Appalachian School of Law Shootings

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Sun, 20 Jan 2002

Blue-collar Appalachian community embraces its new law school in time of crisis

Chris Kahn
The Associated Press

It seemed like a risky proposition: building a law school in a small struggling coal town isolated by the rugged Appalachian Mountains.

But with area mines closing and the young moving away to find work, town officials pushed ahead, opening the Appalachian School of Law in 1997 inside an old brick school house.

“We needed this, anything that could help,” said W.H. Trivett, 77, mayor of the blue-collar town of about 1,100.

It took time for the new students to gain acceptance in the close-knit community where many residents’ families had lived for generations.

“We had to get used to people from different cultures living here - and they had to get used to us,” said Richie Mullins, 35, who sells law school text books out of his bicycle store on Main Street.

But any lingering doubts students and faculty may have had about their neighbors’ feelings disappeared last week as the town responded after a disgruntled former student allegedly walked into the school and shot to death the dean, a professor and a student.

In the days that followed, signs of support appeared throughout Grundy.

“ASL our thoughts and prayers are with you,” read a banner in the parking lot of Rife’s TV.

A grocery in nearby Vansant donated ham biscuits, cookies and soda pop to the Baptist church for a memorial service.

Loweda Gillespie, 61, tied yellow ribbons around store fronts, telephone poles and trees.

“We wanted to let them know we’re family,” Gillespie said.

Dean L. Anthony Sutin, 42, and Professor Tom Blackwell, 41, were slain in their offices Wednesday. Law student Angela Dales, 33, died later at the hospital. Three other students were wounded.

The gunfire sent terrified students running from the building before classmates tackled the alleged shooter. Peter Odighizuwa, 43, who had been dismissed from the school because of failing grades, is charged with three counts of capital murder, three counts of attempted capital murder and six weapons charges. The prosecutor said she will seek the death penalty.

Residents attended memorial services throughout the week, placing flowers on the school’s concrete sign as victims’ families and friends wept in small, shivering circles.

“It’s so heartwarming to see this,” school president Lucius Ellsworth said Saturday. “There’s no doubt that out of this tragedy, this community has united.”

For decades, officials wanted to build a law school in southwest Virginia to create jobs and provide a legal resource for the remote mountain area.

“In all rural areas, there is a real lack of legal education,” said Ellsworth, a former education official in Tennessee and vice chancellor of Clinch Valley College in Wise. Before the law school came to Grundy, there was no other law school within a three-hour drive.

The Appalachian School of Law now has about 200 students. The American Bar Association granted it provisional accreditation last year. And everyone at the school - students and faculty alike - is required to support the town with 25 hours of community service per term.

Students, many of whom are older and looking for a second career, tutor Grundy school children.

“These kids, the way they’re allowed to work with the public, I’m sure they’re getting a better education than they could in other places,” Trivett said.

Among the faculty, Blackwell was one of the most involved. His children regularly helped out at the Mountain Mission School, a local agency for orphans and children of extreme poverty. He and his wife, Lisa, sang in a church choir, and he was on a committee to find a new pastor.

“Y’all have become our family,” Lisa Blackwell said at a memorial service for her husband Friday. “We have more love here than we could possibly have asked for.”

Blackwell’s funeral was planned for Monday in Dallas, where the family lived before moving to Grundy. A private memorial service for Sutin was held Sunday at the local high school.

“He came to Grundy because he thought he could use his talents to help people in Appalachia, and to help boost the economy of a small coal town,” said Kent Markus, Sutin’s former Harvard Law School roommate and one of about 500 people who attended the service. “He was trying to help the sons and grandsons of coal miners.”

At the law school, classes were expected to resume Tuesday. The faculty shuffled around schedules to cover Blackwell’s classes, and Paul Lund, who has been assistant dean, was appointed to fill Sutin’s role until a new dean can be hired.

“As horrific as this has been, I’m certain the institution will be stronger,” Ellsworth said.

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