Everybody liked Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr. He was smart, funny, handsome, a gifted athlete and a talented performer. In his senior year at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, "Gordie" was co-captain of the varsity football team and started on defense for the school's New England championship lacrosse team.
At graduation, he received the "Class of 2004 Award of Excellence in Drama" for his memorable performances in the academy's musical and dramatic theater productions. He was excited to be going to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he had enrolled in the Leeds School of Business. He was a loving son, a cherished brother and close to his family, including his aunt in Pittsburgh, Kitty Hillman, and cousins Dan and Scott.
With such a promising future, no one could have predicted that Gordie, always the life of the party, would be found dead just three weeks after he arrived on campus.
With 26 other Chi Psi fraternity pledges, he was blindfolded and taken to the Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest on a "bid night" outing. The young men were encouraged to drink four "handles" (1.75 liter bottles) of whiskey and six (1.5 liter) bottles of wine in 30 minutes. "No one is leaving here until these are gone," they were told. Visibly intoxicated when he returned to the fraternity house, he was left to "sleep it off" for 10 hours. The next morning he was found dead, face down on the floor. Authorities said no one called for help.
"There's a line drawn in your life, before and after that call," says his mother, Leslie Lanahan, who lives in Dallas. "I can barely remember anything except scrambling to figure out what to do next. To lose a child is so devastating it takes a long time to even believe it. We just hit five years and unfortunately I now believe it and relive it every day."
It took about two weeks for the toxicology reports to confirm that Gordie had died from alcohol poisoning. One of the things his mother regrets most is that she focused so much during his high school years on the dangers of drinking and driving, never on the fact that drinking alone can kill.
"We were just so surprised that this could happen to someone like Gordie, and we thought that if it could happen to him it could happen to anyone," she says. "We did some research and found that it happens quite a bit. Just a week after Gordie died, a boy died the same way in Oklahoma."
So far this year, more than 3,600 underage youths have died from alcohol-related incidents. About 1,700 of them, like Gordie, died after binge drinking. The tragedy for Mrs. Lanahan, her husband Michael, Gordie's father, Lynn Bailey, and his wife, Claire, is that Gordie's death was preventable.
In January 2005, they started the Gordie Foundation to educate people about the dangers of alcohol and hazing. Today the Gordie Foundation's Circle of Trust has chapters on 150 college campuses, with Robin Wright Penn as the honorary chair. It has National Gordie day on Sept. 24, when, among other activities, green flags are planted representing every student killed by alcohol.
What difference has the activism of Gordie's family made? In the aftermath of his death, an investigation was held.
"All the kids got lawyers and all the fraternity brothers were instructed not to speak to the media or the police, which I understand is standard," Mrs. Lanahan says. "The school and the national fraternity said we're going to do a full-blown investigation and get to the bottom of this. It never really happened. The law in Colorado, like a lot of states, is very ambiguous. Without finding restraints and a funnel, they could not prove hazing, so the charge is providing alcohol to a minor, which is a misdemeanor."
The fraternity boys involved were required to do some community service, and ultimately the chapter was closed at the University of Colorado. "It was so maddening -- that subtle peer pressure to be a good pledge, a super pledge, was just not acknowledged. There's a lot of that in pledging, of putting people into dangerous situations."
But since then, Chi Psi has admitted that hazing of its pledges in the fall 2004 contributed to Gordie's death. Among other things, it has agreed that alcohol will be prohibited from all pledging activities, alumni will be present at all formal pledging activities, clear policies regarding hazing will be distributed to all pledges and their parents, risk management education will be provided to pledges and Chi Psi will advocate a national policy of deferring rush until spring of freshman year.
"We believe these changes will not only serve as a model for other national Greek organizations, but will also save lives and help create a safer fraternity experience," says Mrs. Lanahan.
The foundation has also made a documentary called "Haze: The Movie," which is available in an edited high school version. The film goes underground to look at hazing and interviews experts in the field.
"We have gotten so many nice letters and stories from families thanking us because of our movie, or hearing about Gordie's story, or a daughter called 911 for a friend or they thought twice about how much they had to drink when they were out," says Ms. Lanahan. "Those stories are heartwarming but heartbreaking at the same time. You just wish somebody had done that for Gordie."
To contact the Gordie Foundation go to www.gordie.org.
Marylynn Uricchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1582. First Published November 3, 2009 5:00 AM