WYOMING, Ohio — Families wearing blue and white Wyoming T-shirts, holding homemade cardboard signs and American flags, waited by the edge of the main street for Otto Warmbier’s funeral procession to drive by. As the memorial attended by thousands at the town’s high school ended, people in black dresses and dark suits joined those along the street.
Many were hugging; the ceremony, a celebration of Warmbier’s life, had been funny and eloquent, much like the 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was beloved in this small suburb of Cincinnati and far beyond.
Friends and family shared memories of, as one put it, “this inspiring goofball of a man,” and the essential lessons they had learned from him: Work hard, explore everything, love people, think deeply and laugh easily. And don’t shake hands with a stranger — Warmbier would grab people for a tight embrace, instead, saying, “Let’s bring it in. Hug it out.”
His little sister Greta Warmbier remembered barreling down the road with him in his silver Chevy Impala, with blue dice and a fuzzy steering-wheel cover, windows down, singing Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” at the top of their lungs. Her oldest brother loved funny movies, she said, but she chose a line from chick flick to sum up his life cut so very short: I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.
Last week, when Warmbier finally came home, people tied ribbons to the trees that arch over the main street here and to the wooden street signs hanging from wrought-iron scrolls. Otto Warmbier had been imprisoned in North Korea for nearly a year and a half. People had been praying for his release. But he returned in a coma, medically evacuated, so the close-knit community sought, without words, to convey how much they felt.
He died Monday, surrounded by family.
Internationally, his death reverberated. Several national leaders called it murder. President Trump called it a disgrace. It worsened already-raw tensions between the United States and North Korea.
At home, it brought people together.
By 7 a.m. Thursday, young people were stepping through the wet grass to gather outside Wyoming High School, where Warmbier gave a joyful graduation speech as salutatorian four years ago. His speech quoted a character on “The Office”: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
Thousands of people came Thursday to celebrate Otto Warmbier, together, and to hold onto the good old days.
The surge of people in black, walking on streets so quiet the birds sounded loud, was one sign of that love.
Shortly before 9 a.m., there were still hundreds of people in line, and officials began warning them not everyone would be able to get in. The high school had capacity for 2,500 people.
The ribbons were another. Volunteers had gone well past the center of this city of 8,400 people, far beyond the large Victorian houses, stone churches and graceful old trees, to ensure that the ribbons in Wyoming City Schools colors fluttered all along the route from the high school to the iron gates of the cemetery.
There were other signs of love: Pops of orange, for one, a sign that friends from the U-Va. had arrived. And flashes of oddball, as people wore the kinds of thrift-store finds that made him laugh.
It was there in the thoughtfulness of a handwritten sign in the driveway of a house very close to the memorial service: Please park here.
It was there in a Wyoming park, where a man bounced a baby, beaming, over his head, and two boys dropped a baseball glove and a scooter and sprawled onto the grass by a flagpole.
The American flag, just overhead, was flying at half-staff.
“I think today we’re seeing good and evil all at once,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who came to the ceremony along with other national leaders. The good was people holding one another close. The evil was just as palpable.
“Otto Warmbier is dead because of North Korea,” he said.
Inside the school, people looked at a table covered with Warmbier’s belongings from the trip; a passport, sneakers, quirky thrift-store shirts. There were far too many people to fit in the auditorium; many pressed close on bleachers in the gym, or elsewhere.
Rabbi Jake Rubin paused after a prayer, to say that Fred and Cindy Warmbier wanted to give special thanks to Joseph Yun, a State Department official who played a key role in getting Warmbier out of North Korea. People stood to applaud him.
Rubin talked about Warmbier’s growing Jewish faith, strengthened on a trip with him and others at U-Va. to Israel. He chose the name Amit, Rubin said — fitting for someone who valued friendship so much.
Several friends and family members laughed as they talked about Warmbier: how he was a hugger; a sweater; a guy who would drag you to the dustiest, crustiest old thrift store; how often his roommates awakened to the sound of Warmbier singing, off pitch, underground rap.
Emmett Saulnier, one of his roommates at U-Va., remembered traveling the world and how Warmbier would always return from a trip, whether a summer at the London School of Economics or a trip to Cuba with his mother, glowing from the adventure of it all. He had waited 18 months, he said, to hear what he thought would be the craziest travel story ever.
Sanjana Sekhar had just read Jack Kerouac when she met him through a prestigious U-Va. scholarship for the most intellectually curious students. She thought of this line: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ”
“Otto was a fabulous yellow Roman candle kind of person,” she said. She spoke fondly of his empathy, and their endless talks in the hall outside his door, on long drives, in the garage of his fraternity. He pushed her to be better, to question more, to give everyone in life a chance.
“I look forward to every moment of pure unfiltered life the future holds,” she said. “To never yawn, or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn. That is his legacy.”
Some had driven to Wyoming straight from Charlottesville, where 600 people had gathered for a candlelight vigil the day after his death. There, a professor spoke of the Jewish prayer for mourners, its emphasis not on death and loss but the abiding presence of God. “There are mysteries we cannot fathom,” he said. As candles glowed in the amphitheater around them, friends talked about his brilliance, his adventurousness, his boundless joy, his faith in connection.
Alex Vagonis, his girlfriend at U-Va., said they would get through the horror of his death; to do otherwise would be an injustice to Warmbier, “since he always wanted to see others fly.”
Sarah Kenny, a student leader who organized the vigil, said she was surprised that people didn’t seem more angry, more vindictive about his death. “I am incredulous that after going through something so traumatic, they could be that hopeful,” she said, “and just — full of love.”
Warmbier was a junior at U-Va., headed for a career in finance, when he went to North Korea with a tour group on the way to a study-abroad program in Hong Kong. He was not allowed to leave the country. He was charged with “hostile acts against the state,” and given a 15-year sentence after a sham trial.
His parents had no word of him after March 2, 2016, until earlier this month, when North Korean officials disclosed that he was in a coma, and had been for more than a year.
So after his death Monday, people pulled in close, flying in from across the country, or walking from home down the street, to celebrate Warmbier.
Austin Warmbier, his younger brother, spoke last. He graciously thanked everyone for their support, then said: Enough with the formalities. Can you imagine how miserable Otto made my life?
He laughed about trying to follow in the footsteps of an older brother who was always on time, had perfect grades, was great at sports and incredibly popular. And he talked about how much he had learned from him, about setting goals, about discipline, about how you don’t win the most friends by being the coolest, the most judgmental.
His brother missed his high school graduation, he said. He won’t be best man at his wedding. His kids will never have an Uncle Otto.
But Otto Warmbier indelibly made him who he is, he said, just as he had shaped so many people there. “That’s why we will never truly lose him.”
Behind him, a video of Warmbier played, shot not long before he was supposed to fly out of North Korea. He was with his tour group and some North Korean children, throwing snowballs, and laughing with pure delight.
A bagpipe began to play.
Otto Warmbier’s casket was carried out, and driven through streets lined with friends, and loving strangers, to the cemetery.
After the burial, the Warmbiers had invited everyone — all of Wyoming, U-Va. friends, doctors, dignitaries — over to their house. Bring it in. Hug it out.