Tending to details helps Va. Tech commencement organizer cope

Associated Press • May 8, 2007 at 12:24 PM

BLACKSBURG, Va. - Having to scramble to alter Virginia Tech's graduation ceremony to honor 32 students and faculty killed by a mentally disturbed gunman has helped the chairman of the commencement committee deal with his grief.

Ed Henneke was in Norris Hall on April 16 when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 people in the classroom building, including some of his close engineering colleagues. Three faculty members and 11 students in the department were among the dead.

"I've cried more in the last three weeks than I think I have before in my life," said Henneke, who is retiring this year as associate dean of engineering research and graduate studies.

Professor Liviu Librescu was a close friend, he said, and he saw professor Kevin Granata every day in Norris.

Cho killed two people in a dormitory before going to the classroom building that morning.

For the past 15 years Henneke has chaired the commencement committee, whose duties have been mainly to fine-tune aspects of the previous year's ceremony.

This year, Henneke's committee of more than 20 has had two emergency meetings to rearrange the Friday night ceremony for 4,000 graduating seniors that is expected to attract 25,000 people. They had to stop the program from going to press to add a listing of Tech president Charles Steger's remarks about the tragedy.

Arrangements have been made for families of victims who attend to sit in a special section unless they want to march in with the graduating seniors.

Graduating students must wait until Saturday to receive their degrees at ceremonies for the individual colleges, but posthumous degrees will be awarded to the slain students at the Friday ceremony for undergraduates. Photos of the 32 people Cho killed will be flashed on a giant screen at Lane Stadium, and class rings will be given to the students' families.

Degrees for the graduate students who died will be awarded at the ceremony for about 500 master's and doctorate recipients on Friday afternoon.

The 25 people injured will be honored at the Saturday ceremonies.

The ceremonies will be respectful of the victims, Henneke said, but Virginia Tech also wants to honor graduates' accomplishment.

"We want to keep the ceremony as celebratory as possible," he said.

Henneke said he has been grateful to have details of the ceremonies to work out to keep from dwelling on the events of April 16.

He was in his third-floor office interviewing a prospective faculty member right before the shootings occurred in Norris. The applicant and a professor who was to take her to her next interview left shortly after 9:35 a.m., he said, but came running back to say that they couldn't get out because the doors had been chained.

"Our immediate thought was that we must be under a lockdown," Henneke said, but then he realized the doors would have been locked from the outside with a key if that were the case.

He went to the engineering dean's office and heard gunfire below, he said. Officials locked their doors until SWAT team members arrived to evacuate them.

Henneke said he hopes Cho's actions won't keep Norris Hall from being used again by his department.

"I want to spit in his eye, quite frankly, and not let him chase me out of a building where I spent the best part of my life," he said.

Henneke said there are no plans to mention Cho, who was a senior, at Friday's ceremony.

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