President LeBlanc, university leadership and students clean the World War II memorial and join the Foggy Bottom Association in restoring local parks.
By B.L. Wilson
George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc shared a personal recollection of his memory of the day the World Trade Center towers in New York City were hit by planes hijacked by terrorists because, he said, GW now has a student body that didn’t experience 9/11.
“For many of you, the remembrance of 9/11 may be similar to others, wars past and acts of heroism past,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “For many of us of my generation, this is a very visceral remembrance.”
Dr. LeBlanc spoke on the 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance to scores of students who gathered early Saturday morning at the University Student Center before heading out to participate in community service projects throughout the city and the Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
Twenty years ago, when the first plane struck the World Trade Center, Dr. LeBlanc was sitting in a meeting at the University of Rochester in western New York when someone stuck their head in and told the group that a plane had just struck one of the towers. And then, he said, the person left. Dr. LeBlanc said, he had an image of a small private plane with one pilot who had gotten lost.
“It was a tragedy. But that was the image, and we went back to work,” he said.
A few moments later when the person returned to announce that another plane had hit the World Trade Center, he said, they stopped the meeting and called for a television.
“We spent the next three days in stunned horror at what had happened,” said Dr. LeBlanc. “Life as [we] knew it had just changed. Everything had just changed. There was no travel. Nothing was happening. I will never forget that day.”
A dean at the University of Rochester at the time, Dr. LeBlanc was responsible for students who were from New York City and had family who worked in the World Trade Center. An alumnus of the university, Jeremy Glick, was one of several passengers on flight 93 that rushed the cockpit to take on terrorists heading toward the nation’s capital.
“We commemorate it here today partially because of the national tragedy it represents and in part because of the heroism in our response and here at GW in recognition that nine of our alumni were also killed that day,” he said. “It really was a transformative event in the life of any American who was alive at that time.”
Amy Cohen, executive director of the Honey Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, explained that the National Day of Service was created by Congress to honor first responders and all those who perished at the urging of a brother and friend of a New York City firefighter who died in a collapsed tower after helping others escape.
“Not all of us, thank goodness, are tested in a crucible of urgency like at Ground Zero or on flight 93 that day,” she said. “You should think about what skills you gain here at GW and in other parts of your life that can make you a person that would be ready to help unite people around the world.”
Students joined members of the Foggy Bottom Association to clean a playground and dog park near the Foggy Bottom campus.
As New Yorkers, GW’s Caroline Laguerre Brown, vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, and Kevin Days, director of community relations, also connect viscerally to the day the Twin Towers fell. Ms. Brown recalled stepping out of the subway into the smoky grey haze of the city without realizing what had happened. Mr. Days watched from upstate New York while dialing home to Brooklyn relatives to check on their safety.
After the commemorative observance, Dr. LeBlanc walked with student volunteers to the World War II Memorial on the national mall to clean the monument and surrounding area. Members of GW’s Kappa Phi Lambda Inc. chapter joined other students a few blocks from campus to volunteer their services to the Foggy Bottom Association in removing debris, leaves and weeds at a children’s playground, a dog park and several neighborhood blocks.
The GW generation that showed up for National Day of Service and Remembrance may have no personal memories of the 9/11 attack, but “still feel a connection,” said junior Ellie McAnuff, a member of Jumpstart who worked with volunteers in creating a tool kit for children’s community groups. Though she grew up in Maine, both of her parents are from New York City. She said it was “super important to serve.”