The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq praised Virginia Tech's 3,600 undergraduates for their quiet courage, dignity and poise in dealing with last month's shooting rampage.
And though the students must honor the lives that were lost, they must not be paralyzed by the past, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid said at a ceremony Friday night for some 3,600 graduating seniors. The university prepared to hand out class rings to relatives of the 27 slain students, followed by diplomas in smaller ceremonies Saturday.
"Short was their stay on this mortal stage. Great was their impact," university President Charles Steger said of the slain students in an address earlier Friday to about 600 of the nearly 1,200 graduate students who received master's degrees and doctorates.
Gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed the 27 fellow students, five faculty members and himself. His family will receive neither a ring nor a diploma, the university said.
In many ways, the evening ceremony seemed like most commencements. Grinning students jumped and down and waved as their faces appeared on the stadium's giant screen while "Pomp and Circumstance" played and a faint drizzle fell.
The stadium's stands twinkled with constant camera flashes from the graduates' proud family members and students decorated their mortarboards with "VT" and "Hi Mom."
But the speeches, while marked by hope, were also laced with sorrow.
"Rest assured, we will define ourselves by where we have been and where we will go," class historian Jennifer Weber said.
Survivors have a responsibility to realize the dreams and aspirations of the slain, Abizaid said.
"While we are saddened by the loss of those who cannot be here today, I believe that they would want this ceremony to commemorate both the tragedy of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow," he said. "I believe that they look down on this gathering with dignified pride."
Students, parents and faculty rose to their feet and cheered as Abizaid thanked Steger for "holding things together" in a time of tragedy.
During the graduate ceremonies, nine slain graduate students were awarded posthumous master's degrees or doctorates. Faculty members hugged the relatives who received them, some wiping away tears and all drawing long and loud applause from the crowd of several thousand.
James Long, whose sister, Michelle, earned a degree in history, said students would not let the tragedy overshadow their celebration.
"There are too many people here to celebrate five, six years of hard work to let one guy screw that up," said Long, 25, of Richmond.
Some families could not bear to attend graduation. Others said they had no choice but to come.
"We have to. This is right for us," said Peter Read, whose freshman daughter Mary Karen Read was among those killed.
Peter and Cathy Read returned to campus for more than their daughter's degree. They also returned to erase an unsettling image from the minds of their two youngest sons, Patrick, 4, and Brendan, 2.
"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."
In Washington, 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 the shootings will not be what they remember when they look back on four years of college. Rather, they will recall spring breaks, camping trips and partying with friends.
"Obviously, what has happened has affected everything in our lives, and it will affect graduation," said Andrea Falletti, 21. "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."
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