Two Degrees of Separation

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Two Degrees of Separation

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The following is from my 4/19/07 post on my blog, Ocular Fusion. The URL is <a href="http://www.ocularfusion.net/?p=661">http://www.ocularfusion.net/?p=661</a>

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It&#39;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&#39;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 my wife 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&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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&#39;s all you&#39;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&#39;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&#39;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.

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Dr. Michael Brown

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2007-05-02

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Dr. Michael Brown

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eng

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Dr. Michael Brown, "Two Degrees of Separation," in The April 16 Archive, Item #85, http://april16archive.org/items/show/85 (accessed July 25, 2014).