LOCAL VOCAL: Virginia Tech shootings struck a community full of close friendships

by Tilly Gokbudak

All of us who are from southwest Virginia have been profoundly affected by the Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. If I may borrow a tired cliché, it is simply because it hits way too close to home.

I grew up in Salem, Va., a town that is some 30 miles away from Blacksburg. My late father Mehmet Gokbudak got a PhD from VPI in engineering in 1973 when I was 3 years old. My sister Lale Lovell, who now has her own PhD from the University of Colorado, graduated from Virginia Tech in 1996.

My own personal connection to Virginia Tech began in 1993 when I went to nearby Radford University. After my father died, there was no way for us to reconnect with people from my father’s native Turkey. I had that opportunity because of the large Turkish student population in Blacksburg. I would drive from Radford to Blacksburg and eat shish kebabs on pita bread as if I was by the Bosphorous Bridge in my father’s native Istanbul.

Before long, I became friends with Bahadir Acuner, who was just a few years older than I. He asked me to co-host a Turkish music show on Tech’s college radio station WUVT-FM. Some loyal listeners objected to the fact that I felt compelled to play the They Might Be Giants tune “Istanbul, Not Constaninople” alongside the likes of Turkish pop diva Sezen Aksu (whom some refer to as the “Turkish Madonna”) on the Saturday afternoon show, but we were having fun.

Our show came on right after a Greek music show hosted by our friend Kriton Hatzios, who died of cancer a few years ago. Turkey and Greece have a long-standing rivalry, but none of that mattered in Blacksburg, a town where almost everyone is able to get along. Bahadir and Kriton even co-hosted a joint Greek-Turkish music show! It could not have happened in Istanbul or Athens, but it happened in Blacksburg.

Alas, the Blacksburg I knew ca. 1995 is no longer the same place as a result of what happened on April 16, 2007. Like Columbine High School, it will be remembered as a place where something truly awful happened.

I heard about the news as I was driving on Route 29 from Reidsville to Danville, Va., where I work. I was about to listen to “The State of Things” on WUNC-FM when an NPR news bulletin stated that a lone gunman had entered Norris Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech. I immediately switched to Roanoke’s NPR station, WVTF. They reported that one of their interns was supposed to have class in that building, but he had overslept.

There is a student here at Danville Community College, where I teach, who was concerned for her brother at Virginia Tech. Luckily, he was not in Norris Hall. I understand many others on the DCC campus were rightfully frantic when they heard the news.

And then there is my friend Ilhan Tuzcu. Up until 2004, he took classes and worked in Norris Hall. He now works at the University of Alabama. When I spoke to him on Monday afternoon, he was concerned that people he knew were among the dead. The profound shock in his voice jolted me. I shared the same concern.

When I spoke to him again on Tuesday night, he had found out that two professors he knew were killed, including Liviru Librescu, the 76-year-old Romanian man who had survived the Holocaust. Ilhan has been interviewed by local media in the Tuscaloosa, Ala., region and he was even approached by Fox News for a possible segment. All of this is very overwhelming for him. A friend of mine from Roanoke said they will probably make a movie about that Romanian professor who is now buried in Israel.

The irony is that Ilhan and I had both met William Morva, the man who allegedly killed a security guard and a police officer, in Blacksburg in August. Bill, as we knew him, would frequently come into Bollo’s, a local coffeehouse that has successfully stood its ground against Starbucks. He would come in there in bare feet and a T-shirt even in the wintertime.

I told The Washington Post, which later published some of my comments, that I thought of Bill as a social misfit – a real-life Alex from A Clockwork Orange. But I never thought he would actually kill anyone. I gather that is what many say about the 23-year-old northern Virginia youth who took 33 lives on Monday.

I would start my journalism career at The News-Messenger in nearby Christiansburg in 1996. Among my first beats were both the Virginia Tech campus and the town of Blacksburg. While I was there, the town’s current mayor Ron Rordam was a member of town council. He replaced longtime mayor Roger Hedgepeth recently. Along with the school’s president and Gov. Tim Kaine, Rordam will be focusing on what happened on April 16 and how the town will move forward from here.

I have no doubt that he will succeed, but assuredly it will not be easy.

I didn’t actually know any of the people who were murdered. But there were some whose faces I recognize. I wonder where I might have seen them. Perhaps it was at a contra dance at the Blacksburg Middle School or at a screening of some independent film at the Lyric Theatre. Maybe I even saw them somewhere unlikely, like during a late-night dinner at the Waffle House in Christiansburg.

They all had lives. They were all unique individuals. They may have been mere faces in the crowd when I saw them, but they were all so much more than that.

Tilly Gokbudak is a former newspaper reporter who is now a teacher at Danville Community College. He resides in Reidsville and is a member of the Greensboro Playwrights Forum. E-mail him at