On the short good life George Desdunes

I didn’t know George DesdunesGeorge Desdunes, though now I wish I’d had the privilege. He was a friend of acquaintances who sent out emails in March to lists of people who might want to know he had died and to provide details about his funeral. Those emails were among many others I barely noticed at the time. This afternoon I ran across those emails again while looking for something else, and I became curious. The emails said nothing about who he was and why he died, so I looked him up.

Turns out George was a nineteen-year old sophomore at Cornell when he died during a fraternity hazing event. The university has since rescinded recognition of the fraternity, and George’s mother has sued the fraternity for $25 million, naming twenty fraternity members in the lawsuit. According to that last story, in The Cornell Daily Sun,

Desdunes participated in a mock kidnapping before his death, court documents state. He and another SAE brother were taken to the townhouse apartments on North Campus by several pledge members, and they had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. The two were quizzed about “fraternity information and lore,” and when they answered incorrectly they did exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the documents state.

After his death, authorities discovered Desdunes’ blood alcohol level was 0.35, according to court documents related to the criminal charges. However, Andres’ lawsuit states that her son’s blood alcohol level was 0.409. By comparison, the legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.

By all accounts (here’s one) George was the kind of kid anybody would like to have as a son, a friend, a mentor: smart, caring, friendly, a good student and athlete… the list goes on. (My second-degree acquaintance with him comes through the camp he attended for a number of years before serving as a counsellor in the last summer of his life.)

One reason I went to a college without fraternities was that I had already endured enough hazing at the boarding school I attended as a teenager. While I know fraternities can be a lot of fun, and that they yield lifelong friendships and support networks, I also believe they formalize social exclusion and (in some cases) cruelty rationalized by tradition.

All I said in the last sentence is arguable, of course; but that’s not what I’m after here.

What I’m after is remembering something more than the story of a young man who died for no good reason (plus a number of bad ones). What I want us to remember is the moral philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut, the author and soldier who survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of War during WWII (and whose forced labor required pulling burned bodies from the smoking rubble). Vonnegut summarized that philosophy in just two words: “be kind.”*

Being kind is not at the core of most academic curricula at the college level, much less of fraternity hazing ceremonies. But among our many contradictory human natures, no moral imperative is more essential to our well being, and to the persistence of all that is good in the world.

Kindness is a grace without which George would not have become the good guy he was. That he died for lack of it is less important than what he had of it, and what the rest of us still need to enjoy, and to practice.

* Kurt Vonnegut’s full dictum (from God Bless You Mister Rosewater, his funniest book) is “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Elsewhere, however, he boils it down to those last two words.


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  1. lurkerfan’s avatar

    Thanks for this. Vonnegut’s wisdom cannot be repeated too often. My husband and I could never have afforded sorority/fraternity dues in our college days, and I’m happy that my three children had no interest in them, and so far, neither have any of our grandchildren. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of their down side.

  2. Sally’s avatar

    Thank you. I’ve known George since he was 7. He was the kinda kid you’d want your daughter to marry. Everything promising and good was wrapped up in him. Adorable and little nerdy when he was a boy, you just wanted to give him a hug when you saw him. He grew to be tall and quite handsome a giving spirit and just all around nice guy. We were devastated to learn that he died and how he died. Interestingly enough the very thing that made him so special was the very thing that probably killed him. His kindness, caring and trust in people. There’ll all ways be a special place in my heart for Georgie.

  3. George Starks’s avatar

    Our hearts go out to the Desdunes family. We lost our son Michael in November 2008 in a mirror tragedy at Utah State University’s Sigma Nu Fraternity. National hazing experts say, time and time again, that the strongest defense against similar tragedies is successful and large civil settlements against the fraternities and schools. Blameless rhetoric spills forth readily and uncomfortably easy. As a capital-based society, winning humongous judgedments against the principal players best addresses this ongoing tragedy of indifference and apathy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the George Desdunes family. Other families who have suffered through similar heartache know your pain. We are behind you and support you.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Sally and George. When I ran across those old emails, I saw a story that lacked its own central character, and wanted to bring at least that back to life.

    I hope the lawsuits work. And I think there’s a better chance of that if people know who George was. Michael too.

  5. Serkan’s avatar

    Thanks Sally. Good Write

  6. Daniel E. Honig’s avatar

    I find myself at your website today by random choice and then fumbled upon this post. I read this and the message of, BE KIND, at a time I needed to hear this. Be KIND, can we shout it from the rooftops? At this time I have realized not everyone plays by the same be kind philosophy. Can you imagine the world if we paid attention to this message?

    I hope his mom can some how find peace and her lawsuit will help change the hazing issues we currently face.

  7. Marie Ysais’s avatar

    It has been a while since I have been able to read your blog! Why am I not surprised to read it on the day I need to hear the words……Be Kind.
    What a great message and yet sometimes we see so little kindness.

    What a tragic loss for this family! My prayers are with them as they navigate the system and seek justice for their son.

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