Restaurant Review: Community mourns loss of promising ice skater
Publication Date: Friday Jul 29, 1994

Restaurant Review: Community mourns loss of promising ice skater

Friends, family struggle to cope with death of 20-year-old Gunn graduate

Elizabeth Darling

On Sunday afternoon, friends and family members of 20-year-old Stith Letsinger came together at a Palo Alto hillside home to help the Foothill College student and his ice-dancing partner, Tami Tyler, raise the funds they needed to pursue their Olympic dreams.

Two days later, friends, relatives and many members of the community came together for comfort as they struggled to understand the tragic death of the promising and popular ice skater.

"He was so happy, so ebullient," said Glenna Letsinger about her son's attitude the day of the fund-raiser at a home near Palo Alto Hills Golf and Country Club. "Even the kids who were with him had no idea."

Police say Letsinger, a 1992 graduate of Gunn High School and Palo Alto resident, died sometime early Tuesday. His body was found hanging from a tall wood and metal play structure early Tuesday in a small playground at the back of Juana Briones Elementary School.

"All indications at this point in time (are that) it was suicide," said Palo Alto Police Detective Michael Yore.

Those close to Stith say the school playground was a place that he often would go to talk with friends or play croquet at night.

Letsinger skated competitively along with Tyler, a Gunn junior. The duo placed sixth in the ice dancing, junior division at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. They also finished first in the same division at the Pacific Coast Championship earlier this year. They had hoped to qualify for a berth in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Those invited to the $25 per person fund-raising garden party Sunday had also been invited to watch Tami and Stith skate on July 16 at the Golden Gate Ice Arena in Redwood City, where they normally worked out.

Suzie Lovercheck, a friend of Tyler's, said she stayed after the party on Sunday to swim with friends, including Stith.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary," she said. The skating duo seemed to be doing well, she said, and she remembered their coach, former World Ice Dance Champion John Dowding, commenting that their relationship was like a marriage.

"They sort of looked out for each other," she said. The two had skated together for six years, and were good friends.

Glenna Letsinger said her son seemed a little down Monday, or maybe tired, she recalled. He had gone to work as a disc jockey at the Foothill College radio station KFJC, and skated that afternoon with Tyler at the San Jose Arena.

He had dinner with his mother, and Glenna Letsinger recalled that he would give only one-word answers to her questions. He went to a party with two friends, where he stayed until midnight and left alone, apparently going to the school yard, she said.

His friends told her that no one thought Stith had seemed despondent, she said.

Stith's close friend Dusty Brown, with whom he took a drama class at Gunn, said he had seen him Sunday night at Dusty's birthday party. Brown had no inkling anything was wrong, and said the two were close enough to tell each other their problems. "We'd tell each other stuff that was going on," he said. "He seemed pretty upbeat, his normal self. I still have incredible respect for Stith," said Brown, who lives down the street from Juana Briones school. "I'm not really sure what really happened."

Brown said he knew Stith had a skating competition in a couple of weeks and that he was really devoted to the sport. "He was totally into it. He was very into it."

Emotionally, Dusty said, Stith always seemed even-tempered.

"I've never seen him get down about anything. I've seen him angry, but he sort of blows it off. He sort of had his own way of thinking about a lot of things."

Letsinger's brown station wagon, with the personalized license plate DSCOMBL (Disco Mobile), was found Tuesday on Frandon Court, around the corner from the Juana Briones playground.

Police were called to the school at 638 Maybell Ave. by a custodian who discovered the body shortly after 6 a.m. on Tuesday. Police say no note was found, only an inscription in the sand quoting Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To sleep, perchance to dream."

The body was covered, and children arriving at Juana Briones for day care and other activities were routed away from the scene so they would not see the body, said Palo Alto School District spokeswoman JoAnne Wetzel. Physical therapy sessions at the school for orthopedically handicapped children, adjacent to the playground area, were cancelled for the day.

A neighbor of Juana Briones school who did not wish to be identified told the Weekly that her daughter had been among Letsinger's friends, and that the young people would often go and talk in the schoolyard.

"She and he and other friends would sit over here and talk," the woman said, as she walked her dog in the schoolyard. "She said he'd been depressed."

Police went door to door Tuesday morning asking neighbors whether they'd seen or heard anything unusual.

Letsinger was a natural skater who took up the sport while a third grader at Keys School in Palo Alto when he used to go on "field trips" to the Winter Lodge across the street. In sixth grade, he won election for "mayor" of his school, basing his campaign on saving the Winter Lodge from closing.

By seventh grade he started to take ice skating more seriously.

He was featured in a December 1991 edition of the Weekly as part of a series on outstanding youths in the Palo Alto area. He was featured again in a February cover story on Winter Olympic hopefuls.

"It's really expressive," Letsinger said of skating in the 1991 Weekly interview. "You can sort of do what you feel like doing, let your body go. It's really freeing, and it's fun to go fast."

He spoke modestly about his skating, and had a wide variety of other interests. He listened to "weird" music, or "whatever nobody else listened to," he said, and was an avid reader and movie buff. He made his own films and home movies, and hoped, he said, to major in film or philosophy.

Stith Letsinger is survived by his father, Reed, his mother, Glenna and younger sister, Kirsten. A service was to be held today at 3 p.m. at the United Methodist Church at 655 Magdalena in Los Altos. (Keith Peters contributed to this report.) 

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