At 2:30 on this past Tuesday afternoon, Larry & I were in California, standing transfixed for almost an hour– looking out at the Pacific Ocean hurling itself against the rocks of Point Lobos, where Edward Weston took his beautiful black and white photos and the ancient Monterey Pines huddle in Hobbit-like resistance against the sea, fog, mist, and salt that assail them.
We were mesmerized by the ocean and waiting for the really big swells that would crash against the rocky shore, sending up huge plumes of spray. I was hoping for gigantic waves- the bigger and wilder, the better!
Meanwhile, thousands of miles south, that same Pacific Ocean was hurling itself against the shore of Dominical, Costa Rica, and catching up a beautiful young 20-year old named Erik Downes in its inexorable power, pulling him under, and eventually drowning him.
Erik is a student at Oglethorpe University where my husband is president. So when we got back to our friend’s house in Carmel about 4 pm, giddy with sun and salt spray and beauty, we got the call from Cassandra, one of the professors who was traveling with six OU kids over winter break studying eco-tourism – telling us that Erik was missing.
My husband had to call Erik’s mom that night and give her the worst news a parent can ever receive. She is a woman of great faith, so she held out hope that Erik would be found alive – all the way up until Friday, when his body was found in a nearby bay.
Oglethorpe is a small, close-knit college of 1,100 kids so the news about Erik spread fast. On Thursday evening, we held a candlelight vigil of hope and students showed up in tears, along with professors, trustees, staff, and alumni. People shared memories of Erik, some funny, some terribly poignant.
I didn’t talk but I was remembering the first time I saw Erik at the freshman dessert party – he was so distinctive, charismatic, and self-assured, he was just one of those kids who stand out. As I watched him over the years (he was a junior, an RA, Vice-President of Student Council, and involved in all aspects of life at the school) I always thought, “Wow, it’s going to be so interesting to see what he does with his life!”
Erik was ambitious, focused, articulate, and he took advantage of every opportunity college presented to him. And because of his intelligence, sensitivity, and work ethic, he had lots of chances to shine. At the Trustees dinner in October, Erik sat at my table, and in his own quiet way, charmed everybody around him.
One couple was from Ft. Meyers, his hometown, and they asked him to call them when he was home on the holidays. He did, and had lunch with them over Thanksgiving, talked about his close relationship with his mom, and told them of his plans to become a doctor, and his excitement about going to Costa Rica.
To lose a young person is always difficult – for my husband, it’s the worst part of being a college president. But to lose somebody like Erik is a particularly bitter blow, because you know his promise and potential for enriching the world– if only with his wide, dazzling and ever-inclusive smile. And you can only shudder to imagine his parents’ agony…we should all be as gnarled as Monterey Pines from the sadness of it.Oglethorpe University will be starting a scholarship fund in Erik Downes’ name and I’m sure I’ll be contributing to it.
But my overriding feeling right now, watching the kids at OU moving in stunned grief to cope with the loss of Erik, is the incredible preciousness of each one of those young people we have on campus. I hope they know how special and beloved they are.