Even as the crowd grew, the silence was respected. Friend turned to friend, stranger to stranger, and with a nod or a whisper, a light was passed from one candle to another.
In all, nearly 1,500 candles flickered in a persistent breeze on Ohio University's College Green Wednesday night as the campus community came together to mourn the 32 people killed Monday at Virginia Tech. Many wore the Blacksburg, Va., school's colors of maroon and orange, another way Ohio students chose to stand by their Virginia Tech counterparts.
Steve Pearch, a 2006 Athens High School graduate and now freshman at Virginia Tech, was among those offering brief comments to the gathering. The night before, he had taken part in a candlelight vigil on his university's Drillfield.
"I am so grateful to you for coming out," Pearch said. "I ask you to keep in your prayers the Virginia Tech community."
Pearch held up a T-shirt he and other first-year students received when they arrived at Virginia Tech last fall. After reading its message aloud -- "What is a Hokie? I am." -- he added, "I just want to tell everyone tonight, we are all Hokies."
President Roderick J. McDavis also spoke briefly, and as students stepped up for the candles being distributed from the West Portico of Memorial Auditorium, he and Deborah McDavis held their candles out for students to share the light.
"Tonight the Ohio University family comes together to join as one with the Virginia Tech family," President McDavis said. "We may study on different campuses. We may teach on different campuses. But tonight, we are all one with those at Virginia Tech."
After Student Senate President Morgan Allen closed the formal portion of the program, the crowd stood in silent reflection. After several minutes, songs -- "Amazing Grace," "God Bless America," "This Little Light of Mine" -- could be heard erupting spontaneously in the crowd. Soft at first, the voices grew louder as the music spread through the gathering.
Students prayed, held hands, formed circles, hugged. Whatever means they chose to express their emotions was respected, understood.
The simplicity of the vigil made it all the more powerful, said Natalie Pariano, a graduate assistant in the Dean of Students office. She said that within hours of Monday's shootings, students were sending e-mails to Ohio University leaders and posting Facebook messages to offer suggestions for an observance to support the Virginia Tech community.
"Whenever students do something -- when they ask to do something -- it's so meaningful," she said.
Pariano, who drove to Parkersburg, W.Va., earlier in the day to buy a Christian bookstore's entire supply of candles for Wednesday night's vigil, was a freshman on campus on 9/11, the last tragedy to prompt an event of this kind. She attended that observance with a friend whose cousin died in the Twin Towers.
"It felt oddly familiar," she said of Wednesday's vigil, "and very meaningful."
As the crowd began to disperse, students stood five and six deep to write personal messages to be passed on to the Virginia Tech community. Some sat on the portico's steps. Others found a quiet spot around a corner of the building or under a tree to write in solitude.
Three students shared their messages with Outlook on the condition their names not appear:
"Although far away, always loved, always remembered."
"Only love, shared regardless of color, race or status, can wipe out hatred from our land and truly heal those who hurt. We mourn as you mourn. May God heal you and heal our land."
"You are forever in our thoughts and prayers at Ohio University."
Mary Alice Casey is an editor with University Communications and Marketing.