INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Friends and loved ones are mourning the loss of Howard “Howie” Liebengood, the U.S. Capitol Police officer and Purdue University graduate who died by suicide three days after Wednesday’s riot.
Liebengood was a 1991 graduate.
Doug Wright and other longtime friends said Liebengood was one of the most admired and respected people they’ve ever met. Liebengood was remembered as someone who loved Purdue and loved racing, especially the Indianapolis 500, a race he almost had an encyclopedic knowledge of.
“Just a great guy,” Wright said. “He was loyal.”
“He was one of the best,” added Michael Rickett, another friend and fraternity brother. “Shy, caring, one of the kindest people I have ever known. He was exceptional.”
To friends, the sudden death makes no sense.
While he grew up near Washington, D.C., thanks to Liebengood’s father’s former job working as sergeant at arms, then as a lobbyist, his family was from Indiana, including Kentland and Plymouth.
“Howie loved Indiana,” Wright said. “He loved coming back here. Purdue has the Grand Prix. If you’re a racer, you can come back here, and study and race at the same time. You can’t beat that.”
Wright was one of Howie’s best friends. They were in the same fraternity but at different times.
“All began at Kinko’s (copy shop), across from Ross-Ade” Stadium, Wright remembered.
Already a professional racer, Wright was copying press clippings to drum up attention. Liebengood was at the next printer at Kinko’s, making copies for the fraternity where he served as treasurer.
A friendship founded on a mutual passion of motorsports, Wright advised Liebengood as both became professional race car drivers. On a few occasions, they even raced together at several endurance races.
Thanks to his Liebengood’s connections becaues of his father, he got to meet some of the giants of the sport including Ayrton Senna and a childhood favorite, Rick Mears.
Liebengood was even the 2000 Motorola Cup ST class champion.
“I don’t know anybody that was more passionate about the Indy 500,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of guys that might be his equal, but there was nobody more passionate for the Indy 500.”
But to see his humor and humility, Rickett said look no farther than a picture showing Liebengood, a professional racer, directing kids to get the autograph of another fraternity brother who came out for a visit to a race in Milwaukee. The frat brother, a dark-haired Italian, looked much more the part of a race car driver than the redhead. The picture shows Liebengood with a huge smile on his face.
“You can just see how much fun he’s having with this. He’s loving the fact that the kids are coming in,” Rickett said. “It just captured the essence of him.”
As for the events of the last week, Wright said he texted Liebengood and Liebengood’s wife Wednesday night. Howie had been on the front line of the riot.
“Word back that he was fine, Wright said. “All was well, just tired and worn out.”
He first heard news reports Sunday of Howie’s death, then got the call from Liebengood’s wife.
“Pretty empty feeling. He was such a great guy,” Wright said.
“I don’t know how you make sense of this. None of us do,” Rickett said. “You think about the pain, whatever pain he was carrying to lead him to this place.”
A place that, for his friends, doesn’t quite feel the same now.
“I’ll miss the late night conversations, just talking about racing and who’s going to win the 500, how fast the pole will be this year,” Wright said.
Wright said Liebengood would come back to Indiana every couple months for the race and to run the Mini Marathon as long as he could get the vacation time.
Among the well-known figures sending their condolences was John Kerry whose office was near where Howie was stationed.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255.