‘He was the light of the room’: DePaul graduate mourned by family and friends


Family and friends will remember DePaul graduate Oribi Kontein for his infectious personality, appetite for life, seemingly endless generosity — and bad dance moves.

“He knew what it meant to love and to be loved, and through all his struggles in life, he always put love first,” his wife Maya Sato said. “I think there are a lot of people who learned about love and acceptance from him, and he built a community of such caring and supportive people here because of who he was.”

Kontein’s body was found this past week after going missing in October. Kontein, 26, loved to swim and was last seen on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 26, when surveillance cameras pictured him parking his black 2016 Toyota Corolla at 31st Street Beach and walking west towards Lake Michigan for a dip in the water.

Kontein’s body was retrieved from the lake on Nov. 4 and was officially identified Monday, Nov. 8. The case is currently being treated as a classic drowning.

Kontein had a very active lifestyle; he loved water and the outdoors, and he frequented the lake to swim.

“He was really committed to fitness and personal growth and he was always trying to push himself and find new challenges or adventures,” Sato said.

Sato described her husband as a fiercely motivated and deeply caring man.

“He was just that kind of person who was always trying to show people care and love whenever he could,” she said.

Kontein brought light and happiness to everyone who came into his life.

“He was definitely one of those people that left an impression or memory with every single person he met,” Sato said.

The Nigerian-born Kontein moved to Chicago to attend DePaul on a national scholarship, and he graduated with a degree in sociology in 2017.

“He came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2014 with basically nothing and had to build himself a life from scratch,” Sato said. “He worked so hard just to survive with very little support, and still always found ways to help others and be there for people when they were in need.”

His professors at DePaul remember him fondly.

“He was a stand out student in so many areas and possessed the kind of qualities that you hope and wish for in your students — sharp, eager, curious, and willing to put in the work,” said Tracey Lewis-Elligan, associate professor of sociology.

Lewis-Elligan taught Kontein in a class  on the meanings, continuity and changes of family.

“Oribi would often talk about his experiences growing up in Nigeria and his strong connection to his family,” she said. “He admired his family and often expressed how he wanted to make them proud.”

After DePaul, Kontein’s strong work ethic drove him to go to massage school and start his own practice.

“He was always entrepreneurial and had his own way of thinking and doing things, so it made sense to me that he’d want to be his own boss,” Sato said. “When he got into massage therapy it was clear that he had a talent for it, but it took way more dedication for him to actually make it his career. The way he built a successful massage business all on his own, in just a few years of practicing, was really impressive.”

“Everyone who met or knew him through his massage work knew how driven and talented he was,” Sato continued. “I was so proud of his growth and I know he was proud of how far he’d come… I know it meant a lot to him to feel like he really made it.”

As hard as he worked, Kontein always had fun.

“He was the life of the room,” said Sandra Odigo, who first met him when the group was preparing to leave for the U.S. “There was no time you would not see him smiling.”

Kontein fostered community at DePaul, too, with a strong group of friends. He even met his wife at the school: The couple met when they both worked at the Ray.

“He brought food he cooked to work and he let me try some and I really liked it, and then after that he would bring me extra food to eat almost every day,” Sato said.

Kontein and a group of other Nigerian students lived together in the University Center housing downtown. In the group, Kontein stood out for his love of food. According to one friend, if there was food, Kontein would find a way to be there.

“Sometimes we literally would be like, ‘Oh, are you coming over?’ And he’s like, ‘No, I can’t,’ recounted Odigo. “I [would be] like, ‘But I have food!’ and then he’d be like ‘Okay, okay, I’m coming over.’”

He would later spread this love of food to friends, family and strangers with a regular series of wellness events called Massage Me While I Eat.

Kontein and friend Tena Guwor, a chef, came together for the common goal of “healing bodies and feeding bellies.” At the events, Kontein would offer aromatherapy, message and meditation, while Guwor, a chef, would create a full menu for people to enjoy.

The friends even brought the initiative to homeless shelters in the area, packing food and offering massages for people in an Uptown shelter.

“He was just that kind of person who was always trying to show people care and love whenever he could,” Sato said. “He still found time to do a lot of free work for causes or businesses he cared about too, and that was a big part of his heart.”

Kontein’s “joie de vivre,” humor and enthusiasm were clear in the connections he made with everyone he met.

“He also had a type of energy, especially when he was excited or laughing, that was so bright and goofy that you couldn’t help but laugh or at least smile just from being around him,” Sato said.

“His interactions were guided by kindness,” Lewis-Elligan said. “I witnessed it when he met my two sons, who were young at the time. In the too-brief interaction he lit up their world.”

Above all, Kontein will be remembered for his joy and positivity.

“I think we should all remember for the light that he was, the joy that he brought to us and the happiness that he filled the room with when he got in, with his smile, with his trying to dance, with his enthusiasm,” Odigo said.“To know him is to know happiness at some point.”