Gary DeVercelly Jr., an 18-year-old freshman at Rider University in New Jersey, was known at college as “Cali” because of his laid-back style and California roots.
He died of alcohol poisoning after drinking a bottle of vodka at the Phi Kappa Tau house as part of an initiation ritual. His blood alcohol level was 0.426 percent, more than five times the limit for driving.
That was in spring 2007. His parents have spent the last decade working to prevent other fraternity deaths.
“Gary Jr. was a happy, easygoing, confident and caring young man,” his mother, Julie DeVercelly, emailed from California. “He had a calming presence about him and put the well-being of others before himself. He was a great son, brother and friend. He made me so proud. I miss him every single day.”
Gary Jr.’s death was part of a hazing ritual. He and other pledges were taken into the basement of the fraternity house. They couldn’t leave the basement until each had finished a bottle of alcohol.
Since Gary Jr.’s death, there have been numerous other deaths caused by excessive drinking by fraternity pledges, including the death of Tim Piazza at Penn State, which occurred one year ago Sunday. Piazza was served 18 drinks in 82 minutes and had a blood alcohol level of 0.28 percent to 0.36 percent. He fell down stairs and languished for nearly 12 hours before someone called for help. At least two other fraternity pledges died last year after guzzling alcohol.
Julie and Gary DeVercelly support legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa. (a fraternity member at Bowdoin), and U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. The bill requires colleges that participate in federal financial aid programs to disclose incidents of hazing in an annual security report; report arrests and disciplinary action for hazing; and educate students about hazing.
The North-American Interfraternity Conference, an association of fraternities that represents more than 6,000 chapters on 800 campuses, supports the bill. It is an important first step toward making fraternities safer. But there’s more that colleges and universities should do.
John Hechinger is the author of the new book “True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.” Hechinger, who spoke in Raleigh recently, advocates these steps:
▪ Abolish the pledging, or initiation, period. This is when many fraternity deaths occur.
▪ Ban alcohol from fraternity houses. Most sororities already do this.
▪ Require an adult to live in the fraternity house.
▪ Make information public about each fraternity’s disciplinary history, including hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual assault.
▪ Delay rushing (the recruitment process) so that freshmen have to wait at least until their second semester, as Duke University requires.
Fraternities often volunteer for good causes and provide valuable opportunities for leadership and fellowship. But this is a time of reckoning. In a revealing column for The News & Observer, David Vitek, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who was president of his fraternity, writes that “hazing is extremely prevalent every fall and spring in male Greek communities as new members join fraternities at UNC and at universities, private and public, across the state.” It’s just a matter of time until what happened at Penn State, Florida State and LSU happens in North Carolina.
Vitek writes that fraternities are incapable of reforming themselves. If they are to be made safer, Congress and universities will have to act.
“The nationals have known of these problems for years and have chosen to do nothing except to structure their organizations in ways to protect themselves from legal liability when a tragedy happens,” Gary DeVercelly said. He and his wife agree with the steps recommend by Hechinger.
“Our family is forever harmed,” Julie DeVercelly said. When their son was on life support, Julie and Gary DeVercelly and their two younger children flew across the country to be with their son and big brother, one last time.