Ruibal column: My high school classmate Otto Warmbier — charming and deeply caring

Sallee Ann Ruibal
In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. More than 15 months after he gave a staged confession in North Korea, he is with his Ohio family again.
Kim Kwang Hyon / Associated Press

I have two memories of Otto Warmbier.

The first was in third-grade gym class. He nailed me in the back of the head with a kickball. My face hit the hot black pavement. When I got back up, Otto was a bawling, snot-faced mess apologizing profusely. It was a genuine sadness. He wasn’t upset about potentially getting in trouble. He was upset that he hurt me. He waited outside the nurse’s office, without a teacher forcing him, to apologize.

The second was in high school. Otto and I weren’t ever close friends, merely because he ran in the popular circle given his athletic prowess, classic good looks and unending charisma. But Otto still felt like everyone’s friend in our small town of Wyoming, Ohio, given his nondiscriminatory friendliness.

I remember one day in the lunchroom, I saw him sit down at the table where all the kids in the special education program sat. His face lit up as he talked to each of the kids, addressing them by name. He was his same exuberant, talkative self. They talked sports, popular culture, normal teenage things. Once more, it was evident Otto wasn’t acting that way because he felt he should or that it would gain him favor or attention. He acted that way because it was his good nature to.

Last week, Otto came back from North Korea after being detained for nearly a year and a half. At first, there was pure excitement that the hometown boy was coming home. But then, anguish. North Korea said Otto was in a coma, and had been for over a year. University of Cincinnati doctors said at a press conference that Otto has been diagnosed with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome — an outdated term for the syndrome is being in a vegetative state.

Out of respect for the family, doctors at the press conference did not comment on Otto’s prognosis for recovery.

On Monday afternoon, his family announced that Otto had died.

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.

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.”

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.

I want to keep hearing the stories of Otto from those who know him best. Memories don’t exist in one person. They’re to be shared and cherished. They’re how we relate to each other despite all odds. Memories bring us close. Share them with and hug those you love dearly.

And please keep Otto’s family in your thoughts and prayers.

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