One supportive message came engraved on a 150-pound rock from the Mississippi River. Another was a lime-green hood from a race car bearing Virginia Tech’s logo. A large painting of a tree arrived on a semitrailer from a New York university.
Gifts of comfort showered upon Virginia Tech after a student killed 32 people and himself have gotten larger, heavier and more exotic since the April 16 shooting rampage.
“It started with e-mails,” said Steven Estrada, who had worked at the university doing the student center’s budget for only a month when he was given the job of finding a place for everything.
The volume was huge from the start. It took hours to print and paste condolences on boards. Flowers arrived. Then the mail arrived: first letters, cards and drawings, then boxes in a range of sizes.
One person wanted to donate a motorcycle, university spokesman Larry Hincker said.
Estrada couldn’t handle the gifts alone and his colleagues were stretched thin as the campus struggled in the aftermath of the massacre, so he scoured the community and found more than 80 volunteers.
They showed up faithfully, filling all available display space in the student center with deliveries of quilts and banners signed by thousands.
One volunteer from Massachusetts, whom Estrada would identify only as Jeff, interrupted a trip after he heard news reports of the shootings. Jeff has prostate cancer and had been given less than a year to live, but he wanted to help, Estrada said.
People often feel a need to give as an act of comfort after a death, but also as a way to help restore order, said Brian Britt, a Virginia Tech professor of religious studies.
“There was something particularly upsetting about these shootings in this bucolic environment that made people feel particularly unsettled,” he said. “One way to ward off evil is to give gifts.”
Flags came from the White House, the Statue of Liberty and numerous colleges. One was from the Iraqi town of Tikrit.
As the days passed, the banners got longer. The longest Estrada saw was 116 feet, 10 inches, sent from Eastern Michigan University.
“Mostly every day it was `Where do I put this?'” he said.
Estrada remains in awe of the speed at which creative expressions were bestowed. Detailed weavings and quilts that seemed like they would take months if not years to make arrived in weeks. Portraits of the 27 students and five faculty members killed showed up shortly after their images were made public.
The volume of gifts has been both soul-soothing and overwhelming to university officials, who have no space to display them all and no time to plan what will become of them. The volunteers have recently taken down, sorted and packed an assortment that ranges from construction-paper notes in a child’s scrawl to plaques engraved in gold.
It took a week to move everything by truck to a storage building for cataloging, which is expected to take student workers until the end of the year. The Library of Congress sent staff to advise Virginia Tech on what to save and how to save it, Hincker said.
Another task that looms is writing thank-you notes. Estrada said the list of givers runs 1,000 pages in a database.
Still on display is the rock from Itawamba Community College that was hauled in the trunk of a car from Tupelo, Miss. So is the car hood, and two maroon and orange quilts from so many coverlets that Estrada said “you couldn’t count them in a day.”
The orange life ring from the Coast Guard in Puerto Rico with messages in Spanish was a meaningful gift in itself, he said, but it became even more meaningful when he learned that the guardsmen included Virginia Tech alumni.
Some of the gifts were intended for victims’ families.
Marlena Librescu, widow of Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, received a portrait of her husband and an engraved wooden plaque.
The artist who carved the plaque was moved by the account of Librescu barricading the door to his engineering classroom with his body so his students could jump to safety out second-floor windows, Estrada said.
Gifts still arrive daily. A framed photo of a columbine flower growing in a rock crevice came from Columbine High School in Colorado. Talladega Speedway sent a 30-by-30 banner, and students from a Crow/Cheyenne school in Montana made a blanket.
As soon as a bin holding origami cranes is emptied, it fills up again. The paper cranes arrive a thousand at a time, following Japanese tradition, Estrada said.
“You could look anywhere in the building and realize we’re not alone,” he said. “The world cares.”
– Associated Press
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