Tuesday, October 17, 2006

After I graduated from Brookfield Central High School and came to UWM, I noticed something about the majority of the forty or so kids from my graduating class that also came to UWM: they, by enlarge, weren’t friendly. When I would walk past one of them on campus, most of them would either look away to avoid eye contact, or if our eyes had already met, they’d give the obligatory half-smile, or the unenthusiastic “hey” before quickly looking away.

But one of my ex-classmates stood out to me. In fact, it was the ex-quarterback, popular, “hot guy,” the one you’d expect to be cockier than the rest. Not him. Even though we were nothing more than acquaintances in high school, he would always make a point to stop and chat when he’d see me around campus or in the dorms. He went beyond asking the standard “how are you?” question, and asked me questions about my classes, my social life, and anything else. And what meant the most is I could tell he was genuinely interested in hearing my answers.

I always looked forward to running into him. Even though I didn’t know him very well personally, he always brightened my day. He amazed me with how friendly he was, taking time out of his schedule to chat with someone he barely knew. And I was sure I was just one of many Brookfield Central alums he’d stop and chat with.

After sophomore year of college, he transferred to UW-La Crosse, where my brother is a student. My brother reported similar stories of running into him on campus. He would ride a bike to class, and whenever he’d pass my brother, who was always on foot, he would slow down and ride his bike slowly next to him. He would chat with him the entire way to campus – even when he was running late for class.

He was Luke Homan, the UW-La Crosse student whose body was found in the Mississippi River on October 2nd, a couple of days after disappearing after a night out drinking with his friends. When I attended his funeral a few days later, I discovered that I was one of thousands who had noticed his extra friendly personality. His was the largest funeral Saint John Vianney Church in Brookfield has ever seen. His death was what seemed like the most shocking thing to happen to ever Brookfield, at least as long as I’ve been around. While he was alive, Luke had affected the entire community.

The official police report rules Luke’s death an accident. No one is sure exactly what caused him to end up in the river, which is located not far from the bars he was seen at earlier that evening. But with a blood-alcohol level of 0.32, police speculate that Luke accidentally fell in.

But could Luke’s death have been prevented?

If only there were policemen or security personnel keeping a closer eye on people wandering towards the river. Or, if only the city of La Crosse had put up a fence at the river’s edge to prevent people from falling in.

Well, hindsight is 20/20, right?

Apparently not for the city of La Crosse. Luke was not the first young man to die this way in the La Crosse-area rivers. Or the second. Or the third. Or the forth… Luke was the eighth young male to end up in the river since 1997.

With eight young men dead, that’s enough for this to be considered a problem, right?

Well, the first seven deaths hadn’t seemed to cause the city of La Crosse to care enough about this problem to do anything about it.

In fact, many push the blame not on the city, but on the partiers themselves. Many residents believe that the city of La Crosse has a binge drinking problem. It’s alcohol that’s killing these young men, they say.

True, if these men weren’t drinking the nights of their deaths, they’d probably still be alive today. But the thing is, college students are going to drink. They always have, and they always will. While it sometimes results in poor decision-making, which can sometimes lead to a fatal accident, as we’ve learned, they are not going to stop partying.

When the city’s alcohol oversight committee took suggestions after Luke’s death, Cyndy Reichgelt, 53, of La Crosse said, “Education isn’t helping. It’s hard to change kids.”

Alfred Knorr, also of La Crosse, flat-out stated, “We’re not going to stop them from drinking.”

So, with the proposed solution of trying to control La-Crosse students’ drinking out of the question, the city needs to take it upon themselves to look for other solutions.

Perhaps on weekend nights – which includes Thursday nights in the minds of college students – the La Crosse Police Department could have more policemen or security officers patrolling Riverside Park around bar time.

Or, maybe the city’s best bet is to erect some sort of barrier along the river’s edge. While some might argue that a barrier or fence would not be as aesthetically pleasing to the eye as the riverfront’s current appearance is, we’ll see what’s more important to them when someone they know drowns.

It’s pathetic enough that the city of La Crosse didn’t learn to prevent this problem after the first two or three drownings since 1997. But Luke was number eight.

Eight deaths.

How many more people have to die before somebody does something about this?

We can only hope that Luke was the one to make them learn.

Reichgelt has three college age children. "I feel blessed they don't go to La Crosse," she said.

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