Two Degrees of Separation

It’s been said that there are no more than six degrees of separation between every person on earth. But when I heard that 32 innocents had died in Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech, it hit me how large and complex that particular web of relationships would be and how far it would extend across the country and even the world. I grew up in Southwest Virginia and was a graduate student at Virginia Tech and a resident of Blacksburg for 2 years. One of my first thoughts when I heard the news was, that in this particular case, there would likely be no more than two degrees of separation between one of the victims and me.

Unfortunately, I was right.

Paul is my best friend from my Blacksburg days. I met him and his wife Janette at the Blacksburg Church of Christ, and when Eyegal joined me there in June, 1985 after we were married, the four of us became fast friends and remain so to this day, despite the geographical distance which separates us. Paul graduated with a PhD in Engineering Mechanics and is now a professor of civil engineering at Colorado State University. I emailed him yesterday and asked him how he was and if he had heard from any of our mutual friends.

He replied that he had not, but he went on to reminisce about the three years that he had spent cordoned off in Norris Hall, “becoming one” with the intricacies of dynamics and structural analysis and also about a man he met there–Liviu Librescu. He was the 75-year-old professor and Holocaust survivor who held shut the door of Room 204 of Norris Hall as the assailant attempted to enter his classroom. That brave deed allowed enough time for most of his students to escape through the windows. He and another student were eventually shot and killed, however.

Their offices were located close together in those days, and Paul had come to know Librescu when he first arrived on sabbatical in 1985. Librescu apparently liked what he saw in Blacksburg (what sane person wouldn’t?). He decided to stay there and gained a full time teaching position at Tech. He had continued to teach to the ripe old age of seventy-five, impressing his students and colleagues with his depth of experience and wisdom and his gentlemanly and scholarly manner.

As he faced the dark wrath of Cho Seung-Hui, Librescu was staring into the face of a familiar evil. He stood in the breach protecting his young charges as a man who had suffered–and survived–the senseless brutality, atrocities and nihilism of a Nazi concentration camp. But this time, there would be no escape.

Last night, I called Dave and Terri, close friends from Harding who now live in Blacksburg. Dave is director of human resources for a large automotive parts manufacturer while Terri teaches in a local public elementary school. Dave was still at work, but I talked with Terri who understandably sounded exhausted and somber. As you might expect in a university town like Blacksburg, everybody knows somebody, and in her case, the web of connections hit very close to home.

Among the dead was one of their neighbors, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a French instructor who was gunned down in Room 211 of Norris Hall. She was the wife of Jerzy Nowak, a horticulture professor, and had a teenage daughter who is a friend of both of Terri’s children.

Dr. Kevin Granata, a world-renown researcher in biomechanics whose speciality was the movement dynamics of cerebal palsy, was also an acquaintance. Terri had worked with his wife, who was a PTSA leader and active volunteer at the elementary school, and taught their children as well.

For Terri’s daughter Brooke, a senior at Blacksburg High, star lacrosse player and future Hokie, Black Monday was a cold and harsh reminder that the killer angels among us know no bounds. Austin Cloyd, a freshman who had moved to Blacksburg from Champaign, Illinois when her father took an accounting professorship at Tech, was in the same French classroom as Ms. Couture-Nowak. A year ago, she had been in the same French classroom as Brooke at Blacksburg High.

I saw an interview with Austin’s parents last night on NBC. They bravely faced the world through their tear-clouded eyes and reminded us all of how important it is to make good memories when you can, because, as her father said, “you never know when that’s all you’re going to have left.”

Terri and Dave have talked with Brooke in recent days. Their question: “Are you sure you want to stay and go to school here?”

Her steely reply: “Now more than ever.”

Thirty-two innocent lives, two degrees of separation. As I watched the chilling footage of Cho Seung-Hui’s “multimedia manifesto” last night on NBC news, it occurred to me that we are all connected to this event, two degrees or not. Everyone, that is, except him.

For Cho Seung-Hui, who apparently wasn’t connected to his own humanity much less that of his neighbor, the degrees of separation were infinite–a number so large as to be ultimately incomprehensible.

A number so large as to be ultimately fatal.

  1. Donna

    Sometimes it hurts more when we make it personal. But thank you for doing that. This is a time when we need to share the pain as much as we can.

  2. JRB

    “Now more than ever.”

    Amen. I know that feeling. When my classmate, Carol Carter, was killed in a car wreck my freshman year at Harding, I was on the verge of transfering to Alabama for some very good reasons. As I shared in mourning with our community and witnesses the great bond of love and grief, I knew I could not leave it.

    May God make them all more peaceful and compassionate in His graceful transformation.

  3. Stoogelover

    Reading your connections made a very sad situation even sadder. But thanks for sharing.

  4. Mike the Eyeguy

    Donna and Sl–we have in many ways become “numbed down” to episodes of violence in this country and elsewhere. Pain, I suppose, has its useful purposes.

    JRB–I remember you telling me that before. Here’s to you, Brooke and everyone who face their biggest fears and move toward them ran than running away.

  5. Scott

    Eyeguy, thanks for your thoughts. They are well stated and appreciated. I’m thankful that I never had to experience such grief and sadness during my years at HU. YBIC

  6. Mike the Eyeguy

    Hi Scott, thanks for stopping by. Since you know D&T, that makes two degrees for you too.

  7. David

    Thanks, Mike for your thoughts. So sad. Jocelyne lived just one block away and we sometimes met her on walks through the neighborhood. She would say our last name in French which was a treat. Such a gentle soul. Thanks, again for your thoughts and insight. God bless…

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    David–it was great talking to you this evening. I’m very sorry about the loss of your friend Jocelyne and all the others. But after hearing how you guys and so many others there are continuing to shine through so much darkness, I’m more convinced than ever that Blacksburg and Va Tech will rise again, move forward and accomplish great things that will benefit us all.

    God bless you too, and Go Hokies!

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