By the very nature of this business, we cover a story and then move on to the next one. Some get follow-up treatment, but eventually — often reluctantly — you also have to let those stories go after a while, even the ones that grab your heart. In a fast-moving world, there just isn’t enough time or space.
Which makes Tom Kapsidelis’ new book remarkable. His “After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety, and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings” (University of Virginia Press) is being released Tuesday, the 12th anniversary of the horror in Blacksburg.
For more than 10 years, he has lived the story of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech: covering it, researching it, interviewing survivors and families of victims, policymakers, clergy and law enforcement, almost anyone connected to it. He quit his job here at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in order to devote himself to the task.
Kapsidelis said in an interview that he hopes readers come away with an understanding and appreciation of the long journeys experienced by people and their communities in the aftermath of such a tragedy. Among the people he features in the book are:
• John Woods, a former Tech student whose girlfriend, Maxine Turner, was killed in the shootings and who became a gun safety advocate. He explained his motives to Kapsidelis by saying, “We all want something good to come out of this terrible, terrible thing.”
• Elizabeth Hilscher, whose daughter, Emily Hilscher, was shot and killed in her dormitory, among the first victims of the gunman who then went to an academic building, chained shut the doors and continued the slaughter. In all, 32 students and faculty members were killed. Hilscher went on to advocate for improved mental health care for young people and became a member of the Virginia Board of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. She told Kapsidelis of her advocacy: “I got handed the job of making the world a better place, essentially is how I feel about this. When you lose somebody the way we did, you can get really angry and you can lash out and you can point the finger and you can lay blame, and all you do is self-destruct. There is no good that comes from that. Emily would be really upset if we took that route.”
“I was really fortunate they wanted to participate,” said Kapsidelis, 62, as we sat on the back porch of his North Side home on a perfect spring day. “I really wanted to make [the book] more about their stories during that decade.”
The people Kapsidelis interviewed were in good hands.
He’s been a friend and colleague since we went to work in the Richmond bureau of United Press International within a few months of each other in 1981. You learn a lot about someone sitting one desk over from them as the two of you scramble to chase down breaking stories 100 miles away by phone while answering phone calls from impatient editors in New York and from clients who needed you to resend the weather forecasts, and collecting high school football scores from far-flung corners of the state — all at the same time on unrelenting deadlines. I can’t say I’ve ever worked with anyone more thorough and unflappable, conscientious and kind.
In 2007, Kapsidelis was the Sunday editor at the RTD, meaning Mondays were usually a day off. As news of the shooting emerged that Monday morning, though, Kapsidelis was dispatched to Blacksburg along with a bevy of reporters to organize and oversee on-the-ground coverage for the coming days.
“As a reporter, there’s no editor you’d rather work with on breaking news than Tom K.,” said The Times-Dispatch’s executive editor, Paige Mudd, who was a reporter for the newspaper at the time. “Tom was an absolute rock from the moment we got word about the tragedy in Blacksburg. In the days after April 16, Tom worked 20 hours straight, coming in early to handle web updates and staying until the last print pages were finished.”
You can’t cover something like the Virginia Tech without being personally affected by it — in Kapsidelis’ case, the story hit particularly close to home as both of his children were college-age at the time. He thought about Virginia Tech and its aftermath for the next three years, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he decided to pursue a book project.
There wasn’t any one thing that led to his idea to write a book, but rather a combination of factors, including the fact that it seemed survivors and others who were seeking policy changes aimed at reducing the possibility of future mass shootings had lost momentum in the public arena.
The juxtaposition of the third anniversary of the Tech shooting with gun rights rallies in Northern Virginia “struck me at the time that this divide I wanted to look at was right in front of me, and that turned out to be the start,” he said. He went all in on the idea of a book, even though he had no contract and no real sense when or if anything would be published. What was his motivation?
“I think it was the people who spoke with me early on in the process,” he said. “They shared so much of their lives and their hopes and allowed me to see them at work. I felt like ... I couldn’t take what they had shared with me and not do something with it.”
He conducted interviews with those on both sides of the debate. He enrolled in a two-year graduate writing program at Goucher College to help guide his approach, and the scope of the book expanded beyond gun issues to include campus and community safety, mental health treatment, and help for anyone traumatized by such incidents.
Kapsidelis left The Times-Dispatch in August 2016 to devote himself full time to the project and the next month began a yearlong residential fellowship with what is now Virginia Humanities. He spent a portion of the year working at the Library of Virginia, which he said played an important role in his book research with access to records and archivists who pointed him in the right direction.
As Kapsidelis toiled, the news brought one mass shooting after another — Newtown, Conn.; Las Vegas; Parkland, Fla.; and on and on — to the point, he acknowledged, of being almost overwhelming. But the one-after-another murderous rampages bolster one of the underlying themes of his book: “It’s an incredibly somber lesson in what all the advocates [for reforms] were saying in that we have profound problems, and they repeat themselves and how long do people have to wait before there’s some action?”
The Rev. Alex Evans, pastor of Richmond’s Second Presbyterian Church, is quoted extensively in the book, as he previously served as a minister in Blacksburg, where he was a chaplain for the Blacksburg Police Department and had the grim duty of notifying families and loved ones of those slain in the Virginia Tech shooting.
Evans was a founder of the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program and later helped officers who responded to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Everyone is “closer than we realize to the tragedies of gun violence,” Evans told Kapsidelis. “We could be the victims. We could be related to the perpetrators. It’s not far to fall before we have guns and alienation and anger.”
Kapsidelis found himself in that proximity in June 2018 when a friend from his college newspaper at the University of Maryland, Gerald Fischman, was among those killed by a gunman who stormed into the Capital Gazette newspaper of Annapolis, Md. As an editorial writer, Fischman had written eloquently about mass shootings in other places, including this line after one: “Of all the words this week, hopelessness may be the most dangerous. We must believe there is a solution, a way to prevent another mass shooting.”
Kapsidelis, who acknowledges being an optimist, says he comes away from writing his book thinking: It’s not hopeless.
“I think, like Gerald said, people have to have hope,” he said. “It’s going to take changing minds and having the right people in office. There have been precedents in the United States for regulating dangerous consumer products — automobiles, tobacco. So I think the country has within its grasp the ability to protect people and preserve their rights. Right now, a lot of this [gun] debate is bogged down by optics of fear, which is sadly extending to other parts of the national political discussions in so many ways.”
Kapsidelis has “done a great job and has spared nothing in his research and interviews,” said Elizabeth Hilscher, who will appear with Kapsidelis at a book talk and signing at the Library of Virginia as part of The Carole Weinstein Author Series on April 24 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Admission is free.
“While so many lost their loved ones, were survivors, or had to respond to the horrors of that traumatic day, now 12 years ago, it often seems like it was only yesterday,” Hilscher wrote in an email. “Many tragic events have occurred since 2007, so many it is hard to count, so many that have involved violence with guns, so many that have involved young people. While there is continued grief, there has also been strong movement forward to make the world a safer and better place. Tom has thoughtfully and sensitively researched and written the stories of many who, never forgetting, strive to do just that. Hopefully it will inspire others to find their way.”
Kapsidelis said making joint appearances with those who survived the Virginia Tech shooting in one way or another is helpful to him and instructive to those in the audience.
“To meet survivors in that setting is extremely meaningful and moving,” he said. “I hope people reading the book might be able to experience some of that by reading their stories.”