July 11, 2020

Jerzy Nowak’s Story II

My wife had a network in the community. Anywhere I went, to the bank, to the insurance company, to some utilities, it was like a red carpet for me. The support was tremendous. I continue with this network, fostering what she had established.

I tried to keep my daughter occupied, so there were always some friends coming. But at one point my daughter came and she doesn’t like hugs and she came to me and said dad, when is it over? When will we have a normal life?

An overwhelming challenge for me was handling parcels and letters. I also got close to 2,000 e-mails, various religious paraphernalia, numerous quilts, which were given to shelters. I learned that if I don’t open the parcels, I can just go to the post office and put on a sticker that says I refused to take them. That helped but it was truly overwhelming. There was also a certain level of anticipation for the return of gratitude which I couldn’t do. We developed a thank-you letter and it was published in the Washington Post, Roanoke Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, one French Canadian paper and the Halifax Herald. I also privately sponsored a thank you note for the news coverage in Poland, in my home town and university. That was the extent I could manage to respond. Various religious groups and zealots would resend what I sent back over and over and over. And then you had this flock of lawyers after you because somehow they learned that my wife was not a full-time employee and now we’re not getting any compensation.

About my family: Francine at the time was finishing university in British Columbia. Performing Arts and French, two majors. She handled the media and I will get back to that. Very articulate in both languages. She finished university and we all thought that she was taking this loss the best, but I was very wrong. Francine sort of became afraid of the next step in her life. She had big dreams, short term, long term, big dreams. Suddenly they disappeared. She immersed herself totally in social networks. She went to study theater directing in Paris, France, for a year and I thought that would help but it didn’t. She quit the second year of the master’s program. So she’s actually my biggest worry. A very talented young lady. She started the local anti-gun organization but somehow just cannot stay focused. She always refers to her mother, always talks about her. She got a part time teaching job, she teaches French and arts in a private school in Vancouver now with childhood education props my wife developed. She wants to mimic her mother’s career path now.

Sylvie was 12 when it happened. How does someone move on after a loss like this? Her world was violently shattered. Out of I believe five children who lost a parent on April 16, she was the only one who lost her mother. We didn’t know each other. I worked. My wife took care of everything. We had to rebuild our relationship from scratch. This picture I found was taken on the 3rd of July 2007, about three months after. Look at her hair. She didn’t cut this hair until last fall. She was hiding behind it.

During the funeral time when the family came, Jocelyne’s brother, who was an athlete, brought a videotape with my wife winning  a triathlon competition in Nova Scotia. Sylvie said what is a triathlon, and I had to explain it to her, and she said, “I want to do a triathlon.” And in June she got enrolled in the triathlon. She was a very good swimmer and runner so she just had to do cycling. In the last week of September there was a meet in Shelby, North Carolina, and she went there and won the competition. She won again in Richmond next year. Her time was almost four minutes better than the boy who won the competition. I could see her running like a marathon runner, passing everyone. She came to me and said dad I am not crying but dad I would like my mom to see me.

The school provided a counseling service that fall for children who lost their parents. This was a mixed blessing because they were taking these kids out of class for the sessions twice a week so then they had to catch up. The teachers didn’t like that. She did not open up, she did not talk to anybody. For a half a year she just sat there and didn’t say anything. Eventually she did start to build some rapport with one of the girls and with a counselor. But the next year she moved to the high school, so they tried to transfer her to  another counselor and then another one. And she came to me one day, she was 14 at the time and said dad, I hate counselors. She said they’re like spiders trying to grab me in their web.


As Jerzy Nowak’s experience showed, notifying victims’ families was an agonizingly slow process. It took until well into the day after the shooting for the last families to receive official word of their loved ones’ deaths. For those survivors, the tragedy was still happening. But even before notifications had been completed, the university was beginning its effort to get past the immediate shock and pick up the threads of community life. On the afternoon of April 17, a convocation ceremony was held, with President Bush, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, leading university officials and local religious leaders among those attending to offer statements of sympathy and support. Poet Nikki Giovanni’s closing words at the convocation came to symbolize the community’s determination to recover:

“We are the Hokies.

“We will prevail.

“We will prevail.

“We will prevail.

“We are Virginia Tech.”

At 8 o’clock that evening thousands of students and other members of the university community gathered on the drillfield for a candlelight vigil to remember and mourn the victims. Those who were there recall the convocation, the vigil, and other swiftly organized commemorative events as powerful moments of togetherness, reflecting a strong determination to find unity and strength after the tragedy.

There were also, however, areas of uncertainty and confusion, some of it avoidable and some not, in the days after the shootings. One set of decisions that some in the community look back on with mixed feelings had to do with how to finish the academic year and whether students should remain on campus or go home. Under university policy, students could accept the grade they had earned up to April 16 and not attend the remaining classes or do any further assignments. They could continue to do classwork if they chose, and if the additional work improved their record that would give them a higher grade for the course. But if completing further assignments would lower their grade, they would still get the one they had on April 16. Guidance for faculty members, as one of them recalled, was to announce that policy and “to be as flexible and forgiving as possible” in carrying it out.

John Ryan: Basically, students could just decide to take the grade they had and go home.  Many students attempted to come back and go to class but it was meaningless. So after the first day back many classes just emptied out.

Laura Agnich: They went back the first day, so they were kind of looking for that structure, for a sense of community, but then it was lost and they just went home.

Faculty members were also unsure — and received little guidance — on how to deal with the event in the classroom when classes resumed.

Ryan: Many faculty felt that they were not prepared to have this discussion, they weren’t trained to have this discussion, they weren’t comfortable. That’s something to think about too, about the various roles that people are expected to play. And you’ll read in the Review Panel report that a lot of the people who were dealing with the families had not necessarily been trained to do that work, that it was a very ad-hoc sort of thing.

Donald Shoemaker: We were never told and still don’t know who the injured victims were. And they could have been in your class. Those of us teaching courses on violence had to be careful about what to say and how to say it because you never knew who might have been closely affected. We did have counselors outside the classrooms when we returned. But there was no personal communication with professors about the students in their class who were directly affected.

Donna Alvis-Banks, then a reporter for the Roanoke Times, covered the tragedy not just as a journalist but as a local resident who cared about Virginia Tech and the community and felt deep sympathy for the victims and survivors. But that sympathy was not always reciprocated. As has become a pattern in highly newsworthy tragedies, intensive news coverage quickly came to be seen as intrusive, and journalists — even when they tried to cover the story respectfully and humanely — often encountered deep suspicion and hostility from those they were attempting to write about. In addition, authorities worried about legal liability issues sought to keep journalists away from anyone who might speak unguardedly or critically about official policies or actions. Banks recalled:

The families of wounded victims and those who were deceased were warned not to talk to the press and I think they were told a lot of scary things about the press. I remember talking to one family. They didn’t speak great English and it was hard to explain to them what I was doing. And they told me, we’re scared of the press, we’re scared of the media, and that made it hard. Sometimes I would go to the memorials, and students would have signs up, “Media go away,” but I’d see one of them in tears and I just did what came naturally which was to go up and put my arms around them. A lot of times they didn’t want to talk to me and that was OK, but a lot of times they did want to talk to me.

Like “aftermath,” the word “survivors” does not have a single, precise definition. In its narrowest sense, the word identifies two specific groups: those who were in the room or the building and at risk of being hit by Cho’s gunfire, but were not killed; or alternatively, family members and close friends of those who died. More broadly,  it can mean a wider category of people who were not directly in danger or closely connected with the victims but were close to the event and strongly affected by it. That definition would include the student body and faculty as a whole, the rest of the university community, and perhaps also the residents of Blacksburg and the surrounding area. Even more broadly, to the extent that instant and highly intensive coverage of the shootings engaged a nationwide audience in the story and the compelling emotions it caused, viewers and readers across the entire country might be considered survivors, at least momentarily. In a somewhat different sense, the university itself can be called a survivor too. Like the individuals affected by the tragedy, the institution also experienced loss, stress, disruption of normal life and a struggle for recovery — including, as more than one speaker observed, a struggle not to let the shootings come to define the university’s identity.

Different categories of survivors, obviously, had different needs to be met. To work with the most immediate group — victims’ families, injured students, or students “closely connected with the event” — the university established an Office of Recovery and Support. Recovery coordinator Megan Armbruster recalled efforts in the first several months to bring the campus back to normal life:

Students return for the final week of classes, we have commencement, then in June the Office of Recovery and Support was created. We took over the work of the family liaisons in August, right as school was starting, so they were with the families through the summer. In that time we created and completed and dedicated the memorial. Classes resumed and case managers were hired in the Dean of Students Office and the Cook Counseling Center to work with students who were having mandatory psychological evaluations. We had some big fall events that I think helped the larger community — a football game against East Carolina University and a Dave Matthews concert. And I think they were really meaningful for people getting together.

Her own conclusion from those events, Armbruster added, was “if people could have just stayed in Blacksburg all summer and have picnics on the drillfield that would’ve been the best thing ever.” Working with the families, Armbruster acknowledged, had its difficult moments from the start. In the original group of family liaisons the range of knowledge and experience was quite wide:

We had new employees, they hadn’t been at VT very long, all the way to an associate vice president for student affairs. The families who had folks who had a longer tenure at VT, had a bigger picture of Virginia Tech, had more knowledge of resources perhaps, those families had one experience, vs. families who had liaisons who had lesser knowledge of VT bureaucracy. Very few if any had knowledge of Virginia government or the compensation fund available for physical injury, funds available for victims of crime. Those were things that people at VT had no knowledge of. Now the Virginia legislature has mandated that any time there are victims of crime, government agencies come in and help navigate all of this. What we should have done was marry victim advocates from the state with our family liaisons, because those advocates have so much knowledge about what’s available for victims of crime that our liaisons didn’t know. And we’re still as of last spring introducing our families to those people. So it’s still taking a long time.

Jerzy Nowak’s Story I

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a 49-year-old French instructor, was one of five Virginia Tech faculty members who died in the April 16 shootings. Her Polish-born husband, Jerzy Nowak, a biochemist, was head of the department of horticulture in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nowak subsequently took a leave of absence from that position to establish the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and serve as its director. The Center initiated its operation in July 2008 and is housed on the same floor in Norris Hall where Couture-Nowak and 11 of her students were killed. At ACIA’s meeting, Nowak recalled his experiences on that day:

My 12-year-old daughter’s school called and said Sylvie has not been picked up after school. So I called my wife. I did not know she was teaching in Norris Hall. I called her department and I asked where did Jocelyn teach? “She taught in Norris Hall,” the secretary responded. So I quickly jumped into the car and went to pick up my daughter at the school and asked my secretary to brief me on the way about the developments. We went home. I got a call from my secretary who said at 4 o’clock there will be a briefing for the victims and friends. I told Sylvie that we have to go to Virginia Tech, so make sure you grab something to eat.

We arrived at Virginia Tech and there were a lot of people and administrators running around. Nobody wanted to take any questions. I finally became agitated and pinpointed one of them to help me to call the hospitals. Eventually a lady called and after a while she said, your wife is not in any of the hospitals. I took it at first as good news. But then I said oh my god, and the administrator heard me and came to me and said you know, she could be among the dead. I said you did not need to tell me that. I turned around and left and went home.

Another person who lost her husband told me this story about a year and a half after the shooting. She used her maiden name, and she didn’t have her marriage certificate. And so she was harassed about even being able to ask for information. Eventually with the support of friends she was listed. Because her husband’s name was somewhere at the top of the alphabet, she was called at 7:30 that evening. There were a lot of people around. She approached the table and in a very loud voice, among all these people standing around, a policeman gave the name of her husband and said he has been killed. Her legs got soft and here’s what she told me:  “I was very vulnerable. And I was not protected from the insensitive individual. At that moment I felt victimized twice.” She turned around and left, walking away down a very long corridor between lines of people, all staring. “I could not cry.”

After I got home a friend came and we immediately got on the phone.  We confirmed that my wife had not been admitted to any of the hospitals.  I said to my friend, crying, “I am ready.”  There was a command center where you could call a hotline and get information, and they were supposed to call me with updates. Never called me. My daughter went to her mom’s bed because she wanted to “smell her”. Then, at 11:30 in the night I received a call from the provost that he and another administrator were coming to see me. I forgot that we moved literally four or five weeks ago and that he would go to the old address, so I called his phone but couldn’t get in touch. Eventually at 12:30 they arrived. The provost was compassionate. And he told me what happened.

The Event

April 16, 2007, was “a bizarre weather day,” Ryan recalled, “an April day with 30 mph winds, snow and paper blowing across campus. The wind can really howl here.”  His colleague, sociology professor James Hawdon, continued with the chronology of that morning:

Cho wakes up early. At about 6:47 a.m. he’s spotted outside West Ambler Johnston dormitory. At 7:02 Emily Hilscher arrives at her dorm room, which was her routine. Over the weekend she would spend time with her boyfriend and he would drop her off on Monday morning. About 7:15 Cho has somehow entered West AJ and he shoots Emily. Ryan Clark, the RA who rooms next to her, hears a commotion, comes over to help her, at least that’s what the police believe, and is also shot. About 7:20 the VT police receive a call. They’re there in about 4 minutes.

According to a revised Review Panel chronology issued in December 2009, university police were quickly joined by officers from the Blacksburg police department and Virginia State Police. At 8:14 a.m. Hilscher’s roommate arrived and told detectives that Emily’s boyfriend owned guns and practiced with them. Almost immediately, Wendell Flinchum, the chief of the Virginia Tech police department, contacted administrators with that new information.  Hawdon continued:

Chief Flinchum informs them that they have a suspect. During this time officers are searching for the boyfriend. They search the parking lots, they’re searching his home, and they cannot find him. They become confident that he had indeed left campus, which he had. At 9:01 Cho is at the Blacksburg post office mailing what becomes the infamous package that he sends to NBC news.  At 9:05 the second period of classes begins. Between 9:15 and 9:30 Cho is spotted outside Norris Hall. This period of time is when he was chaining the doors shut, although no one reports having seen him actually chain the doors up.

At 9:24 the police finally find Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend off campus in his pickup truck. They begin questioning him and at that point begin to get a little concerned. At 9:26 the university administration sent an e-mail to everyone on campus, informing us that there had been a shooting at West Ambler Johnston and urging us to be cautious, to basically stay put. As this is happening, the police perform a residue analysis on Emily Hilscher’s boyfriend. It comes back negative and they now know they have not correctly framed the incident. At the same time Cho goes into Norris Hall and commits the deadliest school shooting to date, killing 30 and wounding 13. He starts shooting at 9:40. At 9:42 the police receive a 911 call, they are there at 9:45. The doors were chained and it took them five minutes to shoot through one of the machine shop doors and enter the building.

My office is about 300 yards from Norris Hall. I have a direct view. There were dozens of officers there by 9:50, Virginia Tech police, Blacksburg police, Montgomery county police and state police. Shortly afterward there were also FBI agents. At this time a second e-mail goes out to the campus, advising that a gunman is loose on campus and everyone should stay in buildings and away from windows. At 9:51 Cho shoots himself. At 10:17 we get a third e-mail saying classes are cancelled and we are told again to stay inside, lock our doors and keep away from the windows. At 10:52 we get another e-mail, informing us for the first time that there were multiple victims at Norris Hall.

Ned Benton pointed out that the timeline lists official communications, but that private, unofficial messages were also an important means of spreading information. Media reports too often reached the campus community well before e-mails from the university administration. Several participants offered examples:

John Ryan: Our executive secretary in our department has a daughter who works in Burruss Hall, and the daughter called with the information about the West AJ shooting probably 20 minutes to a half an hour before the first e-mail came out. Then people in the office started listening to the police scanner…

Megan Armbruster: My brother called me from Denver before I got anything official because CNN was reporting it before anyone else.

Armbruster, who subsequently became recovery coordinator for both the Dean of Students Office and the Division of Student Affairs, recalled that as soon as news of the shootings began to spread,

Families were immediately calling, texting, trying to get hold of their students and eventually 32 families weren’t hearing from their kids or spouses and they started driving to campus. Families of the injured students were going through a similar process. They were calling friends and friends were saying they’re at the hospital. Identifications began and there’s the story of one parent who was calling all over and finally got hold of a nurse who said we don’t have identification or a picture of your son. The mother had a picture of her son on her cell phone and sent it to the nurse on her cell phone so that the nurse could see the picture and say yes, your son’s here at the hospital.

The Chronology

Turning to the background of the April 16 events, Ryan gave a summary of an official chronology, compiled by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, that starts with Seung Hui Cho’s birth in Korea and his immigration with his family to the United States:

Cho exhibits difficulties in grade school and high school, but it seems to have been dealt with quite effectively by mental health professionals. And one of the things you’ll notice in the report is that his family seems to be quite supportive, concerned, involved in his life, at least until he gets to Virginia Tech.

His freshman year here seemed to go pretty well. No reports of any major incidents. Sophomore year became more problematic. He came in as a business information technology major, but he switches to English. He exhibits quite a bit of interest in writing. He writes a novel and submits it for publication and it’s rejected and the report implies that might have been a significant incident in his life. Junior year is when the problems seem to become much more apparent. His family sees him withdrawing. He has problems in the poet Nikki Giovanni’s class. She is a very imposing powerful teacher and powerful person, so to read that she’s intimidated by a student is really quite shocking. Dr. Lucinda Roy was chair of the English department at that time, and she begins to petition the various offices on campus for help with the student. At the same time she takes him on as a student because Nikki Giovanni doesn’t want him in her class anymore.

Just before New Year of 2006, he’s admitted under a TDO [temporary detention order] to St. Albans hospital in Radford, 12 miles from here. He is evaluated the next day and released after I think two or three independent evaluations that he’s not a danger to himself or others. Under the family protection act, FERPA, his parents are not involved or informed of any of these difficulties, including the TDO, given his age and so on. So then we’re into the spring semester. The weapons, the ammunition are purchased. From my reading of the report, his contact with mental health services has stopped at this point.

The Setting

In the opening session of ACIA’s  Virginia Tech conference, John Ryan sketched the setting and earlier events leading to the April 16 tragedy:

You are on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Beginning in the 1980s the preferred name was Virginia Tech. This is a public land-grant university, founded in 1872. You’re in Blacksburg, Virginia, which has a population of about 40,000. And you’re in the New River Valley, on a plateau which sits between the Allegheny mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. This university is known for engineering, architecture, science, business, agriculture. In the last few years it’s been emphasizing liberal arts, humanities and social sciences, trying to become more comprehensive. We have 30,739 students, about 24,000 undergraduates. We have about 1,400 faculty. The mascot is the Hokie bird, sort of a turkey-like creature on steroids. It used to be the Virginia Tech fighting gobbler, but somewhere along the line the fighting gobbler became the hokie bird. The team is called the Hokies, and where that comes from is a cheer.