Jerzy Nowak’s Story I

Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a 49-year-old French instructor, was one of five Virginia Tech faculty members who died in the April 16 shootings. Her Polish-born husband, Jerzy Nowak, a biochemist, was head of the department of horticulture in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Nowak subsequently took a leave of absence from that position to establish the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention and serve as its director. The Center initiated its operation in July 2008 and is housed on the same floor in Norris Hall where Couture-Nowak and 11 of her students were killed. At ACIA’s meeting, Nowak recalled his experiences on that day:

My 12-year-old daughter’s school called and said Sylvie has not been picked up after school. So I called my wife. I did not know she was teaching in Norris Hall. I called her department and I asked where did Jocelyn teach? “She taught in Norris Hall,” the secretary responded. So I quickly jumped into the car and went to pick up my daughter at the school and asked my secretary to brief me on the way about the developments. We went home. I got a call from my secretary who said at 4 o’clock there will be a briefing for the victims and friends. I told Sylvie that we have to go to Virginia Tech, so make sure you grab something to eat.

We arrived at Virginia Tech and there were a lot of people and administrators running around. Nobody wanted to take any questions. I finally became agitated and pinpointed one of them to help me to call the hospitals. Eventually a lady called and after a while she said, your wife is not in any of the hospitals. I took it at first as good news. But then I said oh my god, and the administrator heard me and came to me and said you know, she could be among the dead. I said you did not need to tell me that. I turned around and left and went home.

Another person who lost her husband told me this story about a year and a half after the shooting. She used her maiden name, and she didn’t have her marriage certificate. And so she was harassed about even being able to ask for information. Eventually with the support of friends she was listed. Because her husband’s name was somewhere at the top of the alphabet, she was called at 7:30 that evening. There were a lot of people around. She approached the table and in a very loud voice, among all these people standing around, a policeman gave the name of her husband and said he has been killed. Her legs got soft and here’s what she told me:  “I was very vulnerable. And I was not protected from the insensitive individual. At that moment I felt victimized twice.” She turned around and left, walking away down a very long corridor between lines of people, all staring. “I could not cry.”

After I got home a friend came and we immediately got on the phone.  We confirmed that my wife had not been admitted to any of the hospitals.  I said to my friend, crying, “I am ready.”  There was a command center where you could call a hotline and get information, and they were supposed to call me with updates. Never called me. My daughter went to her mom’s bed because she wanted to “smell her”. Then, at 11:30 in the night I received a call from the provost that he and another administrator were coming to see me. I forgot that we moved literally four or five weeks ago and that he would go to the old address, so I called his phone but couldn’t get in touch. Eventually at 12:30 they arrived. The provost was compassionate. And he told me what happened.