Hank Nuwer shares the story behind his story …
My personality was formed by the two sharply different worlds I inhabited until I was twenty, when I left home to make a living as a struggling writer. I lived in tough Buffalo, New York, neighborhoods during the week and on my grandparents’ farms on weekends, about a thirty-minute drive away from the city.
My boyhood was spent in two cultures, Polish on my mother’s side, German-speaking Alsatian on my father’s. My blood kin taught me the world was a fierce, dangerous place and you were safer if you stayed between your own fence posts.
Grandfather Josef, my mother’s father, had deserted from the Russian army that conscripted him, escaping an otherwise long sentence marked by abuse and hazing. He ran with bullets spraying his heels with dirt, he told me.
My father had seen death, way too much. As the driver of a tank he nicknamed “Lonely” under General Patton in World War Two, he lost his best buddy to an exploding shell while they were relaxing. Uncle Norman, my dad’s kid brother, died trying to get his stalled car off train tracks. My dad’s young sister fell from a barn loft and perished in front of him. Grandfather Henry, my dad’s dad, crippled his back in a farm accident. Uncle George and Uncle Louis destroyed their reputations and health with drink, but they pampered me and made me feel special.
Thus, I saw life’s ferocity and its gentle side, developing a wanderlust that never left me.
During the week I fought city bullies and future felons with fists, rocks and ice chunks; I survived a sexual assault attempt by a pederast who punished my resistance by slamming my own Ted Williams-model baseball bat against my chest and arms. On weekends, in contrast, I accompanied my parents to the family farms. These fields of play and rest were my refuge where the thugs of the city dare not enter.
Given that background, it took a set of unusual circumstances while I was a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno to propel me toward writing four books on hazing—with a fifth nearly completed.
As former president of the Graduate Student Association and as an athlete active in intramural sports, I acquired a number of acquaintances and friendships with members of a subrosa UNR social club called the Sundowners, a large, rowdy but talented bunch of students with strong alumni ties. Mainly athletes, they valued toughness and their hazing initiation required new initiates to consume vast quantities of grain alcohol, beer and whiskey.
I saw one drunken initiation on campus as a passerby and another by accident at a campus bar a few doors down from my then-home. In the second case, I saw an initiate foam at the mouth and I persuaded older members to walk him through the night until he regained his senses. (If given a second opportunity I would do that and call 911 for help).
The Sundowners held a third initiation that I did not see and planned to dump inebriated pledges at remote Pyramid Lake far from campus. Instead, the members found a giant named John Davies had died and another initiate had brain damage. Members pretty much skated on criminal charges and a subsequent lawsuit.
The death of John Davies spurred me to study the literature on hazing and the very little available appalled me. As a journalist I set out to demonstrate the role bystanders can play in hazing intervention, and I chronicled hazing behaviors such as alcohol use, savage beatings, drop-offs in the country and more recently, sexual assault by teens, a topic given much attention in my book High School Hazing (Scholastic).
In two decades since the first hazing book, my words have inspired a small but important national movement to abolish dangerous hazing practices. I was proud when a Greek advisor at Penn State called to say that a young sorority woman who heard me speak had made the decision to save a young woman’s life from a drug overdose by calling 911. I was prouder still when HazingPrevention.org created the “Hank Nuwer Antihazing Award” to recognize people striving to end the demeaning practice.
I never planned to make hazing the subject of my most important books, but my journalistic writing on hazing has become my true calling. In particular, my book Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing has inspired hundreds of letters to me by young people who were inspired by the life of Eileen Stevens, an ordinary housewife who became a hazing crusader following the death of her son Chuck in a hazing at Alfred University.
I end every talk on college campuses with a few memorial words honoring John Davies, the young man whose death inspired me to put words on paper.
His death occurred 37 years ago, but it is as raw in my memory as the night I learned he paid the ultimate sacrifice for a wrong of passage.
What is the take-away message for the kids reading me today? To stand up for what is right. To connect with their communities and environments in a way that honors those groups and respects the individuals who cherish one another’s values and principles. To show that one determined individual can sway an organization for good or bad.
One could not wish for a better legacy.
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