OMAHA, Neb. - About 50 employees held hands and lined across the Von Maur department store's entrance yesterday before parting to let a crowd of holiday shoppers enter for the first time since a gunman killed eight people there 15 days earlier.

Eight wreaths were placed near the entrance to memorialize each of the victims, and a blue ribbon crossing each wreath carried the message: "We remember."

Customers applauded as the gates opened, and employees greeted them at the entrance. Many shoppers immediately took escalators to the third floor, where most of the victims Dec. 5 had been shot.

By midday, the Westroads Mall anchor was crowded - more so than similar stores nearby.

"We always think about the victims and their families," said Pamela Perry, 39. "But I'm not scared to go in the store."

Customers and employees talked together about the shootings by gunman Robert Hawkins, 19, who killed himself. One cashier told customers that she was glad to smile again after thinking she would be unable to do so; some customers paused to look down from the central balcony in silence.

Von Maur officials asked reporters not to speak with store employees.

Von Maur president Jim von Maur said the company expected nearly all of its employees to return to their jobs. More security will be added, he said, but no physical changes are planned on the store's third floor.

The Rev. Harry Buse of St. Leo Catholic Church in Omaha led a prayer before the opening, saying, "May this store again be not only a place of commerce but a place of giving."

Von Maur plans a permanent memorial to the shooting victims but has not decided what form it will take. The store, which paid its workers during the closure, has made counseling available to employees.

Fred Wilson, 61, a longtime manager of the customer service department, said he looked forward to returning to work once his injuries were healed. He was released from the hospital yesterday to continue treatment at a rehabilitation center.

Wilson was shot from behind in his right arm, the bullet severing an artery and causing severe blood loss. Another bullet, or possibly shrapnel from the first one, struck his left hand.

Micky Oldham, 65, another Von Maur employee who was wounded, was in fair condition at Creighton University Medical Center on Wednesday. She was shot in the back and abdomen. A hospital spokesman said doctors were not sure when she would be released.

Va. Tech Plans Peace Center

The Virginia Tech

classroom wing where a student gunman killed 30 people plus himself and wounded two dozen others will be turned into a place to study peace, the Blacksburg, Va., school said yesterday.

Having vowed

never again to use Norris Hall for general classes, university officials said the rooms would house the new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.

"It was an opportunity

for something new and different and hopeful to emerge," said provost Mark McNamee.

In addition to

the peace center, the second-floor classrooms where Seung-Hui Cho killed 30 of his 32 victims will host an interactive learning space.

Aside from those rooms,

Norris Hall was reopened because it has sophisticated laboratory equipment that could not be moved.

- Associated Press