Joe Dado’s Death, Five Years Later

“It is the doom of men that they forget.”

Ask any student walking around campus these days who Joe Dado was and you’ll probably receive a lot of shrugs. The transient nature of the Nittany Valley has turned the biggest Penn State story in the immediate years pre-November 2011 into a mostly forgotten memory, with only the few remaining sixth-year seniors still here when the freshman in a gray hoodie was found dead on campus after a 30-hour search that changed the community forever.

Yesterday marked five years since Dado was found dead on Penn State’s campus. I remember following the story with intense interest an hour away at my high school in Williamsport, having just sent off my application to Penn State three weeks prior. The fallout was immediate — who could ever forget the Indiana Pacers bro’s lament about no longer being able to “get fucking hammered” in the infamous “Death to Greek Life” video — and it changed Penn State forever in ways that students who weren’t witnesses probably can’t realize. The IFC restructured its social policies, making guest lists mandatory and setting restrictions on capacities and alcohol consumption at socials. Penn State began seriously cracking down on underage drinking, with the introduction of then-President Graham Spanier’s 30-point plan to combat Penn State’s No. 1 party school ranking, which included the elimination of senior week and a mandatory $200 BASICS course for anyone caught drinking underage downtown or on campus.

“Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to bring to light some of the issues we face as a university,” current IFC President Dan Combs said recently. “Sometimes, it takes an incident like Joe Dado to bring about positive change.”

And while the university’s vigilance in alcohol policy has changed, many aspects of the student experience have not. Every August, a new crop of wide-eyed freshmen are dropped off at Penn State’s campus, not unlike Joe Dado, and they, too, will begin their walk back to their cement dorms in East Halls after a Saturday night out at a fraternity. Five years later, it’s safe to say the “Death to Greek Life” obituarists got it wrong — the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

I wasn’t here back then, but every time I walk past that ominous stairwell between the Steidle and Hosler buildings, I think about Joe Dado, even if only for a second. I suspect that most students who were here on Sept. 21, 2009, share similar reactions. Because Dado, and his story, deserve to be remembered.

This column published on the two-year anniversary of Dado’s death by Onward State illuminates Dado’s impact on us all better than I ever could. I reprint it here with permission from the author so that Joe Dado’s story may never be forgotten. As a community, we owe it that.

Joe Dado wasn’t the only Penn State student who died two years ago. And no, I don’t mean that metaphorically.

I remember reading a Collegian article that January about a girl who was killed in a car crash over winter break. Unlike the newspaper’s coverage of Joe Dado, though, it wasn’t deemed a front page story. There was just some short blurb thrown somewhere in the middle for filler, in some corner of page nine. There was no candlelight vigil for her, no national attention. She died and this campus didn’t even acknowledge it.

And the really sad thing is that I can’t even remember her name.

Joe Dado’s death wasn’t a story, it was an event. From the initial reports of a missing student to the organized search parties, until the final disheartening conclusion, Penn State, it seemed, could focus on nothing but that wide-eyed freshman in the yellow t-shirt. It permeated beyond State College, where thousands searched every corner of the town–Dado’s story hit the national media.

And though it wasn’t necessarily disingenuous, how we responded to the situation reveals more about Penn State than the fact that one of our own died. How many of us knew Joe Dado? He’d been on campus for all of three weeks. And yet, so many of us were quick to respond–not just with an outpouring of emotion, but taking action, scouring every corner of this campus for days.

The cynic in me would like to believe that this site generated the readership it did during the story because everyone likes a good mystery, and that the spectacle of it all carried the day. And yet the optimist in me would have it the other way–that those emotions were real, and earned, and that the grieving process still goes on to this day.

But does it really? Outside of a select few of us, how many take the time to remember Joe Dado as anything if not a catalyst for university actions against alcohol? For his friends, his sisters, his cousins, the loss of a friend and a brother leaves a gaping hole in their lives. But for the rest of us? Life goes on. We might have pledged to be better people in his honor, but I haven’t noticed a palpable change in the past two years. That year, Penn State was selected as the #1 party school in the country, and since then, well, we might have dropped ever so slightly in the rankings, but the culture hasn’t changed, not one bit. Some of us still take our first visit to the ER for alcohol poisoning as a cause for celebration, a rite of passage.

We justify it to ourselves. We say that there’s no chance that what happened to Joe Dado could happen to us. And there’s a kernel of truth to that statement. It was a tragedy, that’s undeniable, but it was a fluke. The reports were that his BAC at the time of death was .169–well above the legal limit, but not much above the average Friday night for most of us. And apparently, it was caused by falling off a high brick wall–and why he was up there, unfortunately, we’ll never know.

But at that moment, we cared. Not because someone died, but because it could’ve been us. Because we, too, pregame at a friend’s apartment, then go to the frats, and walk home alone at 3 in the morning. But most importantly, we cared because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen at Penn State.  Who can remember a situation even somewhat analogous? We’re Happy Valley, for crying out loud. There’s no happiness in death, in the morbid curiosity some of us still have about that night. There’s no happiness in writing this post, and remembering those days.

Of course, it’s certainly better than the alternative, and simply forgetting them. Because if there’s one legacy that Joe Dado’s death should have had on this university was the spirit of togetherness it fostered. He might’ve been new here, but he was one of our own. It’s not just a chant at football games–when we sayWe Are Penn State, we mean it. There is a unity here, a solidarity that is unmatched anywhere else.

If you’ll allow me to indulge my own sociology background, Emile Durkheim wrote of means for building a stronger society. Solidarity was his term, and it’s created through regulation and integration. The first is that set of rules we all follow, and the latter, the set of experiences and memories we all share. It’s why Glenn Beck preaches about “9/12,” and bringing America back to where we were the day after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Those trying times are supposed to bring us closer together. There’s no doubt that Joe Dado’s death did just that.

And that brings us back to the beginning. Why did we rally around one death and ignore another? Why will those of us who were here two years ago honor Joe Dado today with a silent reminder, and tell his story to those who weren’t?  Why do we practice this selective memory? Why is there a subconscious on/off switch that tells us when we should care and when we ought not to?

Frankly, because it’s convenient. Because carrying the burden of Joe Dado with us always would be too heavy, too distracting. And because we try to avoid acknowledging the truth of the matter–that he probably should have known better, that thousands of us do every weekend–it makes us feel heartless and callous, and we can’t have that.

Any of us could die in a car crash. That’s why we don’t romanticize it. But there’s only one Joe Dado.

And the sooner we all stop to acknowledge that, to understand just what it tells us about ourselves, the better.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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