|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Mon, 21 Jan 2002
Peter Odighizuwa left his impoverished homeland of Nigeria nearly 20 years ago, seeking, like others before him, the American Dream.
Two years ago, he found his way from Chicago to the coalfields of southwest Virginia. His purpose was to attend the Appalachian School of Law, founded by people who envisioned a need for a center of learning and a way to bring economic development into this impoverished region.
Since its founding in 1994, the tiny law school in a former junior high school has become a magnet, drawing to its two-building campus an unusually diverse mix of faculty and students, most outsiders from the coal country. Odighizuwa was one of about 200 students, being led into the legal profession through a curriculum that emphasized community service and conflict resolution. Odighizuwa shattered that dream last Wednesday when he shot and killed three, including the law school’s dean, and wounded three others in a tragedy that left this community and law school reeling, asking why, and wondering about their future.
Grundy is a tiny town of about 1,300 tucked into the razor-back hills of southwest Virginia. It is hard to get to, and hard to forget.
Zeke Jackson, a second-year student and president of the law school’s Black Law Students Association, said: “Peter was welcomed here, like the rest of us, with open arms by people who go out of their way to help us - this law school and town embraced Peter and his family because they were strapped, maybe more than most of us.
“This is a second-chance school, with a first-class faculty, and the people around here take to you, once they know you’re a student here. This whole thing is a real setback for everybody. If only I had known he was that far out, I would have done something,” Jackson said.
Odighizuwa and his wife and children were known throughout the town. He was called “Peter O.” He worked at the Food City, and his wife worked at the local hospital.
Those who share the law school’s dream are trying to figure out what went wrong. James Wayne Childress, a lawyer and graduate of the law school’s first class, said, “This calamity runs against the thread of our basic mission, which stresses how the law is an instrument for alternative conflict resolution.”
Childress described himself as “a country lawyer,” and he is a member of the school’s Alumni Association board. Like others involved with the school, he worries that the shooting will harm the school’s reputation and efforts to help the local economy, which “was just getting beyond growing pains.”
Sue Ella Kobak, a local lawyer who defends indigent clients, said that the tragedy “reinforces the image of Appalachia as a violent place.”
To her, “the bigger picture is more important, the lesson to be learned from this, how law schools, everywhere, put an inordinate amount of competitive pressure on students.”
Odighizuwa is said to have been disgruntled because he had been expelled from the law school for bad grades.
Odighizuwa is black, his victims white. But most students said that race wasn’t a factor in the shootings.
Kenneth Brown, a first-year student and graduate of N.C. Central University in Durham, said: “I came here thinking this was hood country, as in the hoods the KKK wears, but I have found this to be a most welcoming place. There is nothing racial about the fact that all of the victims of Peter’s crime were white. This is just another, the latest human tragedy, only magnified by where it took place.”
At a memorial service last week, mourners started with a prayer, read aloud in unison: “Almighty God. Give us all new life, new laughter, new awareness of the beauty of life. Raise us up, as images of hope to the despairing, and bring us to a softness in a world hardened by evil.”
Later that day, Childress put the prayer in simpler terms, more in keeping with the humble surroundings of Grundy and its little law school.
“When the fan blades get cleaned off and things cool down,” he said, “we’re going to be a stronger and better law school and community because of this.”