The death of a 26-year-old University of Hawaii at Hilo student in a traffic crash has family, friends and faculty in shock, wondering what might have been.
Matthew S. Therrien was described as a “once in 20 years kind of student” by Kenith Simmons, a professor of English and performing arts at UHH. Simmons said that Therrien, who would have graduated May 17, will be awarded his English degree posthumously.
“He was one of our most outstanding majors and we are just devastated right now,” said Seri Luangphinith, a UHH English professor.
Therrien was killed in a two-vehicle collision at about 4:30 a.m. Sunday on Keaau-Pahoa Road (Highway 130) between the 3- and 4-mile markers near Keaau. Police say he was driving his 2010 Subaru sport-utility vehicle west and had just overtaken another vehicle when he collided with an eastbound 2004 Ford F-350 pickup truck.
Therrien’s mother, Rae Therrien, said Monday her son was returning home from playing poker in Hawaiian Paradise Park when the crash occurred.
The driver of pickup truck, identified in a police log as 52-year-old Alan Wong of Keaau, sustained minor injuries and was taken to Hilo Medical Center. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI and was released pending further investigation.
Police are also investigating whether Therrien was intoxicated or had been speeding. Both drivers were wearing their seat belts, police said.
Rae Therrien said she and her husband, Mark, adopted Matthew in his native Thailand when he was 2.
“He was definitely a writer. His love is literature,” she said, adding that her son wanted to become an English professor.
Matthew Therrien received the 2012 Droste Award for outstanding writing from UHH for a portfolio of original poems. Simmons and Luangphinith selected his work after a “blind reading” — which means no names were attached to the submissions.
“He was a pretty phenomenal writer,” Luangphinith said. “He wrote a wonderful ballad in English ballad stanza form for this Thai-Laotian folk tale about how the tiger got its stripes. … He could write about a whole wide range of things. Some of the poems I’ve seen spanned everything from a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles to folk tales and legends from his homeland in Southeast Asia. He was a gifted writer in terms of adaptability. Not a lot of students can master some of these more advanced poetic forms.”
For a student to be chosen to read his work alongside a senior faculty member is a rare honor, and Therrien was selected for a campus poetry reading with Simmons in November 2013.
“He was an excellent reader of his poetry. In the poetry reading that we did together, he just wowed the audience,” Simmons said.
Rae Therrien said her son lived in Hilo about three years. He grew up in Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin for two years and then served for three years with AmeriCorps in Seattle, working with high-risk students. He also served on the regional board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hawaii Island.
“He was instrumental in helping us make a link in developing ties into the UH community, in building student awareness and rallying student volunteerism for our program,” said Gail Takaki, Big Brothers Big Sisters’ community director. “He had a world of experience already in youth programs and grant writing. His heart was really into mentoring work with youth.”
Matt Therrien’s passion for mentoring youth also led him to work for awhile at Boys & Girls Club of the Big Island, where he met his girlfriend, Vicky Chung, who also worked there. Chung moved to San Francisco and Matt Therrien visited her there during spring break, Rae Therrien said.
“He came back from San Francisco with books,” she said.
Rae Therrien said her son accompanied her Saturday to the Laupahoehoe Music Festival.
“I dance, and one of my hula sisters pulled him up to dance in the audience participation and I was so tickled,” she said, noting her son left the festival early so he could watch his beloved Wisconsin basketball team play Kentucky in the NCAA Final Four.
“They lost by one point but he cheered to the very end,” she said.
Denyse Woo-Ockerman, a senior performing arts major at UHH, called Matt Therrien’s death “a tragic loss.”
“He was amazingly brilliant; I’m really shocked,” she said. “He was very sweet and smart. He was the type of guy that would go above and beyond in anything he did. He and I were in the same Shakespeare class, and even for an English major Shakespeare is not easy. But he would break down every scene and he was just amazing.
“If I had to look into his future, he could have won the Pulitzer Prize.”
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.