Former and current Elon University community members who were on campus during Sept. 11 speak on their personal experiences as well as how that day changed Elon forever.
On Wednesday evening, a panel discussion featuring Elon University figures who were at the institution on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks to discuss what they experienced on that day and how that day shaped the campus and themselves.
President Emeritus Leo Lambert, professor Ann Cahill, Professor Emerita Anne Bolin, Chaplain Emeritus Richard McBride and Assistant Vice President for Annual Giving and Alumni Engagement Brian Feeley ’03 were panelists on the Sept. 8 roundtable. Mark Dalhouse, director for global initiatives and assistant professor, moderated the discussion.
“It started out as being the happiest of days, it was a beautiful September morning, low humidity and blue skies. We were getting ready for a special College Coffee because that weekend we were going to be playing our very first game in our very first on-campus football stadium,” Lambert said.
A celebratory College Coffee that Tuesday had been planned with then-head football coach Al Seagraves to give a speech and the Fire of the Carolinas marching band to play to Elon fight song. But as the event was set to start, Lambert discovered the news breaking in New York.
“The rest of it, I almost remember in slow motion,” Lambert said. “My thought was, ‘We have to change this program very quickly.’ We will not have the football coach speak, we asked the marching band to play the national anthem and we announced that there were horrible events happening in New York City.”
Lambert said he remembers turning to Rev. McBride, who was then the university’s chaplain, and asked him to pray for the university. Like most everyone, McBride said, he was in shock because of what he’d witnessed that morning. When he stepped up to speak, McBride said his eyes centered on an ROTC member in the crowd.
“I guess my eyes centered on him because my own son was in the military then,” McBride said. “I’ve never been able to fully reconstruct the prayer, but I know that the spirit of it was let us not be consumed by vengeance, for if we are consumed by vengeance then we are in the same place as the terrorists.”
Feeley was a junior at Elon at the time, and as a student representative on a committee focused on the opening of the Rhodes Stadium, he was making his way to the College Coffee at Fonville Foundation. He cut through Moseley Center when he saw the first images of the attacks on Sept. 11. It was the televisions inside of Moseley that became a center point on campus o the moments after the attacks and several days following, Feeley said.
“If you were to ask my fellow classmates at the time to talk about where they were that day, I think those alums, hundreds of them would say, that either first images or some images that day were those television screens in the Moseley Center,” Feeley said. “We didn’t know what to think about the world ahead of us, but it was very clear that the world is changing.”
Ann Cahill was unaware of the festive College Coffee that morning and was listening to NPR when she first heard about the attacks. With the first plane, Cahill thought that something had gone wrong in the air tower and that it was a terrible mistake. “It was the second plane that really brought things home,” she said.
She arrived at campus around 9:30 a.m. with an “eerie sensation” that something big had happened but not everyone knew about it.
“The internet was no help; cell phones were no help. Those were technologies that crashed. What worked was television,” Cahill said. She and her colleagues went into a classroom that had a television and they were glued to it until noon.
In the fall of 2001, 70 Elon students were studying abroad and 40 of those students were with Anne Bolin in London on Sept. 11.
“I was walking home, and I noticed a small group of people gathered around the appliance store that had a couple of TVs in it. I stopped and there on the screen was what appeared to be some American adventure movie where a plane was flying into a building,” Bolin said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
She soon set up an emergency meeting with all the students as quickly as possible. Bolin said that it was a surreal and fearful experience because she and the 40 students were in a foreign country and didn’t know if they were targets.
One of the immediate responses following the attacks was to have the Division of Student Life call the students from zip codes in the New York City boroughs or New Jersey to see if there was any immediate impact with any family member or loved one in the attacks. The father of one student, Jason Boone ’05, was killed in the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
“In the minutes and hours afterward, we were just feeling our way through a fog as information like Mr. Boone’s death came in,” Lambert said. “We were trying to think through questions of where should students go, should we cancel classes.”
The decision made was the continue with classes because students needed to be with their professors and in a classroom to discuss the events of the day with the Elon community. Following the immediate shock of the morning, students began to congregate at Elon Community Church.
“Almost instinctively, word started to spread there was a gathering,” Feeley said. “It felt like the most incredible organic gathering of people that certainly I have ever experienced. By the time I walked in the church, it was full.”
During a student panel in the days after, Feeley said that comments from one of his classmates, Laith Majali ’05, changed his life. Majali was a freshman from Jordan and one of the few Muslim students at Elon during the time. He stood in front of his peers to explain his culture and to build bridges against a lot of the visceral, angry feelings felt by many.
“It certainly changed my life and led me down a path of wanting to explore an internship with the State Department, which I was fortunate enough to do, and then try to better understand and be a learner,” Feeley said. “And I credit his moment as changing how I was processing in real-time 9/11 from an angry place to one of understanding.”
The aftermath of Sept. 11 changed significant things on the Elon campus as well.
“I think because of Richard [McBride] and others, you can trace the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life and our growing interest in multifaith to that time,” Lambert said.
Along with the establishment of the Truitt Center, the construction of the Numen Lumen Pavilion, the Multifaith Scholars program, the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture and Society, Elon’s commitment to global experience and requiring a foreign language for students are other examples of how the campus has changed since 2001.
But much of the overall sense of community and togetherness after Sept. 11 is gone, and has made way for a lack of compassion and understanding, said Lambert, who is hopefully there is a path back to that place.
“It feels to me right now in the world and especially in this country that we are losing a sense of extending compassion,” Lambert said. “It plays itself out in so many powerful and obvious ways in the face of this pandemic that seems to be going on and on in large measure because we are not extending compassion to each other in very basic and easy ways.
“I want to get back to that,” he said.