By Jeremy M. Lazarus, Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press
Enough is enough when it comes to hazing. That’s the message from Virginia State University President Keith T. Miller.
“Outdated rituals performed in the name of brotherly love have no place in building a better world,” Dr. Miller told solemn students, faculty and staff mourning two popular freshmen, Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes, both 19. They drowned April 20 trying to cross the Appomattox River as part of a hazing ritual to join an off-campus club called Men of Honor, which the university has described as unsanctioned and unapproved.
“As a community, as an institution, we will not tolerate” such rituals, Dr. Miller said during the school’s memorial service for the two students last Friday at Daniel Gymnasium, six days after their deaths stunned the campus.
“We must learn the lessons of Jauwan and Marvell to ensure that these young men’s deaths were not in vain,” Dr. Miller said in seeking to give meaning to the deaths of the youths, now among the long list of American college students who have died or suffered injuries from harsh hazing while seeking to join a fraternity, sorority or other group.
VSU, like many schools, has long banned such practices, though here as elsewhere the tradition requiring would-be members to be hazed has proven difficult to eradicate. His serious words mingled with the joyful singing of the VSU Gospel Chorale, which celebrated the two students with upbeat hymns, bringing the 500 people in the gym to their feet to rhythmically clap along in their honor.
Among them: Dionne Williams, mother of Holmes and the only member of either family to attend the program. She was on her feet, hands clapping, head focused upward, singing along to “I’ll Fly Away,” a hymn that chorale director Larry Evans dedicated to her son, a music lover who was preparing to join the 100-member singing group.
“I wanted this to be a celebration of their lives,” Evans said later in explaining his effort to use the music to lift the somber mood. The service appeared to provide relief for many of the students still shell-shocked by the deaths of fellow Trojans whom Miller described as “so full of promise, so full of potential.”
Edmondson, a high school football star in his native Portsmouth, was ambitiously studying to be an electrical engineer, the Rev. Delano Douglas, campus minister, told the audience.
“He was an encourager who would urge others to press on,” Rev. Douglas said of Edmondson, noting that he still had a passion for football and loved dancing. Holmes of York County was preparing for a career in sports management and coaching, Rev. Douglas said.
The teen also loved basketball, sang and played several instruments and had a sunny disposition that made him “the life of the party,” the minister said.
“I still can’t believe they are gone,” said Trayvon Gordon, a fellow freshman, who was grateful the university held the service. “Everyone misses them. We’ve been walking around unable to focus since it happened.”
The two were among seven freshmen who went into the storm-whipped river for a midnight walk in a bid to belong to Men of Honor. The other five managed to scramble back to the riverbank, but Edmondson and Holmes were swept away.
During the service, Dr. Miller and Rev. Douglas acknowledged representatives of state and area police and fire department and campus police and praised them and others in their agencies for their hard work and dedication to the recovery operation. Edmondson’s body was found April 22 and Holmes’ body was recovered April 24 after an extensive search.
Meanwhile, four men linked to the club have been charged with misdemeanor hazing in the wake of the deaths. Among them is the club sponsor, James A. Mackey Sr., 35, an Ettrick restaurant owner and VSU alumnus who played basketball for the school in the mid-1990s. At least two of those facing charges are VSU students.
Those students also are facing university proceedings that could result in their expulsion, officials said after the service.
On Sunday, Edmondson’s life was celebrated again at a Portsmouth funeral. About 500 people joined his family at the tribute service at Saint Mark Missionary Baptist Church in his hometown.
Several of his friends wore the number 5 on their shirts, his number on the Churchland High School football team. “He was a wonderful person,” said Edie Gunter, a family friend. “He was everything you would want in a child.”