IOWA CITY — Compassionate, smart, responsible, team player.
Those were the words being used to describe Gerald Belz, 18, a Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School graduate and first-year University of Iowa student who died Wednesday, most likely from the frigid weather, after being discovered unresponsive in an outdoor campus walkway.
His death is among at least six reported throughout the Midwest believed to be caused by the bitter cold that broke record low temperatures, canceled classes and delayed mail delivery.
A Cedar Rapids native, Belz was a pre-medicine student in his first year, but, according to the school, had earned enough credits to be considered a sophomore. He lived in the Burge Residence Hall, according to the Daily Iowan student newspaper.
Belz was found unresponsive before 3 a.m. Wednesday behind Halsey Hall on W. Jefferson Street, a popular cut-through from the nearby Iowa Memorial Union to the residence halls a short distance away. He was transported to the hospital, where he died.
UI police said the investigation into Belz’s death is ongoing, but believed to be weather related. No foul play was suspected, police said.
The student’s father, Michael Belz, said he was told by two doctors, a counselor and a UI police captain that his son’s death was not alcohol-related — that there “was zero alcohol found in his system.”
“We don’t want the memory of Gerald being that he was a young, underage college student out drinking,” he said.
Instead, Michael Belz said he hopes his son is remembered as someone who, though having a “quiet, tough exterior” in public, had deep compassion for others.
“That compassion, it’s part of the reason why he decided to study (in) the medical field,” Michael Belz said. “He has experienced the frustration of having a loved one with medical issues that have been difficult to be diagnosed or resolved. He was wanting to be a neurosurgeon or cardiologist, that was what his ultimate dream was to be. He wanted to help people.”
Brian White, a social studies teacher and the head football coach at Kennedy High, said Belz was a smart and responsible kid, who gave his all to playing football.
“He was a great kid,” White said. “He wasn’t one of our star football players; in fact he probably didn’t get on the field a whole lot on Friday nights. But … (he) played very hard every day. He was a very reliable young man that gave it everything he had and he always did things the right way. He was just a good kid.”
White said he has known the Belz family for years and has a son the same age. The boys grew up playing football.
Belz, he said, played for the Metro Youth Football Association in fourth and fifth grades and played middle school football in seventh and eighth grades. At Kennedy, the coach said, Belz played on the freshman team, then the sophomore team and then in his junior and senior years the varsity team.
White said Belz played running back, “so he sometimes took a little bit of a beating, but he didn’t care. He always just played hard and he never complained. You know, he was part of our team — he was part of our family.”
Additionally, Belz excelled in his classes.
“He was a very smart kid — an (advanced placement) student,” White said. “He was in my government class, which was a senior-level class, as a junior and was the top performer in the class. He was incredibly intelligent and a critical thinker and he did a fantastic job tackling complex topics in the class.”
When Belz graduated high school in 2018, his father said, he joined the Cedar Rapids Head Hunters Rugby Club.
Belz’s death is one of at least six linked to the polar vortex storm that Tuesday started hitting the Midwest.
The Washington Post reported that a man found dead Wednesday outside in a Detroit suburb likely froze to death, according to police. Another man in Detroit also is suspected to have frozen to death, the Detroit Free Press reported. Additionally, three other deaths in Milwaukee, Rochester, Minn., and Peoria, Ill., may have been weather-related, according to The Post.
Temperatures Wednesday morning broke record lows in the Corridor, hitting 25 below zero and besting the record of 22 below set in 1951.
And more record-breaking lows are expected Thursday, according to weather service, with temperatures predicted to reach 29 below zero, which would beat the record low of minus 21 set on the same day in 1996. If temperatures reach 29 below, that would tie the coldest temperature on record for January, which was set on Jan. 15, 2009. The weather service records date to 1893.
A wind chill warning is in effect until 10 a.m. Thursday. While most K-12 schools in the Corridor again canceled classes for Thursday, state universities including the UI will resume classes by midday.
Kennedy High School Principal Jason Kline said grief counselors will be available when the school reopens, and the UI said counselors will be available from 6-8 p.m. Thursday in the Burge Private Dining Room.
“This is a tragic situation,” Coach White said. “Personally I just I can’t help but think of his parents — his mom and dad — and what they must be going through right now. He was such a good kid, such a trustworthy kid, and it’s just awful when young people have their entire lives in front of them and their lives are cut short. It just makes you think and puts a lot of things in perspective.”
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