Rev. Katherine Brearley, the mother of Wharton junior Owen Thomas, described her son as “a very self-directed person.” But that same intensity that drove him to succeed, she said, “had a dark side.”
In a telephone conversation from her home Tuesday night, Brearley confirmed that “Owen hanged himself.”
Thomas’ body was found at his off-campus residence at 39th Street and Baltimore Avenue around 2 p.m. Monday. Thomas shared the home with four other members of the football team.
He was recently elected co-captain of the football team.
Brearley said Thomas, 21, was not depressed, and this was simply a situation that spiraled out of control. “He put huge expectations on himself and just impossibly couldn’t live up to them … and wouldn’t let other people give him an appropriate perspective.”
“We tried,” she continued. “His friends tried, Coach Schaefer tried. I don’t think it was occurring to anyone that we weren’t getting through.”
Thomas likely acted impulsively, “out of anger with himself,” Brearley said. “Suicide is not trusting in time, that things will get better in time.”
“He still had his cell phone and his wallet in his pocket. If you intend to kill yourself, you put your things in order and write a note. There’d be some sign that you’ve been thinking of what you were going to do, and here there wasn’t,” she said.
“I think the knowledge that he perhaps wasn’t going to excel at some of the courses he was taking … he felt a huge responsibility being captain of the team. But talking to his friends, the depth of failure that he saw was in his mind rather than the reality of his life,” she added.
Brearley stressed that students should seek comfort in this difficult time. “Reaching out when you’re feeling dark and desperate is so important. If other people can learn from Owen, it doesn’t need to happen this way,” she said.
In the face of the tragedy, students' responses revealed that Owen touched many lives on campus. Friends are working with the University Chaplain’s office to organize Thursday night’s vigil.
Brearley thanked the University administrators “for being so good to us.”
Additionally, Brearley said, Thomas’ organs could not be donated because of “loss of oxygen,” but the family contacted the Gift of Life organization to harvest skin and arteries, among other soft tissue. “We felt strongly about trying to save another life,” she said.
The funeral will be held Monday, May 3 at 10:30 a.m. at the Union United Church of Christ in Neffs, Pa., where his father is the senior pastor. The University will be providing transportation, according to spokesman for the Vice Provost of University Life Matt Waller, but the details have not been finalized.
As a member of Penn football team, Thomas was second-team all-Ivy in 2009 and had the second-most sacks in the Ivy League last season.
He attended Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa, where he was a three-year letter winner and a two-year captain.
He is survived by his parents and three brothers.
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