In the wake of the tragic death of Otto Warmbier on Monday, friends and teachers are remembering the U.S. student who died after suffering brain damage during his imprisonment in North Korea.
College pal Caroline Coleburn knew Warmbier — the 22-year-old college student who died June 19 after he was released from imprisonment in North Korea in a coma — through fraternity and sorority sponsored social gatherings at the University of Virginia, where they attended school.
“He kind of embodied everything that any boy would want to be. He was smart, outgoing, fun, friendly, and I think anyone who knew him, especially those who knew him better than me, would agree with that,” Coleburn told WTVR.
Coleburn’s close friend, Alex Vagonis, was the longtime girlfriend of Warmbier.
“She told me today that she wanted everyone to know he was someone who loved life, who wanted to be a friend to everyone. He was someone who never wanted to stop his education. He was always curious to learn more,” Coleburn told the news outlet. “They say bad things happen to good people.
“I think that’s what happened with Otto.”
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel during a trip to North Korea in January 2016.
He returned home to Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 in a coma after being “brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” his family said at the time.
On Monday his family announced his death in a public statement.
“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.,” the statement read.
“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds,” the statement continued. “But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio, and the University of Virginia — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.”
Warmbier’s Ohio teachers remember him as a stellar student. He was salutatorian and a National Merit scholar in high school and captain of the soccer team.
He was even crowned homecoming king.
“This is very difficult news for the entire community,” Danica White, Warmbier’s high school English teacher, told Huffington Post. “[He] will be dearly missed.
“Otto had the biggest heart of anyone I knew. I never saw him in a bad mood. He is the epitome of the kind of student [you’d want] in a classroom.”
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Elementary school classmate Sallee Ann Ruibal penned an emotional tribute to Warmbier for the Post Independent.
“In Wyoming, ribbons in our school colors, blue and white, are tied around trees in support of Otto and his family. Residents lined the main street, making W’s with their hands as Otto’s family drove by from a press conference,” she wrote. “We, as a community, watched Otto be crowned homecoming and prom king. We heard him take the class on a tangent about the prophetic wisdom of the rapper Biggie. We were at senior awards where Otto raked in nearly every other scholarship. We heard his speech at graduation where he, the salutatorian of our class, included the famous The Office quote: ‘I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.’ “
She adds: “I don’t have the privilege either of having Otto as a best friend, brother or son. I can’t imagine the weight that is on all of his loved ones. I’m not going to pretend to.But I still wanted to talk about Otto. Because he was a person who deserved to be talked about in the same exuberant, personal way he talked about others. It saddens me that a terrible regime damaged an essential part of Otto — his brain. All I have of Otto is a few memories. And this whole situation is a reminder of how fragile memories are, how important the brain is.
“I’ve seen my own family members wither away from brain disease. There’s no recovery for them. I so hoped, to my core, that there could have been one for Otto.”
In a tearful press conference last week, Warmbier’s father, Fred, said there was “no excuse” for North Korea’s treatment of his son.
“Otto, I love you and I’m so crazy about you, I’m so glad you’re home, you are such a great guy,” he said. “My family has been rock solid throughout this, we have supported one another.”