Pomp, cir­cum­stance and heart­break

Amid joy of U-Va. grad­u­a­tion, one per­son is miss­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY SU­SAN SVRLUGA

char­lottesville, va. — A cham­pagne-bot­tle-shaped bal­loon broke free from thou­sands of bob­bing bal­loons held by Univer­sity of Vir­ginia grad­u­ates Satur­day morn­ing and drifted off into the blue sky over the school’s his­toric Ro­tunda with the black-robed crowd cheer­ing it on. Just be­fore the grad­u­ates marched up the stairs of the Ro­tunda to walk the Lawn for com­mence­ment week­end, San­jana Sekhar, hold­ing her own bal­loon and hand­ing out stick­ers, smiled and said, “I think this is what Otto would want — for us to en­joy the day and think about him too.”

Amid all the joy, the prom­ise of bright fu­tures and the beam­ing par­ents wear­ing or­ange and snap­ping pho­tos, one per­son was miss­ing.

Dan Mat­son, Ned Ende and Tyler Rihn cel­e­brate grad­u­a­tion while re­mem­ber­ing their friend Otto Warm­bier.

Otto Warm­bier, whose class­mates at U-Va. are grad­u­at­ing this week­end, has been de­tained in North Korea with no con­tact with the out­side world for well over a year.

His par­ents, Fred and Cindy Warm­bier, didn’t come to Char­lottesville from their home in Cincin­nati this week­end. “It felt to us like a wake,” Fred Warm­bier said, and they wanted ev­ery­one else to en­joy the day.

In the mass of grad­u­ates Satur­day morn­ing, peo­ple kept reach­ing out to his friends, who were hand­ing out piles of stick­ers that showed a pad­lock swing­ing open and the mes­sage: #FreeOtto (and a bor­der re­peat­ing “We miss you” over and over) for grad­u­ates to wear on their caps and gowns. It was an ef­fort to keep the young man — de­scribed by friends as quirky, funny, charis­matic and stu­dious — in

thoughts.

Warm­bier al­ways seemed to have ev­ery­thing planned out, friends and fam­ily said, from his in­tended ca­reer path to his work­out ses­sions. Un­til Jan­uary 2016. Now his fu­ture is com­pletely un­known.

He went to North Korea with a tour group that Jan­uary on his way to a U-Va. McIn­tire School of Com­merce study-abroad pro­gram and was not al­lowed to leave the coun­try.

“There’s no rea­son to have him de­tained,” said Sen. Rob Port­man (R-Ohio), who has met with more than two dozen of­fi­cials from the United States and other gov­ern­ments, as well as other ex­perts, to try to find a res­o­lu­tion. Warm­bier ap­par­ently tried to re­move a pro­pa­ganda poster as a tourist me­mento — a move that prompted con­sid­er­able crit­i­cism from those who felt he should have avoided the coun­try en­tirely and that re­sulted in a charge of “hos­tile acts against the state” and a 15-year sen­tence in prison with hard la­bor.

A State De­part­ment of­fi­cial said in a writ­ten state­ment the sen­tence is un­duly harsh for the al­leged of­fense. “De­spite of­fi­cial claims that U.S. cit­i­zens ar­rested in the DPRK are not used for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses, it is in­creas­ingly clear from its very pub­lic treat­ment of these cases that the DPRK does just that.

“Mr. Warm­bier has gone through the crim­i­nal process and has been de­tained for more than a year. We con­tinue to urge the DPRK to par­don him and grant him spe­cial amnesty and im­me­di­ate re­lease on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds,” the of­fi­cial wrote us­ing the ab­bre­vi­a­tion for North Korea’s of­fi­cial name.

Or as Port­man said, “He’s a col­lege kid. He shouldn’t be used as a pawn in a broader geopo­lit­i­cal dis­pute be­tween our coun­tries.”

As ten­sions be­tween the two na­tions es­ca­late — nu­clear tests, mis­sile launches, threats and war­ships — Warm­bier’s friends are in­creas­ingly wor­ried.

“It’s a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue,” Sekhar said. “And — he’s our Otto.”

Their Otto was a top stu­dent at U-Va. with a pres­ti­gious aca­demic schol­ar­ship in­tended for the most “in­tel­lec­tu­ally cu­ri­ous.” He’s a sports fan who can reel off stats about seem­ingly any team, a friendly Mid­west­erner who can break down un­der­ground rap lyrics (and craft some of his own), a deep thinker who would chal­lenge him­self and oth­ers to ques­tion their place in the world, a guy from an en­tre­pre­neur­ial fam­ily who ate half-price sushi, an in­sa­tiably in­quis­i­tive per­son with a strong work ethic and a de­light in the ridicu­lous.

He might bang on a pi­ano (with­out know­ing any keys), swing a girl onto his back for a pig­gy­back ride home, wear an im­mac­u­late tuxedo or show up for a for­mal event in a $2 royal-blue blazer from Good­will.

He was a loyal friend. And he was a plan­ner.

His cal­en­dar was full of hand­writ­ten com­mit­ments, from cour­ses he would take (mapped out from the ear­li­est days of col­lege) to aca­demic as­sign­ments, to so­cial plans, such as bring­ing a dis­abled friend to bas­ket­ball games.

“If Otto had any­thing school­work-re­lated, job-re­lated, fam­i­lyre­lated that he needed to do,” his friend Ned Ende said, “there was ab­so­lutely noth­ing you could say to him to con­vince him to do stuff with you.”

With a sharp in­ter­est in eco­nomics, Warm­bier knew early on — when most of his friends had no idea what to ma­jor in — that he wanted to go into in­vest­ment bank­ing, and he had al­ready com­pleted some ad­vanced train­ing in fi­nan­cial anal­y­sis in his sopho­ev­ery­one’s more year.

By the fall of his ju­nior year, he had a sum­mer in­tern­ship locked in. He wanted to travel, study abroad and visit places such as Is­rael, the Gala­pa­gos and Cuba while he could. He knew 80-hour work­weeks were ahead, then grad­u­ate school.

Ende said when he thinks of his friend he re­mem­bers him in fall 2015, in the chair at his desk wear­ing, with con­fi­dence, a thrift-store cardigan cov­ered with light­housserve es, hang­ing up the phone and say­ing, “I got the job.”

“There are not too many peo­ple around the coun­try say­ing those words” about the sought-af­ter in­tern­ship, Ende said. “And there’s no one in the coun­try who would be say­ing those words while wear­ing a lighthouse sweater.”

When Otto Warm­bier didn’t ar­rive in China in Jan­uary 2016, ac­cord­ing to plans, his friends and fam­ily wor­ried. But many as­sumed it was a mix-up. One of his room­mates, Em­mett Saulnier, said they were sure he would be able to re­turn soon. Days passed. Classes re­sumed for the spring se­mes­ter.

Warm­bier’s fam­ily and friends kept quiet, coun­seled by the State De­part­ment to be cau­tious. In early March 2016, Fred and Cindy Warm­bier got one mes­sage from their son, re­layed through a Swedish of­fi­cial. Later that month, North Korea re­leased video of the trial.

That was the mo­ment when they re­al­ized the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion, his friend Tim McKin­ney said. They would hang out in his room at their house, full of his things but empty, miss­ing him. They tried to fathom a 15-year prison sen­tence — al­most a life­time for col­lege ju­niors.

For Saulnier, it was a re­lief to see images of his friend alive. The off-white blazer Warm­bier wore in the video made him smile, too. It re­minded him of his friend’s thrift-store turtle­necks, Hawai­ian shirts and throw­back jer­seys.

But time kept pass­ing. Se­nior year be­gan. The elec­tion came, a new ad­min­is­tra­tion. No news.

“We’ve been talk­ing about this a lot over the last year, for sure,” his friend Zach Gelfand said. “Grad­u­a­tion day has been creep­ing up on the cal­en­dar, and we have been think­ing a lot there is some­one who should be with us, but he’s not. That’s break­ing our hearts.”

“I’ll carry that with me as I walk the Lawn,” McKin­ney said.

Warm­bier would have been wear­ing some­thing odd un­der his robes at Sun­day’s cer­e­mony for McIn­tire grad­u­ates — some­thing from a thrift store, Ende said. He would have been smil­ing a huge, con­fi­dent smile, McKin­ney said. Proud of his hard work and ex­cited for his fu­ture, Gelfand said.

“He’d prob­a­bly come up with some ridicu­lous plan for us one of these nights to go do,” Saulnier said.

Sekhar feels certain Warm­bier is think­ing of com­mence­ment these days, wher­ever he is, what­ever he’s do­ing.

Peo­ple kept reach­ing for the stick­ers Satur­day morn­ing. “It speaks to the net­work of peo­ple he’s been able to touch,” said Dan Mat­son, a friend from Vir­ginia. “That’s why it’s spread­ing so in­fec­tiously.”

“We miss him, we love him,” Saulnier said. “And we know that he’ ll be back soon.”

NORM SHAFER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

NORM SHAFER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MAD­DIE MCGARVEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Em­mett Saulnier, one of Otto Warm­bier’s room­mates, cel­e­brates grad­u­a­tion from the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia on Satur­day while re­mem­ber­ing his friend im­pris­oned in North Korea. ABOVE: Fred Warm­bier holds a photo of his son Otto as prom king in Wy­oming, Ohio, in April.

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