In Their Words Members of the Washington and Lee University community remember where they were and how they reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“For me, who spent 40 years on campus, despite the tragedy of events, the strength and spirit of the W&L community was never so evident as it was on that day.”
Larry Boetsch, professor emeritus of Romance Languages, former acting president of W&L:
The 9/11 anniversary inevitably brings back some of the most vivid memories of my long tenure as a faculty member and administrator at Washington and Lee. Despite the natural exhilaration that customarily accompanies the first days of classes in the fall, the campus enthusiasm was muted owing to the death in late summer of President John Elrod. I had been appointed acting president of Washington and Lee and was in my Washington Hall office when I received a phone call from Brian Shaw, who was then our Director of Communications. Brian said that something horrendous was happening in New York and that we should immediately begin following the news.
As the horror unfolded, I remember clearly just how quickly the university reacted on that day in consideration of our students, parents and alumni. Amidst the chaos, the President’s Council met in emergency session to discuss how to maintain stability on campus. As everywhere in the United States, the day in Lexington was a frenzy, and with so many W&L-New York connections among parents and alums, we tried to mobilize to gather and communicate reliable information. We worked amidst the rising tide of emotion that gripped the campus and the nation: disbelief, anger, sadness and, fear. Yet, as I look back on that day, what stands out most in my memory was how we ended the day. We had decided to offer a silent, candlelight vigil at sundown to take place just outside the chapel. It was a beautiful fall evening and as students, staff and faculty began to gather and candles were lit, a strange and welcome calm enveloped the Front Lawn. The power of silence was never more apparent than it was during those 10 or 15 minutes as each of us gave way to our thoughts or our prayers, and I think during those moments we all felt the enormous strength of simply being together.
The weight of 9/11 was present each and every day during the 2001-2002 academic year, and we all worked hard to fulfill the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of our community and the stability of our academic and co-curricular activities. My commencement speech to the Class of 2002 expressed my gratitude for the courage of the class and of the community in general in overcoming the shock and despair of that dreadful event. For me, who spent 40 years on campus, despite the tragedy of events, the strength and spirit of the W&L community was never so evident as it was on that day.
“It was eye-opening to see that somebody would go to those great lengths to disrupt our way of life.”
Mark Fontenot, Fire Safety Systems Inspector, University Facilities:
I spent 21 years in the Air National Guard, and I was called up for a 12-month mission in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
At that time, I was the Greek Housing Supervisor, and that morning, I was doing a building inspection at one of the Greek houses when the house mother came out of her apartment and said “Mark, you’ve got to come in and see this.” We were sitting there watching TV when we saw the second plane hit. I remember just feeling fear and amazement, watching all those people running and covered in dust. I called my supervisor at the Guard and he said, “Man, you need to get down here as soon as you can,” so I packed a few things and headed to the base in Richmond.
I was an aircraft mechanic, or crew chief — the person who fills the plane full of fuel, checks all fluids, does an engine and cockpit inspection, goes over everything with a fine-tooth comb at the beginning of the day, between flights and end of the day. Our objective was to keep Washington, D.C. safe, and the mission was to scramble fighter jets in the air not long after the first or second plane hit. We had three jets dedicated to that, with one or two active and loaded to the hilt with missiles sitting on the tarmac, ready to be scrambled anywhere. At the same time, they were moving the president to Camp David, so it was also our mission to protect Camp David and New York City. We had jets flying in the air 24/7 to take down any threat, but as the days unfolded, our mission was to keep the air spaces safe in those three locations, so they flew 10-hour missions, refueling in the air.
Once things kind of settled down, the military set up three shifts. They put us up in Richmond for a year, in apartment buildings scattered around the city. Eventually we were able to come home during our 48-hour breaks between 24-hour shifts, which was good because I was already married and had a 5-year-old daughter. My wife was stuck with everything, working and raising a kindergartner, paying bills, doing yard work. Scott Rhodes, who worked in W&L Facilities and was my neighbor at the time, was in the Navy Reserves and also got called up. So my wife was taking care of his place and feeding his cats and all, too.
Luckily, here in little old Lexington, you don’t really think much about terrorism, but it was eye-opening to see that somebody would go to those great lengths to disrupt our way of life.
“I wanted to understand the thinking that gets a person or a group onto a path that would lead to an event like that.”
Seth Cantey, Associate Professor of Politics:
I remember being in a chemistry lab at Bucknell University on the morning of 9/11 (at the time I was pre-med) and wondering how anyone could think anything “good” (even from a terrorist’s perspective) could come out of something like that. My gut told me it would invite retaliation, which of course it did. But I wanted to understand the thinking that gets a person or a group onto a path that would lead to an event like that.
Fast-forward a few years. As a graduate student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (MA in Latin American Studies), I had the chance to take a course on intelligence with former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. He was the DCI both on 9/11 and when the U.S. invaded Iraq. It was a fascinating course, and I later ended up working for him for more than a year as a research and teaching assistant. When I went on to do my Ph.D. at Duke, I’d become much more interested in the Middle East and South Asia, so I took 12 consecutive semesters of Arabic while pursuing my Ph.D. in political science. Other areas of focus were terrorism and intelligence. During that time, I spent summers in Syria (just before the war) and Morocco. When I went on the academic job market in 2013, I pitched myself as someone fluent in Arabic who could teach courses in American foreign policy, terrorism, Middle East Studies, etc.
Those are all courses that I now teach in the Politics Department at W&L (and that I have been teaching since my arrival on campus in 2014). One of the highlights of all my courses is that I regularly bring in people I’ve met along the way – terrorism experts and others – to talk with our students. I’ve also taken classes to places like the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
“We crossed the Potomac and headed into an empty Washington, which looked like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie…”
Associate Professor of Journalism Kevin Finch was an executive producer for WTHR-TV, the Indianapolis NBC affiliate, when he covered 9/11 in Washington:
It was a beautiful day, with clear skies across much of the eastern half of the U.S. I know because my crew and I drove through several sunny states on September 11, 2001.
Sunny in New York, too, where it was Primary Election Day for mayor of New York. Some of my colleagues headed to lower Manhattan. But we drove to Washington with one of our lead anchors to establish an outpost not far from the burning Pentagon. I don’t think it stopped burning completely for three days.
By late afternoon, the blue skies became bluer, no longer chalked with contrails. The government ordered all commercial and private planes grounded and before evening, every one found a place to land.
We crossed the Potomac and headed into an empty Washington, which looked like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie: Buildings, but no people. Except for National Guard troops and their Humvees at major intersections.
On 9/12, we interviewed a large contingent from Crane Naval Weapons Center who happened to be in the same section of the Pentagon where the plane hit. They told us how they found their way out through twisted, hot metal and smoke-choked hallways.
Later that day, I produced live shots on the back side of the Capitol. One of my jobs was to keep a senator close by until the anchor was ready to interview him live. He was famous for staying “on message,” usually avoiding controversy.
But at that moment, talking only to me, he turned and looked at the Capitol Dome. In a serious, reflective tone, he whispered, “I’m sure glad they didn’t get that (building).”
Me, too, Senator. We were all glad.
“But what stays with me, too, is the memory of the way that New York pulled together … The sense that New Yorkers would not be dominated by fear and would never forget those they lost that day.”
Jessica Willett ’95, Vice President for Communications and Strategic Initiatives:
September 11, 2001 began for me like any other day in Manhattan. I remember commuting to work by bus, and noting the crisp air and the deep blue sky. It was a particularly gorgeous autumn day in New York, which made what transpired later that morning even more surreal.
My memories exist like snapshots in my mind:
The look on a young administrative assistant’s face when she came to interrupt a company meeting at my office in midtown. A plane had hit the World Trade Center, she said. We assumed it was a small private plane. Pilot error or mechanical failure. We resumed the meeting, briefly, because having not seen the pictures, we could not yet comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy that was unfolding just a few miles away.
My cell phone, useless, as cell phone networks went down across the city. My husband’s voice on my office line, frantic, telling me to leave work and come home.
The long walk from midtown to the Upper East Side, and the terrible clouds of smoke visible down the long avenues at the end of the island.
Gathering in our small walkup apartment with friends, some who were stranded in the city by closed subway lines and canceled flights; some who just didn’t want to be alone with the images on the television.
The endless sirens as first responders rushed to the scene throughout the day and night.
The memories from the days that follow were less frantic but no less surreal. The persistent, cheerful blue sky. Walking along the river with the stench of smoke lingering over the city and the roar of fighter jets patrolling above. Fire stations draped in black, mourning lost heroes. And the posters tacked to every available surface and construction fence by people frantically searching for news of their loved ones.
I was fortunate. I lived and worked far removed from lower Manhattan. I had several friends who had narrow and harrowing escapes that day. A former colleague was not so fortunate. His was one of the first—and the few—bodies to be identified in the wreckage of the towers. The sight of the church, filled to overflowing with those of us mourning the loss of this bright, kind and promising 26-year-old man, and the memory of his smile, will stay with me forever.
But what stays with me, too, is the memory of the way that New York pulled together. The shared grief. The kindness of strangers. The long lines to donate blood. The Yankees, wearing FDNY caps in honor of the fallen as the postseason extended into November for the first time. The sense that New Yorkers would not be dominated by fear and would never forget those they lost that day.
In the days and weeks that followed, we came to grips with a shattered peace but also experienced a new sense of unity and resilience. New York felt more like a small town than a big city. More than any time in the seven years I lived there, it felt like home. And that is perhaps the clearest memory of all.
“It was the perfect picture of nonchalant effectiveness that struck a familiar chord with everyone in the room.”
Andrew Dewing ’84, P’19, ’23 was fraternity brothers and friends with Rob Schlegel ’85, who died in the Pentagon on 9/11.
After three miserable weeks of worry, confusion and eventually dread, it was confirmed that Rob was among the dead in the Pentagon. And in just a few short days, arrangements for both a private memorial and military honors at Arlington were arranged. The Schlegel family was so generous in allowing Chi Psi to play a part on Friday, October 4 by conducting the Chi Psi Memorial Service at Cunningham Funeral Home where Rob’s remains had been prepared for interment. The result was a beautiful testament to Rob’s life and spirit, the likes of which are not possible in the Department of Defense “officialdom” that followed on October 5.
As is the custom, perfunctory recitations and readings were presented and the chapel was then opened up for remembrances and remarks for the good of all those present. There was a heartwarming volley of stories, first from Chi Psi Brothers, then from U.S. Navy comrades, and back and forth and back and forth. This went on for nearly an hour, and the parallels between our short time as fraternity brothers and the longer period Rob enjoyed among his Navy brothers and sisters was quickly revealed. While the circumstances had changed over the two decades, Rob most certainly had not.
My favorite story of that evening reflects so well on Rob and, I like to think, on his liberal arts education at Washington and Lee. I may have a few of the details crossed, but I’ll do my best to relay it: A Navy captain rose to speak, he had been Rob’s commanding officer on the USS Harry S. Yarnell, a guided missile cruiser, when Rob was a junior officer. Rob was probably in the weapons section as his specialty early in his career was the Tomahawk missile system.
One of Yarnell’s deployments with Rob aboard included a stop at arsenal de Toulon, a French naval base. Arrangements were believed to have been made between the U.S. Navy and the French Navy for Yarnell to berth at Toulon, but upon arrival, there was a fair amount of confusion. Arrival in a friendly port is not normally the busiest time for a weapons officer, so Rob was near the bridge and overheard an increasingly tense discussion over radio between Yarnell and the dockmaster for Toulon. As the discussion dragged on and Yarnell held her position awaiting the dockmaster’s instructions, both participants were trying less and less to communicate in the other participants’ native tongue. Just before things escalated into a shouting match, Rob asked, “Skipper, may I take over comms with Toulon?” Permission was granted, and after less than five minutes of calm, collegial and flawless French dialog, Rob had secured Yarnell’s berthing. He handed the radio back over to the communications officer and returned to his station near the bridge. The Captain remembered for us that he was dumbfounded – completely awestruck – that Rob had it in him to not only participate, but to prevail in a difficult transaction conducted in French. It was the perfect picture of nonchalant effectiveness that struck a familiar chord with everyone in the room.
I hated everything about that month, but I loved the memories, both familiar and new.
“The 20 years were book-ended by visions of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center and refugees falling from planes as they tried to escape Kabul airport.”
Mark Rush, Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law; Director of W&L’s Center for International Education
It may never be possible to measure the full impact of the 9/11 attacks. The human impact on the victims, their families and the countless first responders still lingers. Now, some 20 years later, the political fallout endures: As the global war on terror continues, the United States withdraws from the ground war in Afghanistan. The 20 years were book-ended by visions of people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center and refugees falling from planes as they tried to escape Kabul airport.
Within that context, the impact of 9/11 on one’s teaching is almost immeasurably small. But September 11, 2001, and the ongoing war on terrorism did have a tremendous impact on teaching international affairs. The Pax Americana that succeeded the Cold War was short-lived. The world descended from a relatively orderly, bipolar Cold War equilibrium to one of multipolar chaos. Scholars rewrote or rearticulated theories of international relations, nation building and democratic development in order to embrace the realities of a 21st century world in which technological advancements now empower virtually anyone to wreak havoc on any scale.
As a result, our notions of privacy and security have transformed radically, as has our approach to teaching courses about them. The world has sacrificed privacy for security. Yet the same technology that enhances the power of surveillance also empowers cyberstalkers to threaten individuals in ways no one except science fiction writers could have imagined in the 20th century.
All of this has transformed global education, especially for international students and scholars coming to the United States. In 2003, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act that created the Student and Exchange Visitor Program and the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As a result, our international students and scholars are monitored throughout their time in the U.S. Universities must review and update their policies and record-keeping regularly to ensure that they retain approval to host international visitors. Thus, within an academic environment in which universities look to welcome international visitors and send students to study abroad, international education professionals now manage a portfolio that embraces security at home and abroad.
This all serves only to make the job of the international education professional even more rewarding. Despite the challenges posed by security requirements and threats, the Center for International Education collaborates with stakeholders in the university, the government and study abroad partners around the world to ensure that we can provide precious global education opportunities in an increasingly precarious world. We celebrate each group of students who study abroad and each new class of international students and scholars who arrive on campus. The attacks of 9/11 brought to our doorstep an awareness that we must better understand one another’s morals, values and ethics. By supporting a more diverse student body on campus and challenging students to adapt to new and different cultures during their time abroad, the Center for International Education is honored to play a role in keeping the doors to global education at W&L open and secure.
Do you have a 9/11-related reflection that you’d like to share? If so, email Lindsey Nair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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