Reed Student, Depressed over Exam, Takes His Life

From The Oregonian, December 15, 1988

Javier Valdez, a 17-year-old freshman at Reed College, described as his family’s “bright young hope,” killed himself last week rather than face academic failure.

His body was discovered Monday by a friend concerned that he had not emerged from his dormitory room, said Terry Sparks, deputy medical examiner for Multnomah County, who investigated the death.

Authorities found a suicide note in the room and paper from a failed chemistry examination, folded lengthwise, clutched in the hand of Valdez, the son of immigrants from Mexico who moved to the Chicago area when he was 10.

“He was under a lot of pressure to succeed and was failing miserably,” said Sparks, who called Valdez the “bright, young hope of his family.” He said he had dealt with a number of suicides but was particularly saddened by what he had discovered on the Eastmoreland campus.

Part of a suicide note asked, “Do I have to wear a dunce cap to let people know I’m a failure?”

Valdez graduated as valedictorian from St. Joseph’s High School in Chicago. His grade-point average was the highest in the 1988 graduating class, according to Harriet Watson, a spokeswoman for Reed.

An autopsy Tuesday showed the cause of death to be a drug overdose, although Sparks said toxicology tests were needed to determine the exact substance Valdez had ingested. The student also had tried to slash his wrists, Sparks said.

“Javier’s death has brought a great sadness to this community,” Reed President James L. Powell said in a prepared statement. “This tragedy makes us appreciate anew the enormous responsibility we share for the future and well-being of our students.”

The death stunned students in Valdez’s Kerr dormitory.

“I think Reed can be a lonely place sometimes; sometimes it’s hard to find a niche,” said a subdued Kerr resident. “On the other hand, it’s a tight-knit group, once everyone gets to know each other; he was friends with all of us.”

The student requested anonymity, saying she wanted to eulogize Valdez but didn’t want to add to the pressure of finals on herself and other students, who also had to cope with the immense grief.

Valdez was on the quiet side but enjoyed producing a student radio show and loved to take snapshots of his friends, the student said. “He didn’t sit around and brood all the time,” she said.

“He was truly one of the more gentlemanly people I’ve known,” she said.

School administrators and counselors made themselves available to students Monday evening, and a memorial is planned for early January, after students return to campus, Watson said.

Valdez’s mental condition had started to deteriorate in recent weeks, Watson said, and he had sought counseling after Thanksgiving from a professor and an administrator.

She said the professor who spoke with him said Valdez had a feeling he was not performing up to his own high standards but was told: “I know you can do it; I know you can. Don’t let this perception bother you.” She declined to identify the professor.

Sparks’ report indicated that in recent weeks Valdez had started to withdraw from friends and had started to mention suicide, although he also said he intended to finish the term and go home for Christmas.

The Rev. Frank Knusel of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Northwest Portland was enlisted by the school to contact Valdez’s family about his death.

Javier Valdez’s father, Aurelio Valdez, at first did not believe that the death was a suicide, Knusel said. The father, Javier and a brother, Gonzalo, 18, had spoken on the phone together a week previously.

Gonzalo Valdez told Knusel that his brother had complained of being behind in his reading and was having difficulty with humanities classes but said nothing to suggest that he was thinking about suicide.

Freshmen at private colleges such as Reed face tremendous pressure as they leave the security of their previous schools, said Belinda Green of Metro Crisis Intervention Service, a suicide counseling service.

Like Valdez, they are the cream of the crop at their high schools but realize that in college they are among their intellectual peers, she said.

“Where they used to be pulling a 4.0, they pull Cs, Ds and Fs,” Green said. “Somebody has to be at the top at Reed and someone has to be at the middle and someone at the bottom.”

Green said the crisis center did not keep statistics on the number of calls it received from college students. She said such calls seemed to increase in the fall.

Homesickness, lack of sleep, poor diet and the fear of failure may be a deadly combination for some college students, Green said.

“We are available to talk; we are confidential,” she said. “We are here all the time, especially for those 3 a.m. book-cracking sessions.”

Valdez did leave another last message.

Inside the Amtrak envelope containing his train ticket home, he wrote, “Make sure all my belongings get home please.”