By MADELINE HUGHES
Last Wednesday night, the baseball field at Champlain Valley Union High School was lit up by candlelight and filled with several hundred people.
The occasion wasn’t a game but instead a rare school community gathering to mourn the loss of a 17-year-old student who died two days before, on Oct. 8.
The spot was a fitting one, where senior Paul Hoeppner played many games with the CVU baseball team.
“Paul listened to his own drummer and was not easily swayed by the popular vote,” his obituary reads. “He found his love in reading, writing, rowing on the water, and looking at the stars.”
Born July 23, 2001 in Burlington, Paul was the younger of two sons of Susan and Joe Hoeppner of Hinesburg.
Schoolmates, teachers, parents and community members dropped what they were doing last Wednesday to share their grief and comfort each other.
The candles spread across the field in paper bags had handwritten messages on them:
“I can’t even explain how much I miss you,” signed only by “Julia D.”
“We love you endlessly Paul Hoeppner,” was written on another bag, signed with a heart.
Other bags referred to baseball, and Paul’s favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles.
The luminaries in bags weren’t just in the ballfield. They extended beyond, lining a mile-long path between the field and the Thistle Hill neighborhood, creating an illuminated walk for people to make their way to the Hoeppner family’s home.
Addressing the crowd gathered in the field, Principal Adam Bunting spoke in remembrance of Paul, his family, and hope.
“This evening is about the strength we see in and can lend to the Hoeppner family,” Bunting said. “This evening is about connecting with authenticity and about the power of neighborhoods and community.”
The lighted walk was set up in tribute to a Christmas Eve tradition in the Thistle Hill neighborhood and organized by Joy and Rob O’Neil.
It was the second day friends and family gathered outside of the Hoeppner house, a neighbor told The Citizen.
“Paul was a great teammate, and took care of everyone,” CVU baseball coach Tim Albertson recalled. “He was the first person to give someone a congratulatory high-five or say ‘we’ll get them next time.’ It’s a huge loss.”
The “goofy and fun” teenager was involved in many other activities as well, Albertson said. Paul rowed, and was involved with Habitat for Humanity, causing him to miss a few baseball games last spring to travel with the school’s program, he said.
“He was one of those guys who had a lot of life, and he might be quiet sometimes,” Albertson said.
Paul was also a great younger brother to Marc, and son to Sue and Joe, he added. The Hoeppner family, like Paul, was always interested in how teammates were doing on and off the baseball field, Albertson said.
“The candlelight vigil was also for his great family,” Albertson said. “Everyone wanted to say we are here for you. That the community loves you.”
Paul’s mother Susan said the community’s support has stood out in the days filled with emotion since Paul’s passing. “We’re so grateful for the outpouring of support,” she said.
Services were held earlier this week at St. Jude Catholic Church in Hinesburg and burial was to be private.
The family suggests memorial contributions be made in Paul’s honor to Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Champlain Longboats Program, 4472 Basin Harbor Road, Vergennes, VT 05491.
A full obituary can be found online at readyfuneral.com.
Bunting: Principal offers comfort to school community
By ADAM BUNTING
Editor’s Note: The following is the text of remarks Champlain Valley Union High School Principal Adam Bunting made at last week’s vigil for Paul Hoeppner.
Thank you so much for gathering here tonight. This evening is about Paul, about his kindness of spirit and generous nature. This evening is about the strength we see in and can lend to the Hoeppner family. This evening is about connecting with authenticity and about the power of neighborhoods and community. And, while there is great sadness, this evening is even about small joys.
The tradition of illumination, and the genesis for this walk, dates back to many Christmas Eves ago in the Thistle Hill neighborhood. A certain family created a lighted path to welcome a certain sleigh and a certain red-suited man who delivers presents. One Christmas Eve led to annual tradition.
For a child, this annual event must have been accompanied by tremendous hope. Toni Morrison describes happiness as being like a Christmas Eve, as “anticipation with the certainty of fulfillment.” We hope that tonight’s walk, while anchored in reflection and remembrance, can also be about hope and fulfillment that becomes certainty.
The hardest thing about being young – about facing the world when it feels flipped upside down – is the fear that the sadness, or pain, or depression, or anxiety or anger we feel is forever…that life has become inexorably altered. In youth, we just haven’t made it through those times before to know that we will – to have faith that, as humans, we are built to heal. As my older cousin once told me in high school, “Know that it always gets better. If you have faith in one thing, it should be that it always gets better.”
For me, that became a mantra at times. It became that tiny pinprick of illumination in darkness that signifies an ember that could fan into flame. To allow that brightness, to make room for that flame, is to let in air – to open oneself to the oxygen that becomes breath.
We cannot be healthy and live two lives, two selves – the one we project to our friends, to our parents, to social media and the one we cloister in walls because we think it’s not beautiful enough or strong enough or whatever enough.
Our opportunity tonight, one that we never wanted or asked for, is to live with authenticity and vulnerability. The relationships we forge are only as good as they are open and honest, and true relationships are predicated on that integrity.
As you walk tonight, allow the vulnerability and openness to happen. Reflect. Use some of the anger, confusion, and loss to take the risk to share yourself with those with whom you walk. The best thing we can do for the Hoeppners and Paul is to be authentic ourselves. After all, if I know this family at all, they would be the first ones to do the same for us.
When you get to the neighborhood and the conclusion of the walk, pause, reflect. And on the return, be ready to connect…with loved ones, with yourself, and with the purpose to make a difference.