde, a 1997 graduate of Virginia Tech, said that he found out about the shootings when his mother called him at work on Monday morning.
“I was blown away,” said Kehde. “It was just unimaginable.”
Kehde said that the mass murder was particularly unsettling because he always felt that Virginia Tech was the epitome of the ideal college environment. However, Kehde said he is confident that the Hokie community will pull together to ensure that the school does not lose its spirit and vitality.
“It was, and still is, a wonderful, peaceful place of learning,” said Kehde.