On Campus

Canadian professor killed at Va. Tech leaves French teaching legacy: husband

Couture-Nowak’s family describes program launched in her memory

A year after Jocelyn Couture-Nowak was gunned down at Virginia Tech, her husband says “legacies” are emerging from the tragedy that reflect the gentle nature of a Canadian teacher who abhorred firearms.Jerzy Nowak, head of the school’s horticulture department, said the creation of a centre for peace studies, along with a student-led program to provide French classes for children, have helped him cope with his grief.

“These legacies are so wonderful, and I see them as the biggest comfort for what happened,” he said in an interview, referring to the 32 people killed by Seung Hui Cho last April 16 – the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The professor, who first met Couture when the two were teaching near Truro, N.S., said he is particularly inspired by the work of students who have volunteered to teach a program called “Teach for Madame.”

A passionate advocate of French education, Couture-Nowak was teaching a French class at Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall when Cho broke through a barricaded door and shot most of his victims before killing himself.

Some of the pupils in that class, including one who was shot three times, are now providing French instruction to children at Harding Avenue elementary school near the Blacksburg, Va., campus.

Nowak says they are using his wife’s enthusiastic teaching philosophy, often using hand-sewn costumes and cooking some French meals.

Meanwhile, Nowak says he does not count himself among the relatives still feeling deep anger at the failure of state authorities to properly deal with Cho’s threats and mental illness or the university’s response to the 23-year-old’s deadly rampage.

Rather, the former resident of Truro, N.S. – where he taught for 17 years at the nearby Nova Scotia Agricultural College – said he is willing to accept the US$100,000 being offered by the state in exchange for giving up the right to sue.

Most of the victims’ families recently agreed to an US$11-million compensation package, which is aimed at avoiding a court battle that would look into whether anyone besides the gunman was to blame.

Those rejecting the settlement offer have until this coming Wednesday – the anniversary of the shooting – to decide if they will file a lawsuit.

“Some people may choose to continue (the legal fight) but in our case, I’m just being practical,” Nowak said.

“The reality is that one would have to hire lawyers and continue fighting and I just have such a busy professional life, and this was such a tragedy for everybody. A tragedy for the families, a tragedy for the university and a tragedy for the government.”

“Having more money doesn’t solve all problems.”

Nowak, who moved to Virginia in 2001 with Jocelyne, said he manages his grief by focusing on his work and family, including his 13-year-old daughter Sylvie.

Last year, the professor sought a role in designing a Centre for Peace Studies and Non Violence, an interdisciplinary institute that will promote conflict resolution and study methods to reduce violence.

Nowak said one of the key objectives of the centre will be to address the issue of gun control.

“Without these changes, other things are cosmetic,” he said in an interview.

He said he is also supporting a bid by fellow professor Jack Lesko to push for a state bill that would require all sellers at gun shows to be registered, meaning background checks would be required for buyers.

Francine Dulong, Couture’s daughter, stressed that her mother “was very anti-violence” and feared the rise of gun-related deaths on U.S. campuses.

“I can understand why she was fearful of guns, because these things happen so frequently,” she said in an interview from Vancouver.

Like her stepfather, she is speaking publicly of the need for handgun owners to be licenced.

However, Dulong, 25, who is travelling to Virginia to be with her stepfather and sister, said she, too, is particularly inspired by the Teach for Madame program.

She plans to visit John Welch, a 20-year-old former student of Couture’s who said he started the program because he knew his teacher had an “abiding passion for spreading the French language wherever she could.”

Dulong said she is also following in her mother’s footsteps, as she begins teaching children musical theatre, and plans to move to Paris for post-graduate theatre study.

“She’d be so happy I am going. I’m gaining some of her strength,” she said.

“I keep thinking of a lot of her ideas and her methods in teaching, and how excited she was every day.

“Sometimes when I see the look of excitement on children’s faces, it gets me all teary eyed. I think ‘Aw, Mom you would really love how I’m actually teaching.’ ”

Dulong and Nowak say they have been satisfied by Virginia Tech’s response to the massacre.

A commission that studied the tragedy found faults with a slow emergency-warning system, and the failure of the campus mental health system to pick up on obvious warning signs that Cho was dangerous.

Nowak noted the creation of an e-mail and cellphone system to warn students of a threat, and said there are steps being taken to monitor students with mental health problems.

However, Daniel Couture, a younger brother of who lives near Quebec City, said the university hasn’t done enough to improve security.

He has prepared a legal brief that argues the university had ample warning that an attack was possible, and it was poorly prepared to save lives.

“Securing the truth and ensuring restorative justice can only be attained through an independent and impartial judicial hearing,” he argues in his paper.

He said he’s hoping his brief will be widely distributed among the affected families.

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