‘He was just magnetic’: Sam Gawel ’23 remembered for his infectious humor, profound sense of caring

Despite being away from campus for most of his time as a student at Dartmouth, Gawel’s ability to connect with others forged deep and genuine relationships with everyone he touched.

by Thomas Brown | 10/25/22 5:20am

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Source: Courtesy of Nik Morgan

Sam Gawel ’23 would have given anyone the shirt off his back, his girlfriend Nik Morgan ’23 said. For many, the idiom characterizes one’s selflessness and kindness, but remains a hypothetical — for Gawel, it was literal.

While on the earth sciences off-campus program — also known as the Stretch — in the spring, Gawel and his friend Carter Welch ’23 met a woman in a small town in Wyoming who collected T-shirts from people she met across town. The woman relayed a bet she had made with her friend to the pair: If she couldn’t acquire a shirt from someone in town, she would owe her friend $10. After a few minutes of conversation, Gawel took off his shirt — which Gawel claimed he had gotten for free, but which Welch thinks he “probably paid for” — and handed it to the woman, Welch said.

“I think Sam’s mission in life, honestly, was to make other people feel happy,” Welch said. “To absorb or smother negativity around a person.”

Gawel, who was from Detroit, Michigan, died by suicide on Sept. 21 in Hanover at the age of 21. He is survived by his parents Leah and Randy Gawel and sister Sophia Gawel ’22. At a memorial service held by his family two days after his death, more than 500 people attended in-person or virtually to remember Gawel.

At Dartmouth, Gawel was an anthropology and earth sciences major and member of the Timber Team and Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity. According to his friends, he was an avid hiker and loved cooking and “making really weird recipes,” nature and the outdoors, mountain climbing, old jazz music and obscure movies, the Detroit Lions and his pet dogs, Walt and Charlie. 

He was passionate about snow science and was considering pursuing a master’s degree in the field after graduation, Welch said. As part of his passion for studying the weather, he loved the wind and could name every type of cloud, Morgan said.

Earth sciences professor Edward Meyer, who taught Gawel and worked with Gawel on the Stretch’s logistics before the program began, said Gawel was not only present, thoughtful and “clearly passionate about what he was learning,” but also kind and warmhearted.

“Sam was really one of those rare students who was always upbeat, optimistic and caring about his fellow students,” Meyer said. “He made everyone’s lives better for interacting with him.”

Beyond his academic interests, Gawel cared about “the important stuff,” Tal Sternberg ’23 said, which included his friends’ niche hobbies and interests, meeting new people and letting others be themselves.

“He was just so kind and so encouraging of the people around him and not in a way that most people at Dartmouth are,” she said. “He was very passionate about making other people feel better about themselves.”

Gawel’s friends noted his unique ability to make those around him feel welcome. Welch, Morgan and friends Marc Novicoff ’22 and Nik Stahle ’23 all used the same word to describe how Gawel made them feel: “comfortable.” Gawel was the first person that Sternberg met at Dartmouth — she said that he walked into her room on their shared freshman floor while she was moving in to introduce himself — and became one of her best friends.

“If there’s someone he hasn’t met before, he takes this approach where he makes sure he elevates other people with him,” Stahle said. “He really could just connect with anyone that he met. I don’t know if I’ve seen other people who can do it at the level that he did.”

Sternberg noted how Gawel could always tell when she was in a bad mood, even when she thought she was hiding it well. Gawel had a way of “really listening” to others, Morgan said. Morgan remembered how, during a conversation in the first week that they met, Gawel remembered “hyper specific” things about her, like her favorite cup of coffee or the shades of paint that she had just run out of. For Morgan’s birthday, which was soon after they started dating, Gawel bought her her favorite coffee from his hometown coffee shop and all the paint colors that she had been missing, all of which he remembered without having written it down.

“He just always remembered everything and was super attentive,” Morgan said.

Novicoff said that a testament to Gawel’s impact on his friends and fellow students is that despite protracted absences from campus due to the pandemic, an off-term spent working on Mount Washington last fall and off-campus study programs in both the winter and spring, he still had the ability to make people feel loved and excited from a distance. 

Gawel was “unforgettable” to the people who met him, Morgan said — not for his “brilliant” blue eyes and white teeth, which led his friends to call him Miley Cyrus, but because he would interact with people like he had known them for their whole lives. Sternberg said that Gawel was a “pillar of the community” and someone his friends and fellow students looked up to.

“His closest friends on campus spent [a maximum of] six to nine months with him, and yet he had so many close friends on campus,” Novicoff said. “The guy wasn’t on campus for a whole year and hundreds of students came to his funeral.”

Gawel’s devotion to his friends extended to his family, for whom he would do anything “at the drop of a hat,” Morgan said. The way Gawel would talk about his mother, Sternberg said, made it seem like she “walks on water.”

“He was always talking about his family and how much he loved them and how amazing they were and how much [his friends] would love his parents,” Sternberg said.

Novicoff added that Gawel had an “unbelievable admiration” for his parents and their work as educators. Sternberg remembered that one time, she and Gawel helped teach second and third graders at Shir Shalom Vermont’s Hebrew school, which Gawel’s mother runs. Sternberg said that despite the crowd’s rowdiness, Gawel knew how to handle them while still encouraging them to be kids.

“I just really loved watching him interact with children because he was just so good with them and just seemed to really understand them,” she said.

Gawel could laugh at anything — even himself, Novicoff said. Novicoff recounted a surfing lesson he and Gawel did while on the anthropology off-campus study program in Hawaii in the winter. Every time that Gawel would fall from his surfboard — which Novicoff said was “most of the time” — the surf instructor would turn to Novicoff and impersonate Gawel, likening him to the Hulk. Gawel would get back onto his board with “nothing but laughter,” Novicoff said.

“His only possible response is just laugh and have a great time with it,” Novicoff said. “Any experience that could be bad, it was good with him because the bad could become the good.”

Welch said Gawel’s humor was both infectious and absurdist: “little bursts of absolute hilariousness.” Morgan echoed Welch’s descriptions, calling Gawel “a jokester to the end.” Sternberg said that Gawel shared his sense of humor, which never offended anyone, with everyone who met him.

“It was almost a gift,” Sternberg said. “Like he was so smart that he was able to pull things that people could laugh at without having to reach down into lower forms of humor.”

Gawel would often Airdrop “some heinous meme” to friends who were in the same silent room as him during a serious situation, Morgan said, adding that he was “always pranking people.” A favorite gag of Gawel’s was telling people he vaguely knew that people unrelated to him were his cousin — convincingly enough “that you’d be like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Morgan said. Stahle added that Gawel used this humor to check in on his friends, such as by sending Stahle obscure English poetry. 

Sternberg said that Gawel would leave “really weird” voicemails on her and others’ phones. A friend of Gawel’s recently played Sternberg a voicemail he received from Gawel, in which Gawel demanded his friend come meet up with him.

“[Gawel] picked up the phone and he was like, ‘I’m lying on the floor, all of my skin has fallen off,’” Sternberg said, recounting the message. “‘You have to come now — I’m melting into the floor.’”

Novicoff played back a different voicemail that Gawel and Welch had left for him while the two were on the Stretch.

“Hey, this is Sam,” Gawel said in the message to Novicoff. “I’m calling to say that I’m in your walls and I’m watching you right now and I’m in your head, I’m in your skull.”

Morgan applied Gawel’s sense of humor toward the Dartmouth community’s reaction to his death.

“Moving rush for someone’s death is incredible,” she said. “I think he would find it honestly hilarious that [the Greek Leadership Council] moved sorority rush because he died.”

While memories of Gawel’s humor continue to bring smiles and laughter to the faces of his loved ones, friends cite his caring nature as the trait they will hold onto. For Sternberg, it’s his “sixth sense” of understanding what people need; for Welch, it’s the way he would feel “at home” when in Gawel’s presence; for Stahle, it’s how Gawel could be friends with and connect with anyone. 

“I think what I’m going to remember is just that everyone around him loved him, and everybody felt strongly about him — I’ve never met anyone who liked him a little bit,” Novicoff said. “I’ll remember just how many people he touched and the depth of the relationships that he had.”

Morgan said that she will remember the “little things” about their relationship — cooking with Gawel, listening to jazz music and the camping trips they went on together.

“I want to remember sitting outside with him underneath the stars, sitting next to the love of my life and just how happy he made me,” she said. “I’m gonna try my absolute darndest to be a Sam for somebody else.”

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