Students, faculty, staff and members of the Ithaca community gathered in Sage Chapel yesterday afternoon to remember and reflect on the recent tragedy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Despite the fact that the service was held at 12:30 p.m., when many students and faculty are in class, the chapel was packed to capacity, with people pressed against the walls and in doorways.
The assembly fell silent as Prof. Annette Richards, music, opened the service with a melancholy and discordant organ solo. The mood remained hushed and somber as W. Kent Fuchs, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering and father of Eric Fuchs, a junior at Virginia Tech, began the speaking portion of the service.
Fuchs focused on the connections that Cornell shares with Virginia Tech as a major university, saying that Cornell and Virginia Tech are “part of the same family of students and faculty and staff.”
“The tragedy is particularly difficult to comprehend because … of the contrast to the love and care demonstrated by the students and faculty at that university. The tragedy is also an enormous contrast to the common mission that we have and that we share in: the joy of learning and study,” he said.
Fuchs spoke with emotion and even a little humor, saying that “from Eric, I’ve come to appreciate what it means to have a turkey for your mascot, and to call yourself a ‘Hokie,’ which my son does with enormous pride.”
President David J. Skorton echoed Fuchs’ emphasis on family and unity, repeating, in tones that might be used to recite a poem, “We are one.”
“We are one — one community, one people, one planet. We are here today to affirm that oneness,” he said. “We share the same sorrow and the same need for comfort and reassurance … We will stay together, we will go forward together, we will never forget our loss. We are one.”
Provost Biddy Martin was in Virginia, her native state, visiting her mother on Monday morning. She said she was struck by the “dignity of the students who were approached for interviews by the press - their humility, their respect, their unwillingness to offer superficial commentary, their resistance to easy analysis or the assigning of blame. In response to the questions they were asked, they made a plea … that we not reduce their experience or their university to this horror, this unspeakable tragedy.”
“In response to their plea, it is not hard, I think, for Cornellians to answer, to identify with Virginia Tech,” she said.
The service was punctuated by musical performances, including the Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club and a vocal solo by Rev. Heewon Chun, chaplain of the Korean Church at Cornell.
Chun said he found the service “very comforting. It will give Cornellians energy to cope with what has happened, and will also give hope for the future … one for backwards, one for forwards.” He also said that the Korean community deeply aches for this tragedy, and noted that some members of the Korean community are concerned about the possibility of race-related backlash.
Thomas Riehl ’09 said he felt “wary of how much race seems to be playing into it. Why was it even pertinent to have [a Korean religious leader] sing? Why is this even part of the issue? It just seems so wrong and out of it to bring up the kid’s race.”
Sarah Dunlap ’06 was also concerned with the potential effect the incident and the media’s treatment of it could have on the community of international students. She noted that “on CNN, the commentators kept referring to the shooter as an ‘alien’ because he was a foreign student. I was disgusted—that’s demoralizing. It’s offensive to the entire body of foreign students, and on the individual level, that kind of exclusion and alienation is the kind of thing that leads to the desperate misery and rage that makes some people lash out in horrible ways.”
Dunlap found comfort in the service itself, however, saying that she “liked the focus on community. The response of the Cornell community is different from the response of the national community. It’s not sensationalist; it’s more nuanced. I think that’s because even if we don’t have a personal connection to Virginia Tech, we still identify strongly with them because we belong to the same university culture.”
Some people have questioned why the service was held in the middle of the afternoon, when a large portion of students was in class.
Ken Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, said that the time was chosen in order to “catch the greatest cross-section of the Cornell community.” He acknowledged that there was no optimal time to hold the service, and while some students had to miss it due to class obligations, much of the staff and faculty would have missed an evening service because of obligations at home. Clarke also noted that holding the service at 12:30 meant that it would be flanked by the chimes.
The bells of McGraw tower rang 33 times before the service, once for each of the victims, and the daily afternoon chimes concert began just as people began filing out of Sage Chapel.
You can view a recording of the service at www.cornell.edu.