Friends, family mourn pre-med student’s death

January 13, 2011

Erik Downes, a U.S. college student so well liked he even mentored a teacher at his high school, died Jan. 4 in a swimming accident on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. He was 20.

Downes, a grinning, extroverted friend-to-all, acted as a counselor to his geography teacher at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers, Florida.

Downes’ teacher, Peter Ndiang’ui, lost his son in an accident just as he was starting med school. Downes consoled his teacher after class. They talked about life and how to move on.

Downes shared details of some of the hardships in his own life. When Downes no longer had classes with Ndiang’ui, he still stopped by to ask him, “How are you?”

“He helped me grow so much when I was feeling very confused,” Ndiang’ui said.

Like Ndiang’ui’s son, Downes had his own aspirations in the field of medicine. And tragically, like his son, Downes’ life ended before those goals were realized. Downes drowned in a riptide off the coast of Playa Dominical while swimming with friends.

A junior pre-med student at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, Downes served as the Student Senate’s vice president. He was traveling with Oglethorpe classmates and faculty members for an ecotourism study-abroad trip when the accident happened.

Born in the Caribbean country of Barbados, Downes lived in Boston, Massachusetts before moving to Cape Coral, Florida. He lived with his mother and stepfather. He participated in many school activities, including mock trial, track and community service projects. He was known for his intellect and affability, and friends and family as far away as the U. K. and Germany plan to attend his funeral.

Barkha Shah recalls Downes’ eager optimism. The two dated for a while in high school. She remembered how his charisma carried from the classroom to competitive games of the card game Uno.

“He was such a fun guy,” Shah, 19, said. “You couldn’t help but smile when he was around.”

Downes, an aspiring cardiologist, also had started to earn a reputation as the healthiest guy on campus. In college he started working out and eating better – so much so that it became a running joke for friends. During winter break in December, Downes went with Cassie Nicotra, a friend from high school, to see the movie “Tron: Legacy.” Before they went to the cinema, Downes asked Nicotra to put oatmeal and a protein shake in her purse so he could sneak it into the theater.

At a memorial service on Jan. 9 at a church adjacent to the Oglethorpe campus, speakers mused that they would start drinking protein shakes more often so they could live as healthily as Downes did.

His personality seemed to charm everyone. In an e-mail sent to students, Oglethorpe University President Lawrence Schall called “Downes a shining star with unlimited potential and a kind heart.”

Three days before the memorial, as the Costa Rican Coast Guard and other volunteers searched for Downes in the Pacific, Oglethorpe students, faculty members and alumni huddled in near-freezing temperatures for a candlelight vigil.

“It was pretty powerful to see all the students and seeing how close knit of a community we are,” said Marla Osti, 20, who graduated from Oglethorpe in August. “It was very emotional because you saw everyone there that knew him.”

Downes’ mother and stepfather released a message on Jan. 9 thanking everyone for their support and concern at this difficult time.

Ndiang’ui, who is from Kenya, said he and Downes were initially drawn to each other because of their unique heritage. But they discovered many other similarities through their after-class discussions. Now Ndiang’ui, who is close to Downes’ parents, must play the role of comforter to parents who lost a child. He hopes he can share some of the strength Downes gave to him five years earlier.

Ndiang’ui said:  “[Erik] always wanted to be [a doctor]. Why? He wanted to help people. That’s what he said.”

The Erik Downes Memorial Scholarship has been created to honor Downes’ memory. Donations may be made by calling 404-364-8328 or online at www.oglethorpe.edu.

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