Chuck Stenzel; a life too short… a quick 35 years later

Eileen Stevens is one of my American heroes, and if her son, Chuck,  had not come from Long Island, New York to go to college in Crete, Nebraska, I would have never met her. Chuck was a handsome, fun-loving young man with thick wavy blond hair, blue eyes which always contained a sparkle and a killer Long Island, New York accent sure to melt any midwestern girls heart. Chuck and I were freshmen together at Doane College; a tiny liberal arts college just a half hours drive from Lincoln, Nebraska. There were only 650 students attending Doane in 1975, which meant there were only 160 students in tne entire freshmen class. It was definitely a school where everyone knew eveyone, although you really got to know the folks who lived in the same dorm or in the dorm next door. I lived in a women’s dorm and Chuck lived next door in the co-ed dorm.

 

Eileen Stevens is one of my American heroes, and if her son, Chuck,  had not come from Long Island, New York to go to college in Crete, Nebraska, I would have never met her. Chuck was a handsome, fun-loving young man with thick wavy blond hair, blue eyes which always contained a sparkle and a killer Long Island, New York accent sure to melt any midwestern girls heart. Chuck and I were freshmen together at Doane College; a tiny liberal arts college just a half hours drive from Lincoln, Nebraska. There were only 650 students attending Doane in 1975, which meant there were only 160 students in tne entire freshmen class. It was definitely a school where everyone knew eveyone, although you really got to know the folks who lived in the same dorm or in the dorm next door. I lived in a women’s dorm and Chuck lived next door in the co-ed dorm.

 

I am not sure how Chuck and I met at the school; my initial hang out was always the pool hall at the school. I had learned how to play pool on my parents pool table and simulaneously learned how satisfying it felt to beat my older brother’s friends. My confidence around a pool table cracked the new kid on the block barriers as I demonstrated my skills amongst the male dominated zone at the college. There was at least one other girl that hung out in the pool hall and we became fast friends. For some reason, it was the long hairs of the school who hung out in the pool hall, so they became my first friends. I especially recall tall, Dave Goertz who had wavy red hair down to his butt and a heavy set guy with wild hair to his shoulders. The pool hall buddies took me under their wing and we stayed friends as long as I attended Doane. I recall Dave coming back from summer vacation and telling me how he and his siblings survived a small plane crash while tragically, their father, the pilot was killed. That was the day I knew I was never getting in a small plane, ever.

 

The coed dorm was way more fun than the women’s dorm; duh. There was always wild stuff happening at their dorm and I seemed to spend much of my free time there. Early on in the semester, Chuck and I started dating, which on a small campus, meant you hung out together at parties. Chuck didn’t party to the extent that I did, it was the 70;s after all, didn’t everyone smoke pot back then? He didn’t even drink alcohol. Chuck’s best friends; Jimmy and Mike drove down from Long Island to visit him twice that semester. His two friends and I hit it off great and they knew how to party. So when they came to visit, I would party with them and hang out with Chuck. One of his  buddies even made the attempt to teach me how to skateboard; let’s just say, he was good at catching me before I fell.  An embarrassing antic that ended up costing me part of a tooth was the result of our making poor decisions while under the influence of multiple mind altering substances. Someone at the dorm party had taken the heavy. metal,  red, round fire alarm cover off the wall and Chuck’s friends and I decided to do our good deed and put it back up on the wall. This involved me balancing while standing, with my feet on two sets of interlocked hands, and reaching  up with the heavy metal object in an attempt to replace it on the wall. Maybe someone lost their balance, maybe someone wobbled; the end result was a heavy metal object crashed onto my mouth and chipped off a corner of my top front tooth, leaving a bit of red paint on the remaining tooth.  I was devestated and so embarrassed to have a broken tooth. I was slightly inconsolable, it was such a bummer.  My mother had to come and get me the next morning and take me to the dentist and somehow everyone bought the yarn I told about how I chipped my tooth on a red metal cup.

 

Chuck used to tell me all about his life in Sayville, Long Island. He told me all about the ocean and the  process of raking for clams; an activity he had done most of his life during the summers. He talked about all his female conquests at his high school and gave me a really hard time for holding the virgin line with him.  I knew I didn’t just want to be another notch on his belt, and this didn’t jibe with my ideal (or my parent’s ideals) of waiting until I was married. I think when my dad had sat me down to give me his “ideals” talk, he was attempting to make up for my older siblings, who either never got the talk or ignored the talk. I was the only one in the family to go off to college and to live away from home in a dorm, so I knew my dad got it that his influence over me was quickly coming to an end. So he gave it the college try, literally.

 

Regardless, I got it that while I thought I loved Chuck, I could tell he loved Long Island more than me and that he couldn’t resist the tug to go back there. He was so homesick, always bemoaning how much he missed his little sister and perhaps other siblings ( 35 years later, it is difficult to recall completely). He missed his mom and his 2 buddies and I was not enough to keep him in Nebraska. So I knew that Chuck was not going to last at Doane. We did keep in touch by letters for a short while, but then our lives kept moving away from one another and the letters stopped entirely.

 

I continued at Doane my sophomore year and in my junior year, I did a semester abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. Once I returned from Europe, I received the Doane College summer newsletter which had death notices of alumni and there was the announcement of Chuck’s death.  I was stunned and so sad. Chuck’s best friends had given me their addresses before they had left Doane for the last time, so I wrote them both to ask why Chuck had died. Neither one of them answered my letter, but one of them forwarded my letter to Chuck’s mom. It wasn’t long after that, that I received a manilla envelope from her, filled with newspaper clippings which described how Chuck had been killed in a fraternity hazing incident in upstate New York, at Alfred University. “He was kidnapped from his dorm, locked in a car trunk in freezing weather with the other pledges, and forced to consume a lethal mix of bourbon, wine and beer. Chuck was dead within hours due to acute alcohol poisoning and exposure to cold. Other pledges were hospitalized but fortunately they lived.”   What a tragic loss of such a bright spirit. I could not imagine his family’s pain. Eileen Stevens and I began exvchanging letters and we also spoke on the phone. She created an organization to combat college hazings and their resultant tragedies.”Her story is detailed in Broken Pledges, a book by author/journalist Hank Nuwer. Mrs. Stevens’ story has been told in PeopleNewsweek,RedbookMcCallsUS and she has been a featured guest on Oprah, 20/20, The Today Show, Good Morning America and Phil Donahue”. Eventually, anti-hazing laws were passed in the majority of the U.S. (the quotes are from www.stophazing.org ) Unfortunately, hazing and it’s tragic results continue to this day in colleges and universities across the U.S.

 

I was not surprised to receive my annual Christmas card from Eileen Stevens this year. Nor was I surprised to see her annual request, “please tell me what you’ve been up to.”  I had not yet gotten around to replying to her annual request when I was surprised by yet another card from her.  This one contained the photo below, which was taken when I went to Long Island in 1979 to visit Chuck’s family and friends. I was going to grad school in New Hampshire, so it was an easy drive to Long Island from NH. It was a pleasant visit and I really enjoyed re-connecting to one of Chuck’s friends.  The following summer, I travelled to Nebraska to meet Eileen at Doane College, so she could see where Chuck had gone to school and share her message against hazing.

In this second card, Eileen informs me that it has been 35 years since Chuck’s death. I am amazed by how much time has gone by already and I am buoyed by knowing my fond memories of Chuck are still quite crisp, which speaks volumes about what a special, loving and memorable person he truly was. My life still remains enriched for having known him.