Third-year law student Andrew Katbi died in a car accident Sunday.
Special to the Chronicle
Third-year law student Andrew Katbi died in a car accident Sunday.

Andrew Katbi will be remembered by his passion for learning and dedication to helping others.

Katbi, a third-year student at the School of Law, died Sunday in a car accident on Interstate 77 near the Virginia-North Carolina state border. He was returning to Duke from a camping trip in Virginia when he got caught in a 95-car pile-up and rear-ended a tractor-trailer. Katbi was 24 years old and hailed from Delphos, Ohio. He is survived by his mother, father, sister and girlfriend of five years.

Katbi’s mother and father, Leslie and Tarek Katbi, said their son had been an exceptional child from the time he was born, demonstrating a level of intelligence beyond his years and an immensely caring heart. His father said he began reading at the age of one and a half and, when tested by a psychologist, was found to be “off the charts intelligent.”

But he was not one to keep his knowledge to himself. Both his friends and family noted how wonderful a teacher he was—he always wanted to share what he had learned with those around him and expose others to his passions.

“You would like him immediately. He just came across that way,” said Katbi’s grandfather, Carl Skelly. “He was the finest young man that I’ve ever known. He was my hero.”

Olivia Katbi, his sister, remembered a moment from her childhood she said was indicative of Andrew’s desire to help others. One day, the siblings were playing on a trampoline when Katbi showed his sister that he had learned how to do a backflip. But, instead of bragging about a talent he knew that she did not, Katbi then promptly showed his sister how to do the backflip so she could enjoy the experience as well. “He seemed to grasp that his mental capability was there for a reason,” Tarek Katbi said. “It wasn’t just to improve his own personal life but to actually help others around him.”

Katbi’s wish to help others was instrumental in inspiring him to pursue a legal career, said Leslie Katbi. After interning with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office, where he specialized in death penalty cases, Andrew witnessed firsthand how he could affect social change. He used his experience from the public defender’s office as a launching point to work tirelessly to save the lives of criminals on death row. His mother mentioned that a lawyer from the public defender’s office called them the day after her son’s death to tell the family how Andrew’s research had been an important force in saving the lives of seven to eight clients.

“He didn’t want to go to Duke because of the massive paycheck [he could] get after he got out of school,” his father said. “Andrew really had a math and physics mind, but he also wanted to go beyond the classroom and actually touch people’s lives.”

Although Katbi achieved success in his academic life, he was persistent in his efforts to improve anything at which he was not naturally skilled, Skelly said. He remembered how Katbi, an avid sports lover, struggled with golf. When the grandson and grandfather began playing together, Katbi was frustrated at his initial difficulty at grasping the game.

“He got to where he wouldn’t embarrass himself,” Skelly said. “He was a perfectionist, and he wanted to be the best at whatever he was doing.”

Katbi’s family also stressed how much of a family man he was—always looking out for them and spending time with them when possible. Skelly noted how often he and Katbi texted conversationally.

“Saturday night we were texting back and forth about the Ohio State game. Our goal was to have Duke and Ohio State meet in the next game,” Skelly said. “I texted him on Sunday, and he never answered.”

Katbi attended Ohio Northern University as an undergraduate, graduating with a degree in finance. He planned to practice law in Ohio post-graduation and had taken a position at Baker Hostetler’s litigation department in Columbus, his grandfather said.

All his family members recalled Katbi as a bright, warm, dynamic individual whose presence will be missed dearly by those who knew him and those who did not yet get the opportunity.

“Any situation I had, he somehow knew how to make me feel better—either by talking to me or by looking at me or by going out there and throwing the football with me,” his father added. “He knew how to make us feel good. He had that thing about him.”