Grant Worley was just 5-years old on Sept. 11, 2001, and like many of his fellow college students he has little direct memory of that day and the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people.
Speaking to a gathering of Penn State and State College community members on Monday morning outside of Old Main, Worley stressed the importance of remembering -- regardless of age or background -- those who lost their lives, those who made heroic sacrifices and the events of that day.
"We must never forget the heroism of average, every day Americans who went out of their way to help complete strangers, or the lives of the 343 firefighters and 72 police officers who without regard for their own personal safety risked and unfortunately gave their lives so that their fellow Americans might see another day," he said.
Worley is president of the Penn State College Republicans, which for the sixth consecutive year organized the 9/11 memorial on the University Park campus.
The memorial also included remarks from state Sen. Jake Corman (R-Benner Township), a prayer by Rabbi Hershy Gourarie of Chabad, and the display of 2,977 American flags on Old Main Lawn, representing each of the victims of the attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.
"We must never forget each and every one of the 2,977 lives of Americans that were tragically cut short by a despicable act of terror," Worley said. "We must never forget what that act did to our great country and ensure in the future an act such as that will never happen again."
In his prayer, Gourarie asked for peace for the deceased and survivors and courage for those who fight terror.
"We implore you God of mercy, give us strength and determination necessary to transform darkness into light," Gourarie said. "Be with us and direct us as we strive to make our world kinder and gentler. Fulfill our hopes and listen to our prayers for a world of justice, compassion and peace."
Unlike Worley, Corman has clear memories of Sept. 11, 2001. He was working at his district office in Lewistown when word began to come in about the attacks. Eventually making his way home to turn on the television and see what had happened, Corman, like so many others, was horrified.
But as the hours passed, he began to see something else.
"As the day went on, you began to see the American spirit," Corman said.
He noted the passengers who forced down United 93 in a field in Somerset County as the hijackers were flying toward Washington, D.C., bound for either the White House or Capitol.
"Folks like Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers decided they were going to risk and ultimately lose their lives to protect others," Corman said. "Those passengers acted. They decided this wasn’t going to happen and they were going to ultimately give up their own lives to prevent that from happening."
Images of firefighters and police officers running into the World Trade Center further captured that American spirit, Corman said.
"Most people run from danger," he said. "Those people, emergency responders, were trained to run in to danger. How many lives did they save by going in there and getting people out but ultimately giving up their own lives?"
The spirit of unity and willingness to help others is one that shouldn't be lost to political division, Corman said, noting that in September 2001, like now, the country was just 10 months removed from a contentious presidential election and political animosity was running high.
The passengers on flight 93 and the first responders weren't concerned about political affiliations, they were concerned with saving lives, he said, and in the wake of the tragedy, people were brought together.
"That is the spirit that comes from great tragedy, and sometimes we have a tendency to lose it the further we get away," Corman said. "I’m a believer that if we truly want to honor the people who gave their lives that day and showed that tremendous spirit, that we do it by coming together as people."
That spirit is evident as the country faces another tragedy, this time brought on by the natural disasters of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Selflessness and a willingness to help fellow Americans overcomes political divisions, he said.
Corman said as a Republican he views Democrats as opponents, not enemies, and he believes that political debate is important but must be healthy.
"We don’t want a monolithic society where we all believe in the same thing," he said. "We want to have public debates because that’s how great public policy happens. But we do it with the spirit that these are our fellow Americans. At the end of the day, they’re our neighbors, our friends, our community members... These are all fellow Americans that we care about and we should continue that spirit we had in the days after September 11. I think that’s the best way to truly honor this day and the great sacrifice those people made."
Worley echoed Corman's remarks, saying that the day should serve as a reminder that Americans have a common purpose.
"We hope that today everyone, regardless of where you come from or what religion you follow, will come together and remember the events of the past, to come together and remember that despite our differences, at our heart, we are all Americans."