One year anniversary of student death honored with vigil

Rachel Alexander

Had you been driving along U.S. Highway 12 on the night of Sunday, Feb. 13, you might have seen something unusual as you passed through Walla Walla. Outside of town, in the wheat fields, a flickering circle of candlelight could be seen from the highway. The light belonged to a group of almost 60 Whitman students, who gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of their friend, Richard ‘Hish’ O’Brien.

O’Brien was killed on February 13, 2010, when he hit a tree while skiing at Bluewood Ski Area. In the following weeks, his friends, family and members of the Whitman community gathered to celebrate his life and share stories. Since then, his friends have continued to keep O’Brien in their thoughts, with many writing wishes and memories on his Facebook wall.

Students gather around a bonfire outside of Beta Theta Pi on Sunday, Feb. 13 to commemorate the one year anniversary of Richard O'Brien's death. Credit: Kendra Klag

The service was preceded by a reception hosted at Beta Theta Pi, of which O’Brien was a member. Sophomore Beta member Jonas Myers said that the fraternity wanted to create a space for people to be together. He hoped the event functioned as both a celebration of Richard’s life and a memorial to him.

“We want the spirit of Richard to continue on in the house,” said Myers.

As part of this effort, Beta started a Richard O’Brien Memorial Scholarship last year, which provides a 500-dollar scholarship towards the live-in cost at the Beta house for a member of the fraternity.

For Myers, the one-year anniversary is a reminder of how deeply O’Brien touched the lives of his friends at Whitman.

“It’s unbelievable that it’s already been a year, especially when you realize that most of us only knew Richard for seven months,” he said. “It’s kind of irreconcilable.”

The memorial service, which was organized by sophomores Jenna Fritz and Phi Phan, provided students with the opportunity to be together and continue the process of remembering their friend.

“I’m really happy that there was a service,” said sophomore Carolyn Carr in an e-mail. “Like all Whitman students, I am very busy, and as a result, I have pushed my feelings about Richard away. I haven’t let myself think about Richard’s death or get emotional about him, so it’s nice that there is a time and a place where I will be sure to be surrounded by people who cared about him and care about me to think of Richard and honor his life.”

Fritz said that the memories shared at the service demonstrated how deeply O’Brien affected so many lives at Whitman.

“I I feel like I’ve heard hundreds of stories about Richard, but tonight I heard things I had never heard before,” she said in an e-mail. “There are a million moments spent with Richard that will never be forgotten.”