School mourns exchange student

October 23, 1992|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff Writer Staff writer Roger Twigg contributed to this article.

Erik Nelson could have been speaking for the entire 446-member student body at Severn School yesterday, as he struggled to make sense of the death of 16-year-old Hugo van der Houwen.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Erik said, less than 24 hours after his friend died after collapsing outside the school's gym.

Autopsy results on the 16-year-old exchange student from the Netherlands are still pending, officials at the state medical examiner's office said.

At the Severna Park private school yesterday, students were unanimous in praising -- and missing -- Hugo. Unlike some foreign exchange students, he never had any problem fitting in.

Teachers and students remembered how he insisted on wearing his baseball hat to his ceramics class, worried that administrators would make him cut his long blond hair and learned American slang.

"He was thrilled that he could violate the dress code in my class," teacher Doug Sassi said. "He got his ear pierced and took the earring off before they took his class picture, so his parents couldn't see it."

"He didn't seem to care about his grades," said Robin Quinton, a 17-year-old senior.

"He said he was here to learn English and meet Americans," said Christy Cole, another 17-year-old senior.

Hugo, who had enrolled at the school through the American Field Service and was living with an Annapolis family, was waiting outside the school for a ride home when he dropped to the ground in front of several students at 3:12 p.m., police and witnesses said.

"It was unnatural, he never had a chance," said Brian Zaks, 15, a sophomore at the school. "If there is anything positive in this, it is that he died without pain and with all his friends around him."

Brian said that he and several other friends were kicking a soccer ball around outside the gymnasium when Hugo said he didn't feel well and started to cough. Hugo told his friends he was going to "chill out" and sat down.

For a second, he seemed all right. But then his eyes went to the back of his head and he started to turn purple quickly, said Elizabeth Duncan, a 16-year-old junior.

"We thought maybe he was choking," said Christy. "But the gum he had was found on the side of his mouth."

Brian ran to a phone and dialed 911 while two faculty members performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Erik Nelson, an 18-year-old senior with whose family Hugo was living, arrived to pick Hugo up as paramedics placed him in an ambulance.

Hugo was taken to Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, where he was pronounced dead an hour later. Chief Medical Examiner John E. Smialek said his office need to perform more tests on the boy's heart before announcing a cause of death.

"No one thought he was fatally hurt," Christy said. "We didn't accept that until we got to the hospital, and they told us he was really dead."

Students held an assembly yesterday, made arrangements for a me morial service today and put together ribbons made of the colors of Hugo's homeland.

Hugo's parents were due to arrive in the United States last evening.

School faculty and counselors met early yesterday and decided to meet with students collectively, in two groups, at the beginning of the school day. Severn has 446 students and 36 full-time faculty.

"Students have had to deal with some very difficult emotions today," said headmaster Edson Sheppard Jr. "Some of them were unaware of what happened until they arrived this morning. Others came to school knowing this was a serious day."

He estimated that as many as 100 students saw Hugo collapse.

Yesterday, the school struggled to cope. All athletic contests scheduled for yesterday were postponed. A funeral wreath of roses and other flowers was placed in front of the administration building. On a purple ribbon, it says simply, "In loving memory of Hugo."

The teen-ager is smiling in a picture attached to the ribbon.

Hugo was planning to spend a year at the school. The younger of two sons of a financial officer for the Free University of Amsterdam, he moved in with Erik's family in early August.

"He had become a son here," said Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John's College. He and his wife, Joyce, have five children.

"We became brothers," Erik said. "I love him like a brother. I miss him."

Erik and Hugo took a trip to New York City in August; later, they went to the beach and Williamsburg, Va.; they played basketball and tennis. Erik hoped to visit the Netherlands.

"He was very excited about being here," Erik said.

The hardest thing for Hugo's friends is not knowing why Hugo died.

"You can't learn from this," Elizabeth Duncan said. "It's not logical."

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