BLACKSBURG - Yellow bows are wrapped around lamp posts on Main Street, and some deputies have pinned ribbons to their uniforms. Flower shops are overwhelmed with orders.
This week's massacre at Virginia Tech cast gloom not just over the university's huge campus but also the community that surrounds it. What happened at the school, neighbors say, happened to them, too.
"It's a family thing," said Debra Kilby, a lifelong Blacksburg resident.
With tears in her eyes, she showed off the Hokie orange- and-maroon ribbons she made after hearing that student Cho Seung-Hui had killed 32 students and professors in the worst shooting in modern U.S. history.
"It symbolizes our love," Kilby said.
The university's 26,000 students make up more than half of the city's population. Without them, residents say, Blacksburg would look much like the other small towns scattered among the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The campus is "the biggest thing we got here," said Joe Rowe, 54, who lived most of his life in Blacksburg. "If Virginia Tech wasn't here, this place would be a ghost town."
Founded in 1872, the university has grown from an agricultural school into a premier research institution known for its engineering, architecture and life science programs. But it holds onto a quaint rural flair, with university restaurants still making milkshakes from cows that graze at the campus dairy.
Virginia Tech now draws students from around the world, and Blacksburg has become a refuge for people seeking a more cosmopolitan community.
It's one of the only places nearby with an Egyptian restaurant. And foreign films are shown at the Lyric Theater next to campus. The school also recently hosted lectures by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The campus itself has become so popular that an architect started selling "Hokie Homes" designed like campus buildings. The homes are adorned with the same rough-cut limestone mined from local quarries.
"They've actually developed a synthetic Hokie stone because there's such demand," school spokesman Chris Clough said.
The term "Hokie nation" is much more than a slogan in Southwest Virginia. It's an identity that includes thousands of people who come from textile- mill towns and coal-mining areas to swarm into Lane Stadium for football games.
When the outskirts of Hurricane Isabel pounded Blacksburg in 2003, farmers still shuttered their homes and headed into town, their Hokie windsocks flapping defiantly in the storm. Virginia Tech beat Texas A&M 35-19.
"There's an unbelievably rabid fan base for the Hokies," Clough said.
Kilby, whose husband and daughter both attended Virginia Tech, hopes her community is remembered for more than this week's violence.
She is heartened by the way people have reacted. The flower shop where she works has been overloaded with orders for arrangements.
"One lady called and said, â€˜Here's some money, make something, anything, and give it to a student,'" Kilby said. "It just breaks your heart."
Classes are scheduled to resume Monday, and Clough said students seem to be rallying. "The wound is still fresh," he said. "But the beauty of this school is shining through. There's just a very resilient people here."
On a message board placed at the school's drill field, people posted photographs and long entries about the dead. But many others wrote about their beloved school.
"The Lord is a Hokie - why else would the leaves change to orange and maroon?" proclaimed one.
"It's a large community," said Marc Marinchak, a graduate student from Pittsburgh. "We're all in this together."comments powered by Disqus