“We should not be here today,” said Tony Yao, president of the Chinese-American Friendship Association of North Carolina. “Something…something is wrong with our community, something that has prevented Professor Feng Liu from enjoying another beautiful day of the life, family, and work.”
Dedicated scientist, humble man of achievement, generous friend, devoted husband, proud father, excited grandfather-to-be, wise counsel, drinking buddy, golf partner, and contributor to a better world.
As Tony Yao, president of the Chinese-American Friendship Association of North Carolina paid tribute to his fallen friend, UNC Professor of Molecular Pharmaceutics Feng Liu at the beginning of Wednesday night’s candlelight vigil, he included many of those things in his description.
Other friends, colleagues and admirers who spoke at the event on Pittsboro Street did too, And many, like Yao, expressed the same outrage at the circumstances of Liu’s death.
It was exactly one week since the 59-year-old professor was found lying on the ground with blood pouring from his head on West University Drive near the Ransom Street intersection. He was mugged, and his attackers hit him on the head with a rock. Liu died from his injuries.
At Wednesday’s vigil, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt spoke near a flowing fountain that did its best to comfort the audience. Behind her and other speakers at the entrance of the FedEx Global Communication Center, a table had been set up with flowers, and a framed picture of Liu smiling – he was a great smiler, one friend recalled.
Two nights earlier, Folt met with Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt in her office to discuss public safety concerns, as the UNC community mourned a shocking loss.
As she spoke to those assembled to honor Liu, Folt reaffirmed the university’s commitment to keeping faculty and students safe.
“As we go forward today in his honor, I know we want to concentrate about him, and his legacy, and what he has meant for our community, but also with his work, for so many people throughout the world” said Folt. “But I also do want to tell you that there is nothing, nothing more important than the safety of our campus and our community. And as we go forward, that too will be part of everything we do in the coming days.”
Liu came to the Eshelman School of Pharmacy in 2005. His research interest was in developing methods to deliver drugs to cancer cells.
His colleague Xio Xio, who knew Liu from his days at the University of Pittsburgh, remembered him as an excellent teacher and role model for students. He said Liu was also a great scientist whose achievements were felt around the world.
One of those achievements is the hydrodynamic method, a breakthrough in gene therapy.
“It’s used by hundreds of labs over the world,” said Xio. “I think many labs at UNC also use that technology. The paper was cited more then 1,200 times. That kind of achievement can rarely be matched by scientists in the world. But Feng was always a humble and modest man. He never bragged about it.”
Xio mentioned the Chinese tradition of paying tribute to the dead on the seventh day of their passing. Liu’s family couldn’t be present, he added, because they were in Asheville, where half of Liu’s ashes will be spread somewhere in the mountains. The other half will be placed in Liu’s hometown in China, near the graves of his parents.
Another reason Liu’s family is in Asheville is that Liu’s daughter had an appointment for a pre-natal checkup there. She’s due in less than two months, and as Xio reminded the somber crowd, the closest Liu ever came to seeing his granddaughter was in an ultrasound image.
Another colleague, Jun Li, spoke with emotion about his slain friend. He said he now avoids walking past Liu’s office, for fear that he’ll break down in tears.
Li talked about the trauma suffered by the entire UNC community. he said that the site of Liu’s murder is a street where many of his co-workers at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy also take regular walks around lunchtime.
“My wife and my little daughter also walk that way,” said Li. “it’s not a bad place. But it just happens to Dr. Liu.”
After about 45 minutes of tributes, it was time for mourners to walk to that once-unremarkable place, after candles had been lit, and Chinese liquor had been poured in front of the table in Liu’s honor, and all of the guests had bowed three times toward his picture.
The eight-minute walk was quiet, and orderly, and mourners were accompanied by a few Chapel Hill police on bicycles.
Darkness fell as people arrived at Ransom Street and West University Drive, and many heavy sighs and gasps were audible as flowers were left at the murder site on West University.
They were the sounds of disbelief at the senseless crime committed here, on a quiet, familiar street, at the tree-lined edge of someone’s front yard, in the middle of a sunny day.