SMITHFIELD, Va. (AP) – One of the many churches in this town founded as a colonial seaport has a sign reading “Va. Tech Families We Are Praying For You.”

Next door, the local volunteer rescue squad also has a sign, a more personal one that honors one of its own members: “In Memory of VT Student Nicole White.”

Here and there, throughout White’s hometown, are symbols of the sorrow felt even by those who didn’t know the 20-year-old woman with long red hair, a big smile and a deep faith in God. She died in Monday’s shootings at Virginia Tech, nearly 300 miles across the state in Blacksburg.

“Everybody is upset and hurt,” 81-year-old Gus Barlow said. “It’s such a waste of life.”

From Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico, small towns are coping with the sudden loss of loved ones, friends and classmates, many of them young people who seemed certain to have bright futures.

About 7,000 people live in Smithfield, a town of 10 square miles in the Hampton Roads region of eastern Virginia that has been dubbed one of the prettiest communities in the state. It’s known for the curing of Smithfield ham – a salty country ham – and for being the home of meatpacking giant Smithfield Foods Inc.

Barlow wears a Virginia Tech baseball hat as he walks past the old homes, specialty shops and eateries along the historic district’s Main Street. Barlow never met White, but he donned the cap for his fellow Hokie.

“We Hokies are together – always,” said Barlow, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1950.

Non-Hokies, too, are united in showing support for White, her parents, her 18-year-old brother and the rest of the extended Virginia Tech family, including another student from Smithfield, 23-year-old Matt Webster, who was shot in the arm and is recovering.

Instead of describing the daily specials, a chalkboard propped up on the sidewalk outside the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery and Cafe reads “Our Thoughts + Prayers Are With You – Va. Tech – Go Hokies.”

Inside, Natalie Bangley, Desiree Craighead and other waitresses wear pins they made from ribbons of maroon and orange – Tech’s colors – as they take orders for chicken salad sandwiches and cream of broccoli soup.

Even though the town has been growing, Bangley said it’s still “a little Mayberry, really” – the kind of place where someone who didn’t know White, like Bangley or Craighead, knows someone who did, like Craighead’s sister, Danielle Bennett.

Safety-pinned to the outside of Bennett’s tote bag is a piece of paper printed with the image of a black ribbon behind the letters “VT” and the inscription “R.I.P. Nicole White 4/16/07.”

Bennett met White through a mutual friend at Smithfield High School, when White was a junior and Bennett a freshman.

White was a lot of fun. She would gamely eat foods that students mixed together in weird combinations as they traded lunches, Bennett said, laughing. White also would amuse friends by walking down the street, singing classic rock tunes such as “I Love Rock N’ Roll,” a Joan Jett hit that was older than White.

Above all, White was always looking to help others. In high school, she was an EMT with the rescue squad and a lifeguard at the YMCA. In Blacksburg, she volunteered at the animal shelter and at a battered women’s shelter.

“She was everybody’s favorite,” Bennett said, tearing up. “She never judged anyone and she saw a friend in everybody.”

The message board in front of the 1,200-student high school is draped in maroon and orange fabric and reads, “We Are All One Family.”

White lived not far from the school, just outside Smithfield’s historic district, at the end of a cul-de-sac in a subdivision with large wooded lots and a private marina.

On Thursday, while Mike and Tricia White were still in Blacksburg, waiting for their daughter’s body to be released, a group of men spruced up their yard and fixed railings on their porch. They did not want to talk, out of respect for the family, but said they work with White’s father at Dominion Power.

Just up the street, maroon-and-orange ribbons were tied to three small trees at a playground and a small Virginia Tech flag was planted in a flower bed in front of one home.

There was more maroon and orange on the towering pine trees outside Nansemond River Baptist, the church in nearby Suffolk where White was a member. People have been placing roses, carnations and other flowers beneath one tree with a Virginia Tech banner tied to the trunk.

Exhausted and heartbroken, the White family wasn’t ready to talk about her just a few days after her death.

Senior pastor Tim Piland said, though, that the Whites want people to know that “their daughter loved life, loved people and loved the Lord.”

On the Net:

Smithfield, Va.:

AP-ES-04-21-07 1545EDT

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