Friends reflect on a leader they loved

Slain cadet known for his quiet strength

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Star-Ledger Staff

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Inside the Brodie Hall dormitory, a four-story, L-shaped brick building, Matt La Porte's nameplate still hangs, a piece of paper slipped into a bracket on the door of Room 211. Directly across the hall, a female classmate sobs uncontrollably as she receives the news of his death.

A sophomore from Dumont, N.J., and a member of the school's Air Force Corps of Cadets, La Porte was one of a gunman's 32 victims in Monday's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. La Porte was trapped and shot in his French class in Norris Hall about a quarter-mile away, and his death has rocked his circle of friends.

"We're grieving," said cadet first lieutenant David Lundin, a member of La Porte's company and a fellow resident of Brodie Hall. "In the company, he is loved. He set a very high standard. We miss him very much.

"He was a quiet leader. He didn't need to be the center of attention, but he had a wry sense of humor, and once in a while, he would surprise you."

Yesterday, they remembered a quiet student with a sneak-attack wit, a talented drummer and a fitness fanatic who spent hundreds of hours and thousands of sweat droplets in the gyms around campus. Classmates marveled at his unparalleled work ethic and his ability to push his body beyond its limits.

As a team leader, La Porte, on an ROTC scholarship, was responsible for four freshman cadets. He inspected their rooms, made sure they attended class and did their schoolwork. If they goofed off, he would take the heat. La Porte's cadets, Lundin said, were squeaky clean.

One floor below LaPorte's dorm room, Roy Calilung, a sophomore Air Force cadet, stood at the foot of a wide staircase that leads from a back entrance to his room. He stared at the tile floor and remembered one of his best friends in whispery speech.

"He is in the same company as me," Calilung said. "Those are your buds. Those are the guys you come in with. You spend a whole year together, your first year here. You get very close.

"If he could have gotten out, he would have. He was in incredible physical shape. He would have dived out that window. It would have taken a bullet to stop him."

La Porte and Calilung met as Rats, the nickname given to freshman cadets who have no privileges or power.

They played in the cadet band together -- until Calilung recently quit to concentrate on his studies. La Porte, a drummer, was particularly skillful in twirling his drumsticks between beats. In his short time at Virginia Tech, La Porte performed with the band at the governor's inauguration in Williamsburg, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and a St. Patrick's Day parade in Savannah, Ga.

But for all they had in common, La Porte and Calilung bonded over their passion for fitness, and spent three or four evenings training together each week.

It helped. Last summer, La Porte was selected for the Air Force Special Operations Prep Team, a training program for the corps' elite. Of the more than 20 cadets in his company who applied, La Porte was one of four accepted, Calilung said.

When he first heard about the shootings, Calilung said he immediately started calling his friend's cell phone to check on his safety, but La Porte, shot in French class, didn't answer. And La Porte's online screen name remained idle for hours.

"I figured he had been hurt," Calilung said. "But then when they released (from the hospital) those who had been injured, and we still hadn't heard from him, I started to think ..."

He didn't finish the sentence.

At a meeting around midnight, the cadets were told: La Porte was dead.

"I'm going to miss him," Calilung said. "He was always there for me, to push me and make me better. I'm going to keep going to the gym, keep working out, keep doing the best I can because he always told me to strive to be the best."

Back home, in the middle-class Dumont neighborhood where La Porte grew up, neighbors and friends fondly remembered him as the respectful boy with a turtle, rabbit and shy smile -- who loved helping his dad in the yard.

"He was always taking off on his bike. Then he went off to school, and every time he came home, he'd grown another foot," said Jen Oliver, who moved down the street from the La Portes when Matt was 6. "Then it was, 'Oh, my God, Matthew's driving now.'"

"I can't imagine the horror his family is feeling."

La Porte graduated from Carson Long Military Institute in New Bloomfield, Pa., in 2005 before enrolling at Virginia Tech.

At CLI, he was nicknamed "Turtle," because of his pet, kept his hair in a crew-cut and loved rock bands Van Halen and AC/DC. At CLI, he sang in the glee club and participated in track, soccer and baseball, according to the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa. La Porte spent four years on the high school drum and bugle corps and was the drum major his senior year.

At their home, La Porte's parents, Barbara and Joe, sought counsel from Father Jim Bouffard, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish of Haworth.

"They're devastated," he said. "They have a lot of decisions to make. They haven't made any yet."

The La Portes issued a statement, thanking all "who have shown their support." They also extended condolences and prayers "to the other families who have suffered this tragic and senseless act of violence."

Staff writers Ana Alaya and Russell Ben-Ali and Joe Elias of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this story.