Some families of the 32 shooting victims could not endure to attend Virginia Tech's graduation Friday. For others, this was the only place to be at.
As many as 30,000 people were expected to attend evening ceremonies on the football field at Lane Stadium as the school issued diplomas and class rings to the relatives of 27 students killed in a shooting rampage April 16. Five faculty members were also slain by 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho.
But Peter and Cathy Read returned to campus for more than the degree their 19-year-old daughter, freshman Mary Karen Read, had hoped to earn someday. They returned, in part, to erase an unsettling image from the minds of their two youngest sons.
Patrick, 4, and Brendan, 2, usually stayed home when their parents came to see Mary; Friday was their first visit.
"They're a little concerned that the bad man's going to shoot them," Cathy Read said. "We can't let that idea grow in their heads. If they think that's what's going to happen, the scarier that idea becomes.
"So if we go there and it's OK and they see what it's like - and their family's with them - that idea will go away," she said.
While some families may feel unsettled returning to a campus where there has been so much pain, school spokesman Mark Owczarski said they need not worry. Security has remained beefed up since the shootings.
Bags will be checked before the ceremony, but guests will not pass through metal detectors or undergo more intrusive security measures. The screening is essentially what Virginia Tech does for a typical home football game, Owczarski said.
Gen. John Abizaid, who oversaw Operation Iraqi Freedom, is the keynote speaker.
In Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush issued a statement praising "the compassion and resilient spirit" of the Virginia Tech community and the 3,600 graduating seniors and others earning advanced or associate degrees.
"Laura and I salute the Virginia Tech Class of 2007. We also remember the students and teachers whose lives were taken last month," he said. "They will always hold a special place in the hearts of this graduating class and an entire nation."
Twins Andrea and Michelle Falletti of Chantilly, Virginia, said they will not allow the shootings to overshadow memories of their four years at Virginia Tech. Their parents and grandparents will be in the audience, and it will, in many ways, still be the graduation they've long envisioned.
"Obviously, what has happened has affected everything in our lives, and it will affect graduation," Andrea Falletti said. "In a way, it's not going to be celebrating us as much; it's more about what we've done as a community. But that's OK. I'm proud of what we've done here."
Richard Roopan, a graduating senior who posed for photos Thursday in his cap and gown outside Torgersen Hall, said the atmosphere on campus was "a little bit more somber than celebratory."
But after nearly four weeks of mourning, Roopan said he hopes there will be some joy.
"I'm sure there'll be moments within that celebration that you remember what happened and you take the time to pause and reflect on, you know, how lucky you were that you weren't one of those 32 people killed," he said.
"But you have to remember them, also, and what they could have done and their achievements and how, you know, this moment that we have right now has been taken away from them."
Peter Read, who traveled from Annandale with 15 family members for the ceremony, called the diplomas, class rings and other recognition "an incredibly important gift" from the university.
"It recognizes what all of the students were here to do," he said. "It validates their choices and it validates what they were doing."
Read also was impressed that the school, without being asked, provided two diplomas and rings - one set for him, one for Mary's mother and his ex-wife, Yon Son Yi, of Palisades Park, New Jersey.
"Some of the families are too upset to do interviews or even come to graduation, but we have to," he said. "This is right for us."
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