​Student Council hosts vigil in memory of Otto Warmbier

Hundreds flock to the Amphitheatre to honor University student Warmbier

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Students and community members filled the amphitheater for the vigil. 

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

Student Council hosted a vigil Tuesday night for Otto Warmbier, the University student who died Monday shortly after being released from imprisonment in North Korea. Warmbier died surrounded by his family at 2:20 p.m. Monday.

Warmbier was detained for 17 months in North Korea for allegedly attempting to steal a political banner from Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang. He returned to the United States June 13 in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue, doctors said.

Rising fourth-year College student Sarah Kenny, Student Council president, opened the vigil with a few remarks and read a note from University President Teresa Sullivan, who was unable to attend the vigil.

“‘Please know that I will pause at this hour to join in your spirit of grief and remembrance as you gather to honor the memory of Otto,’” Sullivan’s note read. “‘All of us in the University community are profoundly saddened by Otto’s death, and we are outraged by the circumstances that led to it.’”

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Kenny said such a tragedy is difficult to process, especially in the summer.

“I think that healing in a community is really augmented by collective experience sharing in the sorrow,” Kenny said. “For people to be scattered and not have someone to relate to about what it feels like to lose a member of your school community, someone who you have mutual friends with, someone you might have known makes the process of handling grief and stress all the more difficult.”

After Kenny, Virginia Secretary of Education Dietra Trent spoke on behalf of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who could not be in attendance. Trent read a letter from Terry and Dorothy McAuliffe.

“I am deeply saddened by this occasion,” Trent said. “I know that there are absolutely no words that can be said at this point to bring consolation to this community or to the world for that matter.”

Religious Studies Prof. Peter Ochs spoke on behalf of his wife, Vanessa Ochs. He read two Jewish prayers, reflecting Otto’s Jewish faith, Ochs said.

“We remember Otto and hold him and his family in our hearts,” Ochs said.

Afterwards, several of Warmbier’s Theta Chi pledge brothers spoke about knowing Otto.

“Otto went out of his way to invest himself in our lives deeply, and at times pushed his limits to make us feel comfortable or make sure we made it home safely,” Kevin Davoli (‘17) said. “He was big on human connection and valued interpersonal relationships heavily, often skipping handshakes upon introduction in exchange for a ‘bring it in,’ or ‘let’s hug it out’ and a tight embrace.”

Warmbier’s pledge brother Billy Burgess (‘17) said Warmbier had a friendship with honorary Theta Chi brother Martin Powell, of Charlottesville, who has cerebral palsy.

“He visited Martin frequently, told him stories about the fraternity, laughed with him, went to sporting events with him and encouraged our pledge class and brotherhood to spend time with him, something that I and many others in our brotherhood have gotten to do,” Burgess said. “Without Otto’s incredible ability to connect with people, and a love for getting to know everyone and anyone that he could, I would have never gotten to know Martin, and more importantly, our brotherhood may never have reconnected with him.”

Warmbier’s girlfriend at the time of his detainment Alex Vagonis (‘17) then spoke.

“Being with Otto made life all the more beautiful and worth living,” Vagonis said. “He was my soulmate on so many levels, and I truly believe that he helped me become a better human being, the person that I am today.”

Finally, Class of 2017 Vice President Josh Leidy spoke, sharing a statement from Class of 2017 President Patrick Rice, who was unable to attend the vigil.

“This will not be the last time we gather together and remember Otto,” Leidy said. “He will forever be a part of the University and part of every one of us.”

The vigil ended with the crowd singing the Good Old Song, at the request of one of Warmbier's fraternity brothers. 

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