A Band of Determined Students Launched Lighting of the Lawn to Inspire Unity Post-9/11

A Band of Determined Students Launched Lighting of the Lawn to Inspire Unity Post-9/11

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Class of 2002 President Portman Wills had just dropped off a New York City-bound friend at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.

Class of 2002 Trustee Mary Elizabeth Luzar was sitting in a computer lab in Bryan Hall.

Fellow trustee Matt West was just starting his day at his large group home on Cabell Avenue.

It was 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, a pristine and unseasonably cool, crystal clear morning, when life turned upside down as the first of four hijacked planes smashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Soon thereafter, another plane would hit the south tower. A third would slam into the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and a fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was unclear when the terror would stop. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

The afore-mentioned trio of University of Virginia students had something in common: Each was deeply involved in student government, and, in separate interviews almost two decades later, each described a fall semester at UVA like none they had ever experienced. The words “fear,” “sadness,” “shock” and “horror” came to mind for Luzar.

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“Post-9/11, it was like every conversation was about that and Afghanistan,” Wills said during a call from England, where he is the founder and CEO of Wagestream, a financial services firm. “It was just a heavy, heavy fall.”

Wills said many students went home right after the attacks to be with family, meaning that the regularly scheduled September meeting of the Class of 2002 Trustees was delayed until later in the month. “I remember this vividly,” he said. At the rescheduled meeting “everybody is super shell-shocked. Like, ‘WTH just happened? Is life ever going to return to normal?’”

“It was such a dark time,” Luzar said.

“So, we were talking about what sorts of things we could do; what sort of programs and events we could run that tried to lift people’s spirits,” he said. At first, talk turned to trying to pull something together for Halloween, but there was not enough time for planning an event on top of UVA’s already-popular Trick or Treating on the Lawn. But Wills said their thought to do something “centered around the Lawn” came back up during their October brainstorming meeting in the board room of Alumni Hall.

“Matt, by [my] memory, came in pretty charged up saying, ‘Hey, remember a month ago we were talking about doing something on the Lawn?’” Wills said.

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“He was like, ‘Let’s do something for Christmas! Everybody loves Christmas. Let’s decorate all the pavilions like gingerbread houses and let’s serve hot chocolate. The Lawn is such a beautiful place, so let’s do a Christmas-themed event,’” Wills recalled.

There were 44 people in the room and everybody just “glommed on to the idea,” Wills said. People were throwing out ideas such as having a chili cook-off and stringing up lights.

“You know how those brainstorming sessions go,” Wills said. “There were lots of ideas being thrown around and everybody sort of said, ‘Yes, this sounds like something we can get behind,’ but Matt was definitely the one who kicked it all off.”

West remembers the session well, too, even 20 years later. “I think I had a piece of it, which was make it light up. And I think, going around the room, others came up with the idea of, like, ‘Let’s add cider and hot cocoa at the various pavilions.’ It was really fun to see it come together.”

‘Oh, the University Will Never Say Yes to That’

The pie-in-the sky brainstorming event was exhilarating, and everyone was excited. But in the back of her mind, Luzar kept thinking to herself, “Oh, the University will never say yes to that.”

Wills was determined to get a “yes,” and after meeting with several officials, including then-Dean of Students Penny Rue and former Chief Student Affairs Officer Pat Lampkin, got the go-ahead. “I thought it was a good way to end what was a hard semester and a difficult time for people,” Lampkin said. “People needed each other, and the mental health of gathering is really important.”

The first Lighting of the Lawn was memorialized in UVA’s 2002 yearbook, Corks and Curls. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Still, Lampkin made clear that the onus to plan and execute the event was fully in the students’ hands.

To string the lights, the students needed someone with expertise and an understanding of the necessary careful stewardship of UVA’s Academical Village, home to UVA’s Lawn. So, Wills’ team reached out to UVA’s Facilities Management division.

“Facilities was a joy to work with,” Wills said. “They just took it and ran with it.”

The First Year

“The general idea was to just have a faint outline of the rails above the Lawn student rooms as the horizontal lighting and then light the major columns of all the pavilions and then the columns of the Rotunda, along with the apex, the triangle at the top,” said Wayne Russell, an electrician in Facilities Management. “That’s how it was for a decade or longer and then, over time, we’ve done things with strobing lights choreographed to different music.”

The first year, Russell’s team used ladders and lifts to hang the lights, all incandescent bulbs locally sourced from Lowe’s and the now-closed Kmart store.

“Over time, we were able to do more with a ball and a string. We would have someone up top, toss it to them, they would walk around the column and toss it back down and then tie the string of lights and hoist them up that way.

“Back then we had three or four circuit breakers to provide enough power for the little incandescent Christmas tree-type ornamental lights,” Russell said. “Somewhere along the line, I believe it was Dominion Power [that] donated LED miniature lights, and the load is 10% of what it used to be. It used to be over 40 amps of power, and now it’s four.”

Electrician Randy Spencer was working on Russell’s team for the first Lighting of the Lawn and remembers the moment the Lawn was illuminated.

“The night of the event, we had multiple electricians stationed at different locations to just plug drop cords in. And then we heard the countdown and if I recall, at the end of their presentation, I think [the students called out] ‘Let there be light!,’ Spencer said. “When they said that, everybody simultaneously plugged their drop cord in, and we energized the lights and that was the first Lighting of the Lawn.”

What started out as a comparatively modest affair in 2001 has grown immensely over the years, with thousands of students and members of the community making it an annual part of their end-of-year celebrations. Games and food trucks have been added at the end of the Lawn near the Homer statue. (Last year’s Lighting of the Lawn was virtual due to the coronavirus.)

The first Lighting of the Lawn, on Dec. 15, 2001, featured some a cappella groups and the first reading of a now-annual poem, its cadence set to the poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.” That first poem was read by then-basketball coach Pete Gillen, who was very popular with students.

Former long-term Lawn resident Wayne Cozart, the recently retired executive director of the Jefferson Trust, estimates there were “fewer than 500 people who came that first time.”

“It was relatively quiet,” he said. “It really was folks coming and putting down blankets. Lawn residents pulled out their rocking chairs and had smaller events in their original rooms. None of the pavilions were open.”

This December, UVA students, with the help of Facilities Management, will host the 20th Lighting of the Lawn and recall its origin following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Wills and West have left Charlottesville to raise families and work overseas. Luzar remains at UVA as director of student engagement with the UVA Alumni Association and has been advising the student trustees since 2005, working alongside them as they plan Lighting of the Lawn each year.

It’s hard to imagine a time when there wasn’t Lighting of the Lawn. But even in its infancy, Wills, Luzar and West had an inkling the event would become a beloved UVA tradition.

Virginia Magazine quoted Wills saying as much at that first Lighting of the Lawn.

“It’s been a tough semester and we wanted something that would unify everyone, a joyful ending that would cement everyone together,” he said. “People may … see it as a one-off, but I would love to see it institutionalized.”

The annual event has steadily grown over the years; this image is from of the 2019 Lighting of the Lawn. The lights go up in early December and remain until early January. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications