Deep sadness at Hopkins

Memorial: The university cancels classes so students and faculty can mourn student Christopher Elser, who was killed by an intruder.

April 21, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

As he lay dying of stab wounds early Saturday, 20-year-old Johns Hopkins University student Christopher Elser told a fraternity brother, "I tried, I fought."

"His death was as a hero," Brian Kinsella told more than a thousand mourners who gathered yesterday on Hopkins' Homewood campus to remember Elser, a junior from Camden, S.C.

"He didn't give up. He was one of the toughest kids I knew," said Kinsella, a sophomore member of Elser's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

Elser was stabbed by an intruder at the fraternity's off-campus Charles Village apartment house just before 6 a.m., two hours after a party ended with a door left unlocked. He died late Sunday afternoon.

Investigators believe Elser was attacked by a burglar, Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark said yesterday, adding that officers will focus on people with a history of crime in the area.

Hopkins President William R. Brody, addressing the crowd in front of Gilman Hall, called it a time of "excruciating sadness" for the university.

Brody said the sense of loss is captured well by the words of 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote, "For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been.'"

A procession of family and friends stood to recall Elser as a fun-loving, outgoing young man who dreamed of riding bulls after college; who once spontaneously drove to Cape Cod to visit his girlfriend, packing only chips and salsa; and who could open a beverage can with his forehead.

"The kid had lived probably the best 20 years of anybody I knew," said a high school friend, Bert Lockwood.

Hopkins canceled all classes from 10 a.m. to noon so students and faculty could attend. Many of those who assembled in the Keyser Quadrangle did not know Elser personally but felt deeply affected.

Before the hourlong service, some students expressed concern about safety in the blocks around the campus, where most juniors and seniors live.

"People want to see more of a security presence," said Lindsay Saxe, a 22-year-old senior from Grove City, Ohio. She said the killing - the first of a Hopkins student locally since 1996 - was a wakeup call. "People kind of forget we're in an urban setting," she said. "I think people get a little too comfortable."

Joe Fontanetto, president of the SAE chapter at Hopkins, said fraternity members feel a "collective responsibility."

Elser lived in the 200 block of E. 32nd St. but spent Friday night at the rented fraternity house at the southwest corner of St. Paul and 30th streets. "For those of us who live where that crime was committed," Fontanetto said, "closure is not an option."

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said a town hall-style meeting will be held next week to address public safety. The time and place have not been set, he said.

The focus yesterday, though, was on Elser, a soccer player, country music fan, economics student and loyal friend.

It seemed too nice a day for such a sad occasion. Birds chirped, a breeze rustled newly sprouted leaves. The peace was broken only by the occasional police siren in the distance, as if to remind everyone that the bucolic campus sits in a city where violent crime happens daily.

Fluttering behind the podium was a blue South Carolina state flag, with a palmetto tree and crescent moon. Elser was so fond of the flag that he got a tattoo of one.

How, his buddies had asked him, did he break news of the tattoo to his parents? Cory Wingerter, a fraternity brother and Hopkins junior, recalls Elser's reply: "I put it on my dad's credit card. When he got the bill, he kind of found out."

Other fraternity brothers said Elser was fearless, even belly-flopping from a 40-foot cliff in Jamaica. It was only by asking his mother that they heard of one thing he did fear: frogs. As a young boy, he had a scary encounter with a bullfrog.

There was much laughter amid the tears and hugs. Students Emily Hutchinson and Popi Benisch, housemates of Elser's girlfriend, read a David Letterman-style Top 10 list of their favorite things about Elser:

No. 10: During Tropical Storm Isabel last year, he burrowed under a flowery comforter with his girlfriend and other women to watch a Sex and the City marathon.

No. 8: He would call their house at 6 a.m. and, surprised to find no one awake, say, "There's no last call in South Carolina!"

No. 1, naturally, was Elser's love of life.

Then his girlfriend, junior Kyra Appleby, read a series of thank-you notes she wishes she had written him.

She thanked him for killing a mouse and changing light bulbs. She thanked him for calling her "Darling" and for showing how to arrange her schedule so she had no morning classes.

"Thank you for so many memories and for making the last week absolutely perfect," she said. "Dear Chris, I love you always."

The last remembrance came from Elser's father, Kip Elser, a 1973 Hopkins graduate.

"Now it is time to stop and think about what is truly important," he said, standing next to his ex-wife, Rhetta, with whom he also has a 14-year-old daughter named Taylor.

Don't stay up all night studying for exams, he said. Do sleep a little. (His son had pulled an all-nighter last year only to sleep through the exam.) Don't rush across campus to class. Do enjoy the walk.

As he walked to the service, Kip Elser said he imagined hearing Chris say, "Hey, Pop, pretty good shirt and tie. Where'd you get it?"

The father replied, "I went in and got it out of your closet."

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