During his freshman year, Luke T. Balstad ’25 loved staring out his dorm room window in “contemplative silence,” his friend Annabelle H. Krause ’25 recalled.
As he looked out from his room in the Harvard Inn, he would often greet his peers who passed by below.
“Luke was always waving to people out the window and inviting them upstairs to hang out or having screaming conversations out the window,” Krause wrote in an email.
Balstad’s habit reached the point where he had to affix notes to his window to remind himself to stay focused on his schoolwork.
“He had to put up these post-its to keep himself on track because he was such a happy and social person that there was no doubt that he would end up with a slew of people in his room if he stared out the window too long,” Krause wrote.
Balstad, a Quincy House sophomore, was born in Tucson, Arizona, and grew up in Michigan. He graduated from Hudsonville High School in Hudsonville, Michigan, in 2021, before enrolling at Harvard.
Balstad died by suicide while at home in Michigan on Nov. 14. He was 19.
In lieu of flowers, Balstad’s family is collecting donations for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Balstad’s friends, family, and teachers remember him as a uniquely thoughtful, kind, and brilliant person who brightened the lives of those around him. He was passionate about self-care and helping others, hoped to become a doctor, and loved the outdoors.
“Luke was so incredibly special,” Krause wrote. “I actually do not know how to put into words all that Luke was. He was probably the kindest person I will ever know.”
Ava K. Pallotta ’25 recalls meeting Balstad for the first time freshman year and being impressed by how put-together he was: By the time they sat down for breakfast in Annenberg Hall at 8 a.m., Balstad had gone on a full run and gotten ready for the day.
Pallotta, one of Balstad’s close friends and blockmates, said one of Balstad’s “defining characteristics” was the way he supported his friends.
“I never took a test at Harvard that he didn’t wish me good luck for, there was never a play that I was in that he didn’t show up with flowers for,” Pallotta said. “He would surprise me with coffees all the time, just sweet texts encouraging me.”
Landon J. Cooley-Themm, who met Balstad in high school, said he brought a “very calming presence” to those around him.
“Luke was the type of person that when he walked in the room, and if you weren’t looking at the door, or you didn’t see him come in, you knew he was there,” Cooley-Themm said. “He just presented so much kindness, so much light to everybody who was around and who he talked to.”
Isabella M. Tillotson, who befriended Balstad when he moved to Michigan in third grade, said he was a “formative part” of her life.
Each day after high school, the two would drive around in Balstad’s car, which was “worth $500 and broke down every five minutes,” Tillotson recalled.
“It was a lot of driving, and drinking iced coffee. And that was enough for us. We just talked, and we talked about things that didn’t matter. We talked about things that matter so much,” Tillotson said. “And we made our plans for what our lives were going to look like together.”
Sydney A. Balstad, his older sister, said she and her brother were “twin flames.”
Once, when they were little — to avoid being apart, even for just a few minutes — the siblings taped themselves together.
“We were sick of having to go get water and separate from each other,” Balstad said. “So we got tape, and we taped water bottles to ourselves, and then taped ourselves to each other so that we would never have to be apart even to get water.”
Balstad had many friends and was close with his family, his mother, Kimberly Van Antwerp, said.
“He loved, loved his friends so much — talked about each one of them,” Van Antwerp said. “His family meant the world to him.”
Christopher A. Bolhuis, Balstad’s cross country coach and science teacher at Hudsonville High School, described Balstad as “one of the nicest, most kind, intelligent, deep,” students he taught in his nearly three-decade-long career.
“He wanted to know how things worked, and he was just that rare combination that was able to combine this just unbelievable intellect with a curiosity to match it,” Bolhuis said.
According to Bolhuis, Balstad was a “natural leader” and “one of the most involved students” to ever attend the high school.
“Luke was just genuinely kind to everybody,” Bolhuis said. “Everybody loved this kid.”
Lauren D. Wedge — who taught Balstad German at Hudsonville High School for four years — said Balstad was deeply dedicated to his extracurricular activities, including marching band, an environmental volunteer group, a student leadership organization, and student council.
“He was the most well-rounded student that I had ever met,” Wedge said. “He never failed to follow through with a task — he did all of these things but did not ever drop the ball.”
Van Antwerp, Balstad’s mother, said his acceptance to Harvard — his “lifelong dream” — was unprecedented and “incredible.” She recalled Balstad receiving news of his acceptance to Harvard and their family’s subsequent celebration with a bottle of champagne.
“When he popped the cork, it shot up and broke a light fixture,” she said. “We left it like that probably for a year or two afterwards because we couldn’t bear to think about that memory being lost.”
Bolhuis, who said Balstad was just the second student from Hudsonville High School to be accepted to Harvard, was nevertheless “not surprised” by Balstad’s admission.
“I've been teaching for 26 years, and this is the one student that I’ve had that I thought, ‘He’s going to change the world,’” Bolhuis said. “I wrote him a letter of recommendation to get into Harvard, and I said that this is the best student, best person — the best everything — that I’ve ever, ever taught.”
Balstad was deeply passionate about making the world a better place, his friends and family remembered.
Tillotson recalled Balstad’s advocacy for environmentalism, LGBTQ+ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other social justice causes. In addition, Balstad fed unhoused people in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and volunteered for the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter as a college student.
“He was passionate about making sure that everybody felt included. And he really valued individuality and was very interested in making sure that everybody felt valued, no matter their unique characteristics,” Tillotson said. “He was the type of person who would never let somebody sit alone.”
“He was passionate about people, and making sure that they had what they needed to succeed and thrive and feel comfortable and valued,” she added.
Van Antwerp said Balstad aspired to be a surgeon and even owned an IV kit and suture kit in middle school. In recent years, however, Balstad became increasingly outspoken about mental health awareness.
“That was where his heart was,” Van Antwerp said. “He recently shared, too, that he thought maybe not being a surgeon — maybe he wanted to go be a psychiatrist or do something with mental health awareness.”
Wedge recalled Balstad’s mental health advocacy work during his time as student council president in high school.
“He confided in me that year that he was struggling with his mental health, and he just cared very deeply about people inside and outside of the classroom,” Wedge said.
Pallotta said while people are sometimes “described differently in life and death,” this is not the case for Balstad.
“He was just a really beloved figure. And the world’s a better place because he was here,” Pallotta said. “Harvard’s a better place because he was here, but his presence and the light he brought to campus is just absolutely going to be missed.”
If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042 or the Harvard University Police Department at (617) 495-1212. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations. Learn more here.
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—Staff writer Vivi E. Lu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.
—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.