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So we never forget...

This day, Sept. 11, remains in our collective minds as one of horror, of tragedy and, ultimately, of the triumph of the spirit.

September 11, 2001 was a beautiful fall day. At Shippensburg University where I was Executive Director for University Communications and Marketing, members of the university’s leadership team were having our annual opening breakfast. When we got back to our respective offices, news began coming in about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Televisions were hurriedly turned on as we gathered in the conference room of then-President Anthony F. Ceddia.

Video showed flames coming from the tower. Minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower.

Like the rest of the country, and world, we were stunned and shocked. How could this be happening? Then it happened again. A third plane had just hit the Pentagon. Word was then spreading of a fourth hijacked plane was flying across Pennsylvania, destination unknown but assumed to be heading toward Washington, D.C. That plane later crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., less than 100 miles from Shippensburg.

Discussion immediately began about what this meant for the campus community, and what needed to be done during this chaotic time. We implemented plans to provide various support structures and began communications with the campus. During the next few days and for several subsequent weeks, we used various methods to keep the campus community up-to-date on what was happening locally and nationally.

This was pre-social media so communicating was limited to the then-current methods, including e-mail, phonemail and, most importantly, face-to-face meetings, either collectively or individually.

Questions as to why it happened, and how it happened were asked and discussed in every possible venue on campus. No matter what the venue or location, central to all of those conversations was the personal contact everyone needed at that time. From candlelight vigils, to a walk-in hour with the university president to a campus-wide memorial service, the campus family shared its grief, hopes and prayers together.

Nowhere was this contact more important or more prevalent than that between faculty and students. Whether it was during class periods, in solemn office-hour meetings, or conversations while walking across campus, faculty members provided an invaluable service to the students. Their traditional role of teacher and mentor took on new meaning as they helped guide students who had never seen the horrors of war toward an understanding of the events, their causes and their eventual meaning.

Several days after the tragedies, I was in a conversation with a faculty member and we were discussing the university’s response. I said that the guidance faculty members shared with the students was the true foundation of Shippensburg University, and, in fact, the true strength of our nation.

The faculty member noted that she always knew what she was doing — teaching — was important, but she never felt more valuable or needed than she did in the aftermath of this nation’s tragedy as she met with students to help them during this difficult time.

No electronic communication, no computer technology, no impersonal sharing of information by videoconferencing can replace what she and her fellow faculty members had done, nor can it measure up to the support or solace she had provided.

Technology may move at the speed of light, but it can never move at the speed of the heart.

Today, on the 19th anniversary of that tragic day, we can honor the memory of the victims by living our lives as best as we can, and by holding our loved ones closer as we all see the fragility — and sanctity — of life.

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