Frat boy. Among nonparticipants in Greek campus life, that distinction might conjure comic satire à la “Animal House,” in which good-time guys throw toga parties and food fights. Today, it’s more likely to summon recall of real-life abhorrent behavior rooted in bad judgment and puerile, immature self-interest. Most recently, 18 fraternity members have been indicted in the tragic death in February of a 19-year-old student after he fell several times, and went unaided, following an alcohol-centered rush process. The circumstances of this young’s man death are horrific; the impact on his family, unspeakable. That’s the side of fraternity life about which the general public most often hears.
There’s another side. Until 18 months ago, I was fraternity agnostic, with no significant personal exposure and no strong opinion one way or the other on this particular time-honored approach to male bonding and its less notorious female counterpart. I understood, and continue to understand, calls for the total abolition of fraternities on campuses in light of wholly preventable tragedies. Conversely, I see how frat boys fall into a category with clergy, cops and doctors, the good ones often assumed in concert with the bad.
On Sunday, several members of my family will fly to North Carolina to Wake Forest University, for its commencement on Monday. It’s my nephew Jordan’s graduation. Only Jordan won’t be there; he died in a car accident 18 months ago. His spirit will be there — and his memory.
Unlike an oddly parallel high school case, in Raleigh, N.C., in which a school denied a mother’s request to recognize her recently deceased daughter, Wake Forest invited our family to the commencement, during which Jordan will be awarded a Degree in Memoriam. His parents, Liz and Steve, had reservations about accepting, not only because of the toll it will inevitably take on them. They worried that being there would inject a sadness into what should be a day of pure joy for Jordan’s friends and their families. The school countered that Jordan should be celebrated along with his class. (Parents of the high school sophomore-junior set: If you’d like to see your kids in a highly academic school that lives, rather than gives mere lip service to, “community,” encourage a visit to Wake.)
The university administration, Dean Charles Iacovou of the Business School and Chaplain Timothy Auman, set the tone. But the largest part of a university community is its students, most of whom cluster into groups, whether official or otherwise. Jordan rushed Delta Kappa Epsilon as a freshman, and the fraternity quickly proved a strong, happy base, its sense of “brotherhood” a palpable reality. That’s not to give short shrift to his friends outside of the fraternity; they’ve all been remarkable. But there is power in organized community, and when marshaled for good, it’s uplifting to experience.
On the afternoon of November 5, 2015, after what he felt was a great internship interview at Goldman Sachs, Jordan flew from New York into Charlotte, where he’d left his car. He never made it back to school. The next day, with our family gathered by him at Carolinas Medical Center, Liz said that some of Jordan’s friends were coming to see him; his brothers, Aidan and Desmond, had notified them via social media. An hour or so later, with Liz and Steve in Jordan’s room with his doctors, I exited the family gathering room we’d been assigned to see my niece Nora sitting on the hall floor with about five somber-faced young men. “Jordan doesn’t look like himself,” she did her best to prepare them. How wonderful, I thought, that, almost instantly, these boys dropped what they were doing to make the 90-plus minute trip. They sat, patient in their sadness. As they waited, more kids arrived, and more, until the hallway was packed with young people. I don’t know how many came, 50 maybe, an incredible showing of love and support and community. And of selflessness, which couldn’t have been easy. In the vicinity of 20 years old, you’re not supposed to see one of your own near death. It defies the natural order. The Dekes and others, some boys, some girls, talked to Jordan, to each other and to us. None rushed away.
That powerful memory captures just how much Jordan was loved outside of our family, and how deeply entrenched he was in the Wake community. But it wasn’t the end. For the funeral and after, the Dekes mobilized. I hesitate to name any individuals because I can’t name all, but I know of some who spearheaded specific endeavors — Harrison Messer, Jake Moross, Austin Bauersmith, Grant Wissak. Upward of 100 Wake students attended, including many who flew in from junior year abroad, mostly from London and Madrid. The fraternity, with Nick Brienzi overseeing, launched a YouCaring crowdfunding drive to cover the airfare; one student recruited an airline-employee relative for scheduling assistance. Days after the funeral, before going back to school, a core group of Dekes visited the family at home. As night fell, the boys performed “Wild Horses,” a song with special resonance to the fraternity. In February, the Dekes held an exquisite memorial service on campus that included the dedication of a bench in Jordan’s name. It’s inscription: “Jordan Thomas Bayer, ’17/Forever Compassionate, Forever Brave, Forever Loved/Dedicated by his DKE Brothers/Friends from the Heart, Forever,” the last line the Dekes’ motto. A post-service reception followed at the fraternity house. There, a mural painted by Christian Parfit depicts Jordan as Bambi, one of two nicknames bestowed in recognition of his sweet nature. The other: Baby J.
In October, the Dekes inaugurated a memorial scholarship with a golf tournament, Birdies for Bayer, followed by a reception and auction, planned and overseen to perfection — and great fun — by Austin and Grant. Little more than a week later, on November 6, to mark the first anniversary of Jordan’s death, several students led by Sidney Rivers, a member of Chi Omega sorority, ran the New York City Marathon in his honor, raising more than $24,000 for Memorial Sloan Kettering. They stayed at Jake’s family’s apartment.
Not all of Jordan’s friends are members of the fraternity or its closest sororities. But DKE has centered Wake’s mourning and celebration of Jordan, manifesting the language of community and brotherhood into concrete, proactive deeds — deeds not limited to major group activity. Liz frequently receives “just checking in” texts from Jordan’s friends, as well as visits when Boston-area Dekes are home from school.
On Monday, Wake Forest will graduate its class of 2017. The occasion will mark Jordan’s last known milestone. It may also be the last time that his Deke classmates are all together in one place. Individually, they will continue to grow and, God willing, grow old. Invariably, some will stay close, others will drift apart. Essential memories, like the young adult passions that created them, will recede as the realities of ongoing adulthood — career-building; caring for families — take hold. Some among them will ascend to greatness; all will face challenges to their belief systems and ethics. At times, their better selves will stumble; we all do.
Luckily, they can draw from proven reserves of kindness, fortitude and gumption, egged on by an angel on their shoulder, Baby J. They are Friends from the Heart, Forever.
Congratulations Wake Forest Class of 2017, Dekes and Non-Dekes.
Thank you, Wake Forest Community.