On Tuesday night, members of the University of Virginia community came together to remember Otto Warmbier and honor the kind, adventurous young man that many of them knew.
Students, faculty members, staff and community members solemnly filed into the McIntire Amphitheater on the beautiful summer evening, just one day after Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, announced that the UVA student had died after suffering extensive brain damage during his 17-month imprisonment in North Korea.
The nation knows Warmbier as the young American detained in North Korea in January 2016, when authorities there alleged he attempted to remove a propaganda sign from the wall of his hotel. After a one-day trial, Warmbier, who had been visiting the country as a tourist, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. No outside officials were allowed access to the 22-year-old until this month, when U.S. authorities and his family learned he had been a coma for more than a year. He was medically evacuated to his Ohio home on June 13 and died Monday.
Those who spoke on Tuesday, however, wanted the world to know that Warmbier, a member of UVA’s Class of 2017, was much more than that horrific story. He was the oldest of three siblings from Wyoming, Ohio, a student in the McIntire School of Commerce who was planning a career in finance and a member of the Echols Scholar program designed for students demonstrating extraordinary intellectual curiosity and self-motivation. Though only a third-year student at the time of his arrest, Warmbier already had enough credits to graduate. Outside of class, he was a member of Theta Chi, worked on the Student Council’s Sustainability Committee and was involved with Hillel, a Jewish community organization at UVA.
Beyond those accomplishments however, the friends and classmates who stepped up to the microphone Tuesday to remember Warmbier recalled a brilliant and loyal friend, known around Grounds for his kindness, his big smile and his love of quirky thrift store clothing.
Warmbier’s fraternity brothers described him as someone with “uncommon charisma,” whose energy was “infectious at all hours of the day.” They recalled his frequent phone calls, just checking in to ask how they were doing; an old yellow cardigan dotted with lighthouses that he loved to wear; and the thrift store finds he would spontaneously select for his friends – clothes that many of them donned Tuesday night.
One fraternity brother, Billy Burgess, also recalled Warmbier’s special relationship with Martin Powell, an honorary Theta Chi brother living with cerebral palsy. Warmbier visited Powell frequently, brought him to UVA sporting events and helped him to reconnect with the fraternity.
“Otto had an incredible ability to connect with people, and a love for getting to know anyone and everyone he could,” Burgess said. “Everyone needs a friend like Otto.”
Warmbier’s girlfriend, Class of 2017 graduate Alex Vagonis, thanked the crowd and the University community for the outpouring of support Warmbier’s friends and family have received, and urged her classmates to continue supporting the three Americans still detained in North Korea. She shared memories of her time with Warmbier, laughing as she recalled the first time they met – when she noticed his “insane tie collection” stored in a huge plastic bin – and smiling as she talked about how he made her life and UVA better.
“Being with Otto made life all the more beautiful,” she said. “And, it was not just my life he made more colorful, but everyone else’s.”
Student Council President Sarah Kenny also read a statement from UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan, who could not attend because of previously planned travel. Sullivan told students that she too would pause Tuesday night to join in their grief and remembrance.
“All of us in the University community are profoundly saddened by his death, and we are outraged by the circumstances that led to it,” Sullivan said. “We condemn the horrendous treatment that certainly contributed to Otto’s condition in North Korea.”
Sullivan reminded students to lean on each other as they remembered Warmbier and all that he stood for.
“Even as we denounce these evil acts, we continue to hope and believe that the forces of love and goodness will overcome evil in the end. And even as we grieve, we fondly remember and celebrate Otto’s joyful attitude, sharp intellect and adventurous spirit,” she said. “We will remember Otto’s finest qualities long after today. We will continue to hold the Warmbier family in our thoughts and prayers in the difficult days ahead, and I encourage you to rely on one another for solace and support.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is traveling overseas, was also represented at the vigil by Secretary of Education Dietra Trent, who read a letter from the governor and his wife, expressing their condolences and sympathy for the Warmbiers and the entire UVA community.
Kenny said she and other student leaders organized the vigil after news of Warmbier’s death broke Monday, news that she called “a shock to the community.”
“Even though we are not all present over the summer, for those who are here, especially those who had the pleasure of knowing Otto, it is crucial, in my mind, that they feel surrounded by this community and that they know we support them,” Kenny said. “We wanted them to know that the UVA community has their back.”
Vagonis also encouraged audience members to support each other and begin thinking about what they can do in the days and weeks ahead.
“Now, we persevere,” she said. “We will all get through this and we will thrive. To do otherwise would be an insult to Otto, knowing that he always wanted to see others fly.”
Warmbier’s family is planning an open memorial service on Thursday at 9 a.m. at Wyoming High School in Wyoming, Ohio. UVA’s Student Council will also plan an event honoring Warmbier when all students return to Grounds in the fall.