Memorials to the victims of the April 16 shooting began appearing all over the Blacksburg area almost immediately last spring.
Perhaps one of the most memorable was the cardboard "VT" sign situated near the War Memorial chapel on the Drillfield. Signed by both President George Bush and Gov. Tim Kaine, the sign was surrounded by candles and memorabilia dedicated to the victims.
On the afternoon of April 16, 2007, Greg Sagstetter, an alum and then-member of Hokies United, along with other members of the student group, approached Tom Tillar, the vice president of the Alumni Association, to ask what they could do about a memorial.
Sagstetter said that the group of Hokies United students had previously formed relationships through working together with the Commission for Student Affairs. It felt natural for the group to meet that day and come up with a plan of action to bring the community together. He said they knew they needed to act by the end of the day.
"One of the students came to me and asked me how they could get into the (Blacksburg) quarry to get Hokie Stones," Tillar said. "My reply was, 'You don't have time, just go to a building site and take some, and I'll cover you if you get in trouble.'"
Late into the emotional night of April 16, three students from the Hokies United group carried 32 stones weighing between 50 and 70 pounds from the staging site for the university-owned quarry to the viewing stand located on the Drillfield in front of Burruss Hall. They couldn't have known that this temporary memorial would become one of the most powerful and recognizable images of the Tech campus in the days and weeks following.
Soon after the stones were arranged into their now-permanent semi-circle, people began to flock to the arc of stones and gather to reflect and grieve. Items ranging from birthday cards to blown out eggs to volleyballs were left among the rocks in remembrance of the victims of the shootings.
When President Charles Steger appointed Tillar, who had previously worked on many ceremonial events through the Alumni Association, to chair the memorial committee, Tillar put together a group representative of the university community to aid in the conception process. Together they ultimately come up with the idea for a permanent memorial.
The group included members of Hokies United, the Board of Visitors, the Alumni Association, Student Affairs, the Virginia Tech Foundation, teaching staff, the Korean Students Association and members associated with architecture and landscape at Tech.
The committee decided to keep the original design placed by the students.
"Certainly there were some points of contention in the meetings. The students really wanted to maintain the spontaneous memorial. Some people wanted to see that gone and someplace new," Sagstetter said. "We felt the memorial was real and genuine."
Once it was decided to keep the original design, development began to move at a surprisingly swift pace. The first issue addressed was the deterioration of the ground surrounding the memorial under the feet of thousands of visitors, so a walkway needed to be constructed. A large floral area was created in the center of the arc to replace the perishable items left by the community. Larger stones weighing were engraved with the names of the victims and brought in to replace the temporary stones. The decision was made to omit a stone for gunman Seung-Hui Cho, a decision that would become a controversy surrounding the memorial.
Tillar said the original expected cost of building the memorial was $60,000 to $70,000. However, because members of the community and local businesses donated money, time, and labor, it was ultimately built for just over $20,000. This enabled to committee to avoid applying to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund for money.
Raising money for a memorial following a tragedy has proven difficult in the past. Coupled with the sensitive nature of a memorial and indecisiveness over whom the memorial is honoring and how it should be done, often memorials of tragedy are either erected long after the events, or altogether ignored.
At Texas A&M, it took the university 5 years to built a memorial dedicated to those killed in a bonfire accident in 1999. At Kent State, the site of the second-largest college campus shooting following Tech's, it took 20 years to put up a memorial. The memorial that was supposed to be erected at Ground Zero to honor those killed on September 11, 2001 has yet to be constructed.