Yankee Day at Virginia Tech: The Healing Power of Empathy and Entertainment

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  • Yankee Day at Virginia Tech: The Healing Power of Empathy and Entertainment

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Yankee Day at Virginia Tech: The Healing Power of Empathy and Entertainment

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It was quite a day. The New York Yankees came to town and whipped my Virginia Tech Hokies, 11-0. I have never been so happy to lose. Since the tragedy on our campus last April, emotions have often been close to the surface, but on this day there was joy in Hokieville, and gratitude that the Yankees cared enough to come.

Our university has been gradually healing. Events like the Yankee game have helped - even though we remembered why we were there. Life on campus is returning to normal, though normal may never be quite the same. In some ways it is better. The Virginia Tech community was relatively tight knit before, but this past year has brought us even closer. Students, alumni, faculty, and staff seem ever more willing to listen to a friend, to help a neighbor, to give back - perhaps due to a greater sense of empathy, or a need to rebalance our world with good.

From my office window in Hutcheson Hall, I can see the memorial that sits across the Drillfield. Much of the time when I look out, someone is there, as they are right now. But just before noon on March 18, when more people had gathered than normal, I knew the Yankees were about to arrive. They had not announced a specific time they would visit the site, but I was sure they would. My friend Jeff and I hurried over, just as the buses pulled up. The players walked around the 32 engraved stones, and stood silently as President Steger told them how a student group called Hokies United had placed the original stones, right after the shootings. The site had quickly become a focal point for remembering and for healing.

A student near me said that she was a big Yankee fan and that one of the victims had been her fiancé. As the players filed around the semi-circle in front of the stones, she asked Alex Rodriguez to sign the back of her shirt, which bore a picture of the person she deeply missed. He did. She said it was one of the greatest moments of her life. Rodriguez later said he was never prouder to be a Yankee. Jason Giambi started signing autographs, and like a kid I asked him to sign my baseball cap. It felt funny fighting back tears while a baseball player signed my hat. The movie line "There is no crying in baseball!" applies double to gray-haired professors.

The players got back on their buses for the ride across campus to prepare for the game. Jeff and I walked to the ball field. Tickets to the game had been distributed by lottery to students, faculty, and staff. When Jeff won a ticket, I was happy for him. When he saw I had not, he offered me his, even though he is a lifelong Yankee fan. He is a true friend. In the end, another friend who had won was not able to go. He gave me his ticket so Jeff and could go together.

When the Yankees took the field for warm ups, several players signed autographs as students swarmed. Batting practice followed, and a ceremony - with 32 balloons released to the sky. Then the game was played. The Yankees started their front line players, and in the third inning a Hokie pitcher even retired the Bronx Bombers in order. All the Hokie players got into the game. After each inning, they slapped each other on the back and smiled from ear to ear. You could feel the healing. Thank you Mr. Steinbrenner: I am a diehard Minnesota Twins fan, but will never again be able to root against your Yankees.

The past year at Virginia Tech has taught me a lot about the power of empathy and the surprising role that sports and other forms of entertainment can play in a healing process. Not only did the Yankees come, but Dave Mathews and John Mayer did as well, donating a concert that filled the stadium for a special evening. Events like these have brought happiness and tears. Both have helped.

Before last April, many people would ask, "What is a Hokie?" No one asked that in the days after the tragedy, but many messages arrived with the words, "We are all Hokies today." Penn State fans dressed in Hokie colors for their spring football game. Others around the country also wore Virginia Tech gear. The message of caring was clear. This winter, many at Virginia Tech wore Northern Illinois colors following the horrific event on that campus. We know how the Huskies feel.

Since the tragedy, I have received messages of support from around the world, including some from high school classmates I have not seen for 40 years. Virginia Tech has received countless messages and millions of dollars in donations for the victims. It is impossible to adequately express the gratitude we feel for such an outpouring of support. All that I or anyone at Virginia Tech can say to you is: Thank You. We are all Hokies, Huskies, and Nittany Lions today.

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George Norton

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2008-04-12

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George Norton

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eng

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George Norton, "Yankee Day at Virginia Tech: The Healing Power of Empathy and Entertainment," in The April 16 Archive, Item #2111, http://www.april16archive.org/items/show/2111 (accessed April 23, 2014).