By Julia Ernst and Kristie Kahl
This piece reflects the opinions of two Rider graduates who were students at the time of DeVercelly’s death.
In March 2007, I was a freshman at Rider. I lived in Poyda, the same building as Gary DeVercelly. I had never met him, but my roommate had hung out with him a few times at parties in our building. Waking up in Poyda on the morning of March 29 — the day before he died — was something I’ll never forget. For the first minute or two, the morning was no different than any other — my roommate and I got up and got ready for Thursday morning class — but then I left Poyda to go to class. The Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house was roped off with police tape.
The details of the day are hazy now, five years later, of course, but I do remember how confusing everything was. It wasn’t clear right away what had happened. Both DeVercelly and William Williams, another student who had been pledging the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, were in the hospital at Capital Health. Williams was released late in the day on Thursday. DeVercelly died on Friday. I remember how uncomfortable it was for me and my roommate to live in the building that he had lived in — it didn’t really mean anything, of course, but nonetheless it was upsetting and unsettling for both of us.
I graduated from Rider with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, which is probably why some of the details from those few days that I remember most vividly revolve around the media’s coverage of the tragedy. I remember being in awe of Mike Caputo, Lauren Varga and the rest of the 2006-2007 The Rider News staff, who had an entire April Fool’s issue set and ready to go that they wiped and re-did, in its entirety, in less than 18 hours. And it was the only time in my life, since fifth grade, when I decided I wanted to be a journalist, that I questioned my eventual profession. The media just swarmed campus — there were news vans everywhere, kids were being ambushed on their way out of the memorial the campus held in Gill Chapel, and virtually all of the news media around the country were talking about Rider. Our pictures were plastered all over the newspapers, televisions and Web pages as we mourned as friends of DeVercelly and as a campus as a whole. I even had a relative from northern California, seven or eight hours away from where DeVercelly was from, call me to ask what was going on at my school, with this tone of confused disgust in her voice.
That became the norm for a while, for the students at Rider — “Oh, you go to Rider? That’s where that kid died.” It didn’t matter whether the person was a family member, a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger — that’s the reaction I, and many of my friends, got every time we said where we went to school. As freshmen who were still getting to know our university, it was very disconcerting and confusing.
There are many things about that time that I still struggle with. Of course, a tragedy occurred — someone died, in a horrible accident, at way too young of an age, far away from his parents and the people he had known his whole life. But students die of alcohol poisoning on college campuses every year. Rider became a target — and a part of the conversation about every alcohol-related death on a college campus for many years —because the administrators were charged in DeVercelly’s death. It was the first time ever that administrators were implicated in the alcohol-related death of a student.
All in all, I think the changes to the alcohol policy that came as a result of DeVercelly’s death were a good thing — although I’m not, and have never have been, a big drinker, so I may not have the most knowledgeable opinion. But there are things that happened as a result of Gary’s death that I didn’t — and still don’t — agree with. Even though I was not a member of a sorority, I had friends who were, and the changes and accusations that the Greek community faced after Gary’s death seem, to a degree, unfair and enacted under pressure from the family and the investigation. The administrators that got dragged into the investigation were, in my opinion, unfairly accused — Ada Badgley and Anthony Campbell were at home, off campus, completely unaware of the situation. And Gary’s role in his own death was never talked about, not by anyone aside from Rider students, anyway. I had friends who drank with Gary, who all verified that he knew how to handle his liquor, knew how much was too much, knew his limits. But he kept drinking. I understand that the circumstances of the night — the new members of the fraternity were given their big brothers and the celebrating got out of control — but no one forced Gary to drink. He chose to. And I think that some of the heartache and frustration that the Rider community experienced could have been alleviated if that fact had been acknowledged.
After Gary passed away, it was almost as if people questioned if it was appropriate to still drink, party or generally have fun on campus. Typically the atmosphere on a college campus was upbeat and lively. You walked around the lake to see the fraternity boys drinking on couches outside of the houses, boys on skateboards while the girls laid out to tan, and even hippies playing their acoustic guitars on the grass. At the time of Gary’s death, everyone kind of walked around on eggshells. All the while, many tried to figure out how they felt about the incident. Some were saddened, others confused and many angry that one incident changed Rider forever. Initially, it felt like Rider would never be “fun” again. As a 19-year old freshman, although drinking was not done legally, you still want to enjoy the college experience. And in our freshmen year, that may have included Poyda parties, themed nights at the fraternities, or just enjoying a few drinks with friends in your dorm room. After Gary had passed away, those college memories were exactly that – memories – because Rider had changed, and rightfully so. Ultimately, the Rider experience was what you made it, but with the rules implemented after Gary’s passing, changed the three years that we had left.
Greek life took one of the biggest hits. Not just in a party sense, but in the fact that one of their own had passed away. Although Greeks may not all wear the same letters across their chests, Greek life is a community and one of its members had passed on. Also, after Gary’s passing, the Greek community had to promote that binge drinking was a misrepresentation of the fraternities and sororities, and a positive overhaul of how things used to be done are no longer seen today. Bid days, Big/Little Nights, and the overall pledge process had changed – mostly in the fact that hazing was not to be tolerated and drinking would not be in the mix. Despite the sad incident that brought about these changes, they were needed and ultimately had a positive effect for the Greek community.