Remembering Morgan With Positive Change

Jan 24, 2019

Nine years ago a farmer in southern Albemarle County found the remains of a young woman in his field.  The discovery was devastating for Morgan Harrington’s family who had waited 100 days – not knowing the fate of the 20-year-old who went missing after a Metallica concert at UVA.  Since then, those who loved her have been working to ensure that she’s not forgotten, and that other families won’t face similar tragedies. 

Jane Lillian Vance (L) and Gil Harrington pose in front of one of Jane's recent paintings celebrating America's diversity.
Credit Sandy Hausman

From the kitchen window of her suburban Roanoke home, Gil Harrington looks out on a rock garden and a collection of colorful prayer flags strung above.

“People started saying, because Morgan loved music, that Morgan rocks, and people started sending Morgan’s rocks from all over the country,” she says with a rueful smile.

Those rocks  sat on a bridge at UVA – the last place Morgan was seen alive  -- until the University of Virginia  placed a memorial plaque there.   Now they’re part of the home where Morgan grew up  –  a place that feels like a shrine.  The walls of her room are still covered with posters of the musicians she loved.

“People have been in here and said, ‘Oh my God.  This can’t be.  She’s got Barry Manilow and Metallica in here!’ but she did.  She liked it all,” Gil explains. 

On another wall, a framed drawing that Morgan, as a child, planned to enter in a contest called Wouldn’t It Be Great If.

“So Morgan did this picture: Wouldn’t it be great if my dog had puppies and I got to keep them all, and there’s this riotous picture of Morgan holding a puppy, and puppies peeing on the carpet, rolling around.  I mean it’s a joyous picture,” her mother recalls.

But when she brought the drawing to school, her teacher said it wasn’t right for the contest.

“Morgan told me the teacher said it would be better if I said, Wouldn’t it be great if there was no hunger in the world?  or something like that,  and I said, ‘I think it’s good, and you worked hard on it.  I think you should take it back and tell her that,’ so she did,  and actually she won first prize and went on to statewide competition, but it was a real pivotal moment for Morgan in third grade to realize that the people in charge didn’t have all the answers, and that you had to follow your heart.”

That heart would eventually lead to a class at Virginia Tech called The Creative Process: Loss, Grief and Resilience taught by Professor and painter Jane Lillian Vance.

“When her remains were discovered I was devastated," Vance recalls. "Soon after I contacted the Harringtons to say, ‘You don’t know me, but I loved your daughter.  I have some of her writing that is important for you to see, because it’s like a love letter to both of you.’  And Gil said, ‘We know exactly who you are. Morgan loved you.’”

Since then Harrington and Vance have been allies in the fight to Help Save the Next Girl.  In 2011, they incorporated a non-profit by that name – working with students, police departments and others concerned with the safety of young women. They’re sure the group, with 83 chapters in middle schools, high schools and on college campuses, has saved lives with its programs, T-shirts and bracelets. They contend each one of those items is the beginning of a conversation about safety and about not being a by-stander, about buddying up.

They’ve also worked with Albemarle County Sheriff Chip Harding to expand the DNA database, and they pressed for a legal change that requires universities to contact police in cases of alleged rape, something Vance says didn’t always happen before. 

“Because every campus would like to be Camelot, but guess what.  There is sexual violence that happens on campuses and it’s inconvenient for the universities,” Vance explains.

The two women have written a book, created dozens of art works and traveled to Africa to build a lasting memorial to Morgan and other young women who’ve been murdered.  We’ll learn more about that work in our next report.  

Part Two

Next week marks a tragic anniversary for the family and friends of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who was kidnapped and murdered after a Metallica concern in Charlottesville.  In January of 2010 her remains were found in a farm field south of the city. 

A book written by Gil Harrington and Jane Lillian Vance recounts the tragic story of Morgan Harrington and the good that has come from her death.
Credit Save The Next Girl

The Harrington home in suburban Roanoke is typical of a prosperous American neighborhood, but inside it’s filled with surprises – small sculptures acquired on trips to Zambia where nurse Gil Harrington goes each year to provide medical care to people who have none.

“My way out of the abyss and the pit of grief really has been through service and through ushering some goodness in to make our daughter’s abbreviated life have some meaning,” Gil says.

Joining her on these missions is Jane Lillian Vance, Morgan’s favorite professor at Virginia Tech and a prolific painter who’s created three dozen works inspired by trips to Africa.  Many of them hang on the Harringtons’ walls --  filled with detail and text. On one she quotes her travel companion:  “What you do may not break the back of poverty, but it’s better than turning your back."

"That’s Gil Harrington," she says, pointing to  hands are in the painting, and  to what Vance called a "tattoo of love on her wrist that commemorates Morgan," the numbers 241, signifying the words:  I love you too much, forever and once beyond forever.

That love extends to the orphans of Zambia who are now educated in a school building donated by the Harringtons in Morgan’s memory.  For that and their medical work, Gil, Jane and the others who volunteer receive a warm welcome.

For her 60th birthday last summer, Vance traveled to Tanzania where she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro – taking with her photos of Morgan and three other murdered women -- Heather Heyer, Alexis Murphy and Nicole Lovell.

Back home, the giving continues through a non-profit called Help Save the Next Girl.  It promotes safe practices for young women, legal reforms and support for victims of crime.  Again, Jane Lillian Vance.

“Gil Harrington attends the trials, pays for the funerals, sits with the Mamas, as she did with Susan Bro in Charlottesville,” Vance explains.

Gil Harrington's grace even extended to the mother of Jesse Matthew, Junior – sentenced to life without parole in the deaths of Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham.  In a book they wrote together, Vance recalls the moment after sentence was pronounced and court adjourned.  Jesse’s mother stood – alone.

“I saw Gil rise.  She approached Jesse’s mother. In that aisle, in the great divide of humanity where difficult choices are made, to battle evil, to offer theories of exclusion and superiority, to offer kindness, to crusade, Gil stepped and raised both arms.  She gently, silently enfolded Jesse’s mama.  Two mamas now in one cocoon, leaning on each others’ shoulders – intimate, exhausted but determined together.  They whispered back and forth to one another. ‘Will you always pray for me, Gil?  Yes, I will pray for you Deborah.  Will you pray for me Deborah?  I will always pray for you Gil.’”

Proceeds from the book, available on Help Save the Next Girl’s website, benefit that group. It will also be available at our Charlottesville studio at 5 p.m. Friday, February 1st when both Harrington and Vance will show their works.