Students grieve, come together to remember Richard O’Brien

Josh Goodman

Photo Credit : Bullion

“Looking at him, it hurts to watch, but it’s so hard not to smile,” said first-year Beth Daviess, viewing the collage of pictures of Richard O’Brien hanging on his bedroom door in Jewett Hall.

O’Brien died Saturday, Feb. 13, when he collided with a tree after his ski caught a rough edge on the Huckleberry Run, an intermediate trail at Bluewood Ski Area near Dayton, Wash. In the aftermath of his death, O’Brien’s friends, family, fraternity brothers and section mates have come together to grieve and celebrate his life.

A memorial service held Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the Young Ballroom of Reid Campus Center was so full that it required overflow seating. O’Brien’s parents and brother, as well as numerous relatives and family friends, made the trip to Walla Walla to be in attendance.

At the service, friends recalled O’Brien: nicknamed “Rich” and “Hish”: as hilarious and beautiful, friendly and inclusive, adventuresome and genuine.

Sophomore Lexie Drechsel shared how O’Brien brought new enthusiasm to Whitman’s ski team after its demotion from a varsity sport last year.

“After they cut the team last year, it was hard, and the team came together and we were such a tight group,” she said. “And Rich came along and he worked hard to become a part of this team, and we loved him and cherished every moment we had with him.”

First-year Nick Leppmann, recounting a recent memory, noted that he could rely on O’Brien as a loyal and true friend.

“At Beta Theta Pi, somebody accidentally pushed me down the front stairs, and I proceeded to fly off the stairs and slide on my face in the concrete,” he said. “In my delirious state, all that I could say is ‘where’s Hish?’ over and over and over again. People began to ask me why I needed him so badly. All I could say was ‘Because he’s my friend.'”

Craig Gunsul, O’Brien’s Encounters professor, said the class relied on O’Brien’s sense of humor to lighten the mood during intense debates.

“His humor was infectious and could be counted upon to diffuse tensions when people started disagreeing rather loudly,” Gunsul said.

The memorial service also included an open mic for friends to read statements, recite poems and express condolences.

In 2-West, O’Brien’s residence hall section, a large poster covers the hallway, filled with thoughts and memories.

“People have just been writing these enormous letters and people have to stop to save room for everyone else because there’s just so much to write,” Daviess said.

Daviess says that the tragedy, while devastating, has brought Jewett closer together.

“It was a family before, but now we feel so connected to each other,” she said. “We’re so glad that we’re together because that’s the only comfort that we have and it’s so important. We’ve been in each other’s rooms, try to never be alone.”

As friends discuss O’Brien, they find joy in recalling his life.

“There’s a lot of warmth to be found amid the sadness,” said first-year Linnea Bullion in an e-mail. “Even now I can hear people down the hall from me laughing and sharing stories about ridiculous adventures they shared with Hish.”

Friends shared stories of rock climbing and skiing with O’Brien, his love of life and some downright funny moments.

“[He was] the one at the alcohol speech who asked, ‘Does pouring beer up your butt get you drunk faster?'” said first-year Phi Phan at Tuesday’s memorial service as the audience erupted with laughter.

That sense of humor translated to everyday situations.

“One of our friends was obsessed with FarmVille and he’d walk in and ask, ‘Is it sunny on the Internet today?'” recalled Daviess.

She also noted how inclusive O’Brien was at his birthday party during finals week in December.

“It brought everybody together, and he just invited everyone: people he didn’t know very well and [to get to know them better],” she said. “It was never about him, he just wanted everyone to be there with him. Everything that was petty [or] complicated went away.”

O’Brien’s friends are looking for ways to commemorate him as they begin to move on.

“We might all get tattoos, just to remember him and to remind ourselves and other people how much he meant to us,” said first-year Kelly West of her group of friends. “If anyone asks, [we’ll] be able to tell people about this amazing person that we knew.”

Bullion said her friends paid tribute to O’Brien by eating his favorite food, bacon.

“Richard’s friends went to brunch and everyone had at least one piece of bacon because it was his favorite food: even those who have been vegetarians for years,” she said.

Adam Kirtley, Stuart coordinator of religious and spiritual life, noted that a memorial for all fallen Whitman community members exists.

“A couple of years ago a plaque was placed on a rock beneath a tree in Narnia. Its inscription serves as a memorial to students, faculty, staff and alumni who have died,” Kirtley said in an e-mail. “It does serve [as a] place where people can gather in a beautiful setting [to] remember friends.”

Kirtley and the Counseling Center staff have been available throughout the week to help students with the grieving process and will continue offering support to anyone who needs it. And while Kirtley has helped several students, he has been amazed by how people in the community have helped each other.

“They have served each other far more than what any trained counselor could do,” he said. “Witnessing it has made me proud to be affiliated with the Whitman community.”

Through hugging, crying and sharing meals together, those who knew O’Brien have begun to cope. But even more than that, they’ve become closer with one another.

“Our friend group has opened up to so many people that I never would have known before . . . and there’s never room for any sort of judgment of anyone,” West said of Jewett residents who have come together in grief.

The openness and new friendships that have formed as the community comes together, much like his well-known inclusiveness, is but one part of O’Brien’s lasting legacy.