|Appalachian School of Law Shootings|
Sun, 20 Jan 2002
When trouble comes to Grundy, the people don’t quit, they get tough. So it’s no surprise that the Appalachian School of Law, built on a sliver of the town’s precious flat land, is vowing to come back better and stronger after a shooting rampage Wednesday left three people dead on campus.
Begun in Grundy five years ago in the hope of relieving the area’s economic troubles, the law school now finds itself dealing with a calamity just as the little mountain town has dealt with disasters through its history - devastating floods and blizzards, deadly coal mine explosions and mine shutdowns that threw hundreds out of work and left families destitute in an instant.
If the law school needs a lesson in how to steel itself during tough times, Grundy’s the place to be.
“This community has faced many tragic times throughout its history, and while each of these events was separate and apart from the other, one common denominator always remains - its unity,” said law student William R. Sievers. “From each of these events, the community has rallied to become stronger than before. This is the resolve of the students of the Appalachian School of Law.”
The school’s trouble began Wednesday about 1:15 p.m., when, according to authorities, a student who just had been dismissed for poor grades opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol.
Within minutes, the school’s dean, a professor and a student lay dead. Three other students were wounded, shot in the hallway were they had run into the gunman.
Former student Peter Odighizuwa, 43, is charged with three counts of capital murder and three counts of attempted capital murder. The local prosecutor said she’ll ask a jury to convict Odighizuwa and sentence him to death.
The town has rallied to the law school’s support. While students have been dismissed from classes until Tuesday and have spent the past few days comforting one another, residents have sent flowers and letters and e-mails, attended a candlelight vigil and wept at memorial services.
Many of the residents who attended the gatherings are too young to remember the town’s last disaster, the 1977 flood that all but wiped Grundy from the map, but they understood that the law school now is a part of Grundy and its tragedy was theirs, school President Lucius Ellsworth said.
“The relationship between the town and the Appalachian School of Law has been strengthened incredibly by this event,” Ellsworth said. “People are coming forward to offer their support.”
In many ways, the three who were killed represented the hope of the law school’s creators and of Grundy’s residents. They envisioned a law school in the middle of Buchanan County’s steep hills, amid the unemployment and poverty, that would attract talented, idealistic legal scholars to the Southwest Virginia coalfields to teach Appalachian residents to become lawyers themselves.
The process would, in Ellsworth’s oft-repeated phrase, help bring about “the economic and cultural transformation of the region.”
The dean who was killed, L. Anthony Sutin, had risen to the highest ranks of the U.S. Department of Justice and could have worked for any law firm or taught at any law school of his choosing, his colleagues said.
Professor Thomas Blackwell, shot in his office while talking on the phone with a fellow member of his church, was a top graduate from Duke University’s law school and a noted legal scholar.
“When they came to Grundy, Tony and Tom had dreams not only of a better quality of life for their families, they also dreamed of creating a law school where one was truly needed, a law school that would produce lawyers who cared about more than money and prestige, lawyers who would devote themselves to service and justice,” professor Stewart Harris said.
“They dreamed of helping those who otherwise would never have had a chance to obtain a legal education.”
One of those students whom Sutin and Blackwell helped was the third victim, Angela Dales, of nearby Vansant. One of the law school’s goals was to provide jobs for local residents, and Dales, 33, was one of the first people the school hired.
She was with the school at its inception, working as an administrative secretary and as an admissions counselor. After leading prospective students on tours of the school, she became so enthusiastic about the law that she applied for admission.
Dales, a single mother of an 8-year-old girl, was exactly the kind of student the school hoped to attract: a homegrown Appalachian resident who never would dream of law school if one hadn’t been nearby.
“She was living her dreams at the Appalachian School of Law,” Harris said.
The law school, meanwhile, has been a dream come true for Grundy and surrounding Buchanan County. Though it started with an operating budget of only $102,000 and a student body of no more than 80, it began the year with 234 students and 37 full-time employees who earn an average annual salary of about $43,000, according to the school’s December newsletter.
Built in a former junior high school with more than $9.1 million in private and government money, the school has been a boon for the local economy: 140 new students entered classes last fall, and they spent their money in local restaurants and stores and even created a demand for housing construction in the area. One study found that the school’s students spend $208,000 locally each month for rent, food and gasoline.
The students have been a godsend for Grundy, where local fortunes long have been tied to the boom-and-bust cycle of the declining coal-mining industry.
In a sad way, Ellsworth said, the shooting rampage will help the community: People around the nation who never had heard of the law school before now know it exists and have sent messages that they admire the school’s mission.
“Before this tragedy, we had already accepted a senior associate professor from Marquette University, and he was to begin teaching next fall,” Ellsworth said. “He called right after this happened and volunteered to begin teaching this semester. And I think that’s going to happen.
“Out of this tragedy, you’re seeing what a wide base of support there is for this law school. You’re going to find there’s a great awareness of the positive role of the law school.”
During a candlelight vigil for the shooting victims Thursday, professor Sandra McGlothlin quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as she urged students and faculty to remain a part of what Sutin, Blackwell and Dales belonged to, a little law school in a little Appalachian town: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have thus far so nobly advanced.”
On Friday, sitting in his second-story office down the hall from where Blackwell and Sutin were shot, Ellsworth said the Appalachian School of Law will get through the disaster, just as Grundy has rebuilt after every flood.
“Next week is going to be a tough week,” Ellsworth said, “but the most important thing is that the school is going to go on.”
* L. Anthony Sutin, 42, dean of the law school. He was a graduate of Brandeis University and the Harvard University School of Law. Sutin was a deputy associate U.S. attorney general during the Clinton administration.
* Professor Thomas F. Blackwell, 41, a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington and the Duke University School of Law.
* Angela D. Dales, 33, of Vansant, a first-year student at the school. Dales was a former employee of the school whose responsibilities included acting as a tour guide for prospective students.
* Wounded were students Stacey Beans, 22, of Berea, Ky.; Rebecca Claire Brown, 38, of Roanoke; and Martha Madeline Short, 37, of Grundy.
CORRECTION-DATE: January 22, 2002 Tuesday
Charlotte Varney, the secretary of Buchanan First Presbyterian Church, is not a member of the church. Articles about the shooting at the Appalachian School of Law, which appeared Friday and Sunday, indicated she was.