Flowers connect Hokies to past tragedy
The sweet smell of a flower garden permeated the Saunders Hall lab space.
Stray green leaves and clipped flower stems rested on the floor. Throughout the lab, big white buckets held bunches of flowers — white roses and carnations, orange tulips, yellow daisies, purple statice, white snapdragons, and more.
Standing at a table, Juan Gonzalez cut stems and carefully pushed red double roses, white daisies, and orange tulips into a foam piece attached to a standing flower cage.
“Trust your gut,” Gonzalez, a senior majoring in horticulture and a teaching assistant for Virginia Tech’s Floral Design class, said as he painstakingly determined which flower looked best in each spot.
He and at least 10 students and other teaching assistants spent Wednesday afternoon arranging flowers of all shapes, colors, and sizes into standing memorial sprays. But this assignment was more than a class project.
The students' work will be placed at each of the 32 Hokie Stones at the April 16 Memorial on the Drillfield, which honors the Virginia Tech students and faculty who lost their lives on April 16, 2007.
This is the fourth year that the class has provided the flowers placed on the memorial each April 16. Along with the standing sprays, the class creates three wreaths and two altar pieces and provides single-stemmed flowers that families place on the stones.
Family Relations, within Virginia Tech Alumni Relations, receives requests for flower arrangements from families, who often specify the colors and flowers that they want in their respective displays. The office reports the orders to the floral design class, and students get to work, typically about five days before Day of Remembrance events held annually on April 16.
Barbara Leshyn, a senior instructor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and who teaches the Floral Design course, said involving her students has helped them to better understand the tragedy.
“Everyone likes this partnership,” Leshyn said. “These students were babies when this happened. It’s a way to be involved and remember. It’s Ut Prosim [That I May Serve] at its finest definition.”
It’s true for Gonzalez, who was 7 years old in 2007. Preparing the arrangements and, in particular, placing them at the memorial is a solemn activity for him.
“It becomes real,” said Gonzalez, who has helped make the memorial arrangements for three years. “This is an important memorial.”
The class includes 100 students and eight teaching assistants. Along with designing the flowers, the students build the wire cages on which the flowers are placed.
The class and Leshyn also provide floral arrangements for other university events.
The students will place the flowers at the memorial at 2 p.m. today, April 15. The Day of Remembrance events include a wreath-laying ceremony and a candlelight vigil at the memorial.
This year was Mary Bayer’s first to arrange flowers for the memorial. As the Virginia Tech sophomore clipped and fitted peach double roses, yellow daisies, and purple statice into the display, she said she was nervous. She wanted to make sure the arrangement matched the family’s wishes.
“It’s an important event to have flowers for, and it’s an honor to do,” said Bayer, a hospitality and tourism management major who plans to work this summer in her aunt’s New Jersey floral shop.
She lifted up her finished display and set it on the floor to check its appearance from a standing position. Bayer added a few more flowers to fill out the colorful design.
“It’s Ut Prosim,” she said. “You have to give when you can.”