With a solo bagpipe playing, a somber crowd of close to 2,000 gathered in Storke Plaza last Friday to reflect on the losses of September 11.
The observance was held in memory of the more than 5,000 victims of the terrorist attacks last Tuesday. Locally, the tragedy was compounded after confirmation that the newly hired UCSB women’s gymnastics coach, Mari-Rae Sopper, was killed on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. Sopper was on her way to Los Angeles International Airport from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. to begin her coaching responsibilities.
“UCSB has lost an outstanding young woman who was on her way to take up her duties as our new women’s gymnastics coach,” UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang said in his opening remarks to the crowd of students, faculty and Santa Barbara community members. “Mari-Rae Sopper was a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77. … Although most of our student-athletes had not yet had an opportunity to meet her, they were extremely excited about her impending arrival.”
Sopper, who was hired on August 31, decided to quit her job as a lawyer for the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Schmeltzer, Aptaker, and Shepard, and take over the reigns at UCSB. She had previously coached gymnastics for the Navy, the Colorado Gymnastics Institute and a Junior Olympics center in Dallas.
The Gaucho athletic program decided August 10 to drop gymnastics as an intercollegiate sport, only to reinstate it three days after the initial announcement. Gymnastics will compete in the Winter Quarter season, but a search for a new coach has not yet begun.
“We are shocked and dismayed by what has happened,” UCSB Athletic Director Gary Cunningham said. “Mari-Rae was a very dynamic and enthusiastic person and it is tragic that her life was cut short.”
At the memorial, Yang spoke about the importance of coming together to show support for each other.
“What makes this occasion special is that it shows us as the community that we are,” Yang said. “I tell our new students that when they come to UCSB, they not only enroll in a university – they become part of a community. And it is at times such as this that our community comes together to begin the healing, and to remind ourselves how much we depend on each other.”
After Yang spoke, violinist Yuval Yaron played a short piece and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Young introduced religious members of the community for a moment of silence. During the moment of silence, Hillel Rabbi Steve Cohen and Imam Abdur Rahman of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara stood side by side.
“These large gatherings are very meaningful,” Cohen said. “There is something very inspiring about seeing thousands of people making a point of coming together. Large gatherings are important for what happens in the small ways of individuals reaching out at other members of the community and individuals working to overcome their own fears and prejudices.”
Speaker Edward Collins, Graduate Student Association external president, spoke briefly of the necessity for reaching peace, using former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as an example of two men who “risked their lives in the pursuit of peace.” In 1978, Begin and Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching a peace agreement at Camp David.
“They reached out because they knew that lasting peace is not only the temporary absence of war and that it must be built on a foundation of mutual respect and goodwill. In our resolve to fight terrorism abroad and at home, we must not forget that we must also foster and nurture its opposite; peace and goodwill among ourselves and in our communities,” Collins said. “The acts of [Sept. 11] took many lives, and may also take a part of our humanity, but only if we let them. We must not waver in our resolve to stop violence, and we succeed in this effort by also embracing respect, goodwill and compassion among individuals, among communities and among nations.”