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Let Me be Frank
My Life at Virginia Tech
By Frank Beamer, Jeff Snook
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Frank Beamer and Jeff Snook
All rights reserved.
Go Out of Your Way to Make Good Memories
"There is nothing stronger than gentleness." — Abraham Lincoln
I always loved that quote from our nation's 16th president and I felt the same way. Throughout history, leaders like Lincoln usually exuded strength in a time when they needed it most. Finding the gentleness within oneself was the hard part for some. I somehow needed to find all my strength at this very moment. The gentleness was there.
It was April 18, 2007.
I was about to enter a room full of people who had just lost a son, a daughter, a brother, or a sister only two days earlier. Thirty-two lives. All but two were taken in an 11-minute rampage carried out by one lone madman, a killer who had turned his rage on innocent college students. They had awakened on a snowy Monday morning, wanting nothing more that day than to go to class, one small step toward graduating from college some day and leading happy, successful lives.
They were students and faculty at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. My university. The school I have loved so much since I attended my first football game as a kid in the late 1950s. The school from which I received my degree in 1969. The school to which I returned to become head football coach in December 1986.
But they became victims of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
It happened in my town, Blacksburg, Virginia, one of the most peaceful and lovely college towns in the country.
It wasn't so peaceful now. The campus was overrun with reporters and satellite trucks and I took it upon myself to send a message to anyone who listened: "This was a lone act by a very disturbed man and it won't define Virginia Tech. We won't let it. We will react to this and we will become closer and stronger and we will treat people around us nicer. We will come together, using the pain of this horrible tragedy to become better people."
On this day, however, it was a time to grieve.
I'd just delivered that message to a few TV reporters outside the Inn at Virginia Tech, the university hotel where the victims' immediate families were grieving privately in a room secluded from the public.
I had walked back into the hotel following my interviews, when Larry Hincker, Virginia Tech's vice president for university relations, approached me.
"Coach Beamer, would you like to say a few words to the victims' families?" he asked.
Hundreds of times, I had spoken to our school's boosters about the prospects of a football team for the upcoming season. Exactly 106 times dating back to 1981, I stood before the media as the losing coach in a football game, answering questions about why I went for it on fourth down, or why didn't I play so-and-so at quarterback. I had spoken to business leaders in seminars, parents during recruiting trips and other coaches during national conventions.
This was different. This carried so much weight, so much importance. What could I possibly say to make any difference, to take away any of the pain? It was the worst kind. They say there is no greater pain than losing a child. I have two grown children and I could never imagine losing them.
I was a football coach, not a trained psychologist or a grief counselor.
This was bigger than any pregame speech I had ever given. This was so much bigger than any darned football game.
I just had a moment to think of what I would say; if there ever was a time I was speechless, this was it. I wondered, What do I say? What can I say?
How could my words begin to help ease so much heartache and so much suffering? I had never faced a situation like this, simply because it was impossible to prepare for. These poor people were grief-stricken and I wanted to help them. I'm sure many of them were angry, too.
I will never forget the next few moments as long as I live. I was sweating and my eyes were glassy with tears. I entered through the rear of the room and all of those heartbroken people were seated in front of me, facing the other way. As I walked around the side of the room, reaching the front, I turned to face them.
It was then ... I can honestly say I never saw so much pain in my life. Their faces will never disappear from my memory. Particularly their eyes ... I had never seen so much pain in people's eyes before. I could hear their muffled cries and sobbing as I started to speak.
"I can't imagine what you are going through," I told them. "Just know that there are people here who really, really care for you. I hope you can feel the caring and love that is coming from the people on this campus. I want you to know I will always be available for you if you want to come by my office and see me."
It lasted only a minute or two.
I walked out of the room, and by now tears streamed down my face. I didn't stop crying for a while that day.
Three days later, Lane Stadium, our campus football stadium, sat empty.
It should have hosted more than 40,000 fans on that sunny Saturday, as we played our annual spring football game. There were 11 funerals scheduled that day, many of them in Blacksburg. How in the world could we possibly play football at the exact time those families I had spoken to were burying their children?
One of the funerals, for Austin Michelle Cloyd, began that day at 2:00 pm. Austin was the daughter of Renee and Bryan Cloyd, an accounting professor at Virginia Tech. Their family had moved to Blacksburg from Illinois just two years earlier and attended Blacksburg United Methodist Church, which my family has attended since moving back to Blacksburg 20 years earlier.
Austin had curly red hair and was majoring in international studies and French. She had planned to start working for the Appalachian Service Project to renovate older homes in the Appalachian Mountains.
Just a few hours after he was notified that Austin was one of the 32 victims, Bryan sent an e-mail to all of his students. It read:
DEAR ACIS 3314 STUDENTS,
My family's worst fears were confirmed a few hours ago. My daughter, Austin Michelle Cloyd, was one of the victims in Norris Hall. She would have been 19 years old next Tuesday. My family hurts deeply for the loss of our precious baby. We ask that you pray for us and for the rest of the Virginia Tech community that has suffered so greatly.
At this point, I don't know how or where our class will continue. If we don't meet again, your final assignment from me is perhaps the most important lesson you will learn in life. Go to your mother, father, brothers and sisters and tell them with all your heart how much you love them. And tell them that you know how much they love you, too. Go out of your way to make good memories. At some point, these memories may be all you have left.
The contents of that e-mail really struck me.
"Go out of your way to make good memories."
I knew it as soon as I read it: there was no better advice by which to live our lives.CHAPTER 2
Nobody can ever be prepared for something like what happened at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. It was beyond the scope of our worst nightmares. So we were all just feeling our way when it came to coping and dealing and speaking in public about the tragedy.
I had no road map or coaching manual to use so I just said what came from my heart, what I believed was the right thing to say.
That's not to say I did not have some experience dealing with — and trying to overcome — adversity.
And it didn't take me long in life to encounter it.
Our family already consisted of three kids by the time I came along on October 18, 1946, born just across the Virginia border in a hospital in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Billie Jean was born seven years earlier, Barnett five years earlier, and Betty a year and a half before me.
I was the baby of the family and I got the feeling as the years went on that I may have been one of those unplanned babies, although nobody ever told me that.
I guess my parents just ran out of B's by the time they got to me, because I probably should have been a Bob, a Benjamin, or a Bo if they had continued the pattern.
They named me for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died in April the year before during his fourth term in office. My parents were loyal Democrats who loved President Roosevelt, but they didn't give me his middle name. My full name is Franklin Mitchell Beamer. The Mitchell part is a family name.
We lived in a small house in Fancy Gap, Virginia, which was a wonderful place to grow up. As you can imagine, farm life was tough work. We had 70 acres and I had to do my chores in the morning before school, such as milking the cows. I baled hay in the summer and it was hard, hard work. We had pigs and cattle and one steer. It was hard enough work to make me realize I didn't want to be a farmer when I grew up.
I also hated it when they killed the pigs and cattle. I would have to go inside for the killings. I felt as if they were killing my buddies out there.
We were always a close family. Billie Jean was smart as heck and became the valedictorian of her class. Barnett was pretty much my best friend even though he was five years older. He was very tough on me despite our age difference, as far as not taking it easy when we played sports together. We slept in the same room upstairs while Billie Jean and Betty shared the other upstairs bedroom. We didn't have a shower in that house or an upstairs bathroom. When we had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, we had to walk downstairs.
My dad, Raymond Harden Beamer, was of German descent and one of eight kids who were raised on a farm. He was a pretty good football player at Hillsville High in the 1930s and Dad absolutely loved sports — all sports. He would sit and watch whatever sports were on TV and he was a big Giants baseball fan. When the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958, it became harder for him to get their scores, but he would still listen to the radio and try to find out how the Giants did. In addition to farming, he was a highway engineer. He was what I call a "quiet" disciplinarian. You always knew when he didn't agree with you, but he was never loud or in your face about it.
Now my mother, on the other hand, would be right in your face.
Herma Allen Beamer was a wonderful lady. She was stern and very proud and she believed in education. Both of my sisters graduated from Radford while Barnett and I graduated from Virginia Tech. Having produced four college graduates — from a place in the country where not everybody goes to college — that says all you need to know about my mom. That was a result largely of her influence.
Mom and Dad went to a Methodist church, where one pastor served four churches. They brought us up to never miss a Sunday in church. It's tough to explain what a strong lady my mother was. She was a disciplinarian. Both of my parents were staunch Democrats and staunch Methodists. I know one thing: no matter how late we may have stayed out on a Saturday night, we had better get up to go to church on Sunday mornings. That was their rule.
Mom's family was well-known in Carroll County because her father — my grandfather — was an Allen. His first name was Barnett Allen, so I guess that is where they got the name for my brother. My grandfather was only 21 at the time, but his uncles were Floyd and Sidna Allen.
From what I had been told over the years, there were two political factions of Carroll County and on one side were the Allens, who were staunch Democrats. One of their rivals was a Republican who had just been elected to office in 1912.
They were involved in what some people in southwest Virginia referred to as "the Allen Tragedy" and you can find it in the history books. Other references call it the "Hillsville Massacre," but I can assure you nobody in my family ever did.
It all started when two of Sidna Allen's boys were playing outside of church one Sunday. I guess they were being loud during the services and the police charged them with disturbing a public worship. They fled across the border to North Carolina and the police tracked them down, chained them behind horses and made them walk about 16 miles back to the courthouse in Hillsville.
As they headed to Hillsville, they walked right by Sidna's store and Floyd's house in Fancy Gap. They saw the boys chained up and came running out of the store. Floyd told the police, "You can't make them walk another six miles. They've already walked 10 miles. Look, give them to me and I will bring them in tomorrow morning."
Apparently, one of the policemen pulled a gun and there was a scrape between the Allens and the police. The boys somehow got free.
Floyd brought them in the next day, just as he had promised, but the police then charged him with "interference of law enforcement" and arrested him on the spot. They had a trial at the Carroll County Courthouse and they convicted him of it. Just as they were handing down the sentence of one year in jail, on March 14, 1912, he stood up and said, "Gentlemen, I just ain't a goin'...."
That's the line I always remembered when I read about it.
"Gentlemen, I just ain't a goin' ..."
Well, guns were pulled and the shooting began. A judge, the sheriff, an attorney, and two others were killed; but our side didn't have any killed. The Allens who escaped that day fled to the Midwest somewhere. From what I could gather, one of the nephews wrote a letter to his girlfriend back here in Virginia and that's how the police eventually found them.
The next year, Floyd and his son Claude went to the electric chair on the same day for the shoot-up.
I know one thing: Mom never wanted to talk about it. It was just something you didn't bring up, but I decided to write a paper on it for a speech course in college. As I started the project and my research, Mom asked me, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"It was a good story," I told her. "And it will make a good speech."
I read a couple of different accounts of it and I talked to her about it — what little she would tell me — and then I gave the speech. I can't remember exactly, but I think I got an A on it.
As we grew up, everybody in the county knew the Allen name. They had been already labeled as "notorious" and violent mountain people, but the more I learned about them from my relatives the more complex the story became. When I talk to people who know that my family was involved, I just like to say, "There are two sides to that story."
My uncles told me that before all of this occurred they were well-respected landowners and business owners. He said they all worked hard and earned an honest living and weren't criminals at all, but they were being prosecuted because they were on the other side of the political fence in the county. And in all the accounts I read about it, nobody really knew who fired the first shot.
Everybody who knows me knows what happened to me when I was seven years old. It's kind of a blur all these years later, maybe because I want to forget it, but it probably helped shape who I am today.
It was early June in 1954 and the school year had just finished. It was about lunchtime and Dad was at work. Mom and my sisters were at my grandmother's house. We had a double-car garage without doors and a bunch of papers had blown in there, so one of the chores Dad gave Barnett and me was to clean out the garage. I guess we had done some painting earlier and we had used gasoline to clean the brushes, because there was a large can of gas there. Barnett and I had a fire going down by the creek next to the garage where we burned our trash. We were using brooms to push the trash into the fire.
I had walked back toward the garage to get more trash, when I accidentally knocked over the can of gasoline and it started to roll toward the garage. Barnett told me later I had kicked the can to keep it from reaching the garage, but I don't remember it. I was holding the broom, which still had some ashes smoldering in the fibers. The gasoline must have splashed up on me, because suddenly, an explosion hit me right in the face. I screamed and ran outside to where Barnett got to me. He rolled me over in the grass several times and threw dirt and sand all over me to put out the fire.
I then went inside and filled the bathtub with water and sat down to clean off the dirt and try to ease the pain. I was burned on the right side of my face, my neck, my right arm, and my shoulders. Mom got home that day, took one look at me and took me to the doctor. He treated me but sent me home that night. I couldn't sleep at all. My body was covered in blisters and the pain was killing me.
The next day, Mom took me to the hospital, where the reality hit us that these burns were much worse than anyone thought that first day. I stayed in the hospital in Pulaski for three months, and over the next four years, I would undergo more than 30 surgeries.
Excerpted from Let Me be Frank by Frank Beamer, Jeff Snook. Copyright © 2013 Frank Beamer and Jeff Snook. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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