Gregory Willoughby Jr.: 'Any person's death diminishes me'

Dateline: Mon 19 Apr 2010

I've been surprised that there has not been more of a public outcry in the wake of the passing of Gregory Willoughby Jr., the 21-year-old Indiana University Wells Scholar and Warren Central grad whose list of accomplishments go on and on.

Willoughby's body was found last Tuesday, April 13, in his room at Wilkie Quad North Tower. He apparently had taken his own life. The door to his room and a bathroom door that he shared with another student were both sealed; his body was found in a closet, with a hand-lettered warning on that door: "Warning H2S." That's the chemical formula for hydrogen sulfide, which is potentially lethal and can kill after a few whiffs; a bucket of it was found on the closet floor.

All this is very troubling, but almost as tragic as the loss of a talented young man is the fact that nobody apparently noticed or reported him missing for seven to 10 days.

Media reports have noted that IU vice president for communications Larry MacIntyre -- a former Star editorial writer -- has raised pointed questions about how on earth that could have happened: how was it that not a single professor or student raised any alarms? How could life have continued its swirl in the dorm, with absolutely no awareness of one person's absence? Don't professors take attendance anymore? Are there no mentoring programs for gifted students?

The Indiana Daily Student reported on April 13 that Willoughby's suitemate "noticed an odor on April 4 and filed a maintenance request." Someone from maintenance checked the following day and suggested the odor was "coming from the trees," the IDS reported; the suitemate later contacted Wilkie's front desk again. Alas, that appears to be the only checking that was done.

Some stories have pointed out that Wilkie is not an especially friendly dorm, that people who opt to live there stick to themselves. One student could only report that Willoughby left his shoes outside his dorm room.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic,  has anyone else thought that Willoughby's death is a 2010 version of the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, in 1964? Genovese's screams and pleas for help went unheeded by neighbors. Much was written about the crime and what came to be called the bystander effect.

All the stories about Willoughby indicate he was fully engaged in life and was a warm, talented, friendly individual. But clearly, something was wrong. Was he in fact terribly isolated, or did he feel isolated? Did that contribute to his death?

What nobody has talked about in a public forum is race. Willoughby was black, and in the past, black and minority students at IU's Bloomington campus have made their displeasure known. Their concerns have ranged from a lack of black role models in the teaching ranks to insensitivity or perhaps cluelessness about cultural differences.

Perhaps these comments are both unwarranted and unwelcome. After all, how can a 63-year-old white woman expect to have any understanding of the life and difficulties of Gregory Willoughby?

In truth, I cannot, but I can ask questions, and in a quiet moment of reflection, in anticipation of his funeral tomorrow at Jerusalem Temple Apostolic Church in Indy, recall the old, useful and very true words of the poet John Donne:

"No man is an island, entire unto itself. Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland. If a clod is washed away by the sea, Europe is diminished, just as if the sea had washed away a mountain or one of your friend's grand houses. Any person's death diminshes me, because I am involved in humankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you."



dc [unverified] said:

I'm not sure why anyone has to babysit anyone 18+ unless they have demonstrated poor decision-making that may harm themselves before. IU is a huge place and college students are often an independent, unpredictable bunch - not sure what the issue is here?? Attendance taking? I have to imagine that is rare these days.

Regardless, RIP Gregory Willoughby Jr. - his forethought of putting up a sign to warn others of danger during his most certainly stressful time shows he was a good person IMO.

2010-04-19 14:12:55

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

DC: the issue is, he was NOT living alone. He was living in a DORM. With paid university staff. And he attended classes and activities--with paid university STAFF.

No, it's not their duty to baby-sit anyone. But human dignity suggests that an odor of that kind should've been discovered much, much sooner. If not for the dignity of the deceased, for the safety of others, given the toxicity of the chemical.

Purdue had a death on their canmpus last year, and it took weeks to find the body. It was ultimately found in a basement power equipment room--the victim apparently electrocuted, after prying his way past a thick door and padlock.

Mr. Willoughby died in his dorm room. If you don't see the problem there, kindly keep your comments to yourself at such a sensitive time.

I'm the parent of an IU senior, and this story shook me hard. I asked my child if the campus was concerned about this. The reply I got: "Not enough."

And so it goes. FYI, DC, attendance is taken in many specialized classes. It's a percentage of the grade.

2010-04-19 14:36:38

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

The unusual "odor" was noticed and reported by a suitemate.

The IU maintenance folks who "checked" said it "came from the trees".

So, who's the idiot here?

2010-04-19 16:07:56

JL Kato [unverified] said:

As one who has lived in the IU dorms, I can attest that offensive odors (especially in the men's dorms) are not uncommon. And even though he lived in a dorm, a student can easily "disappear," no questions asked. I once went an entire semester before meeting two recluses who roomed together next door. And it wasn't unusual for people to be staying elsewhere for long periods of time.

That said, the conditions that allowed a vibrant young man to commit suicide--and mental and scoial--is something that should be examined carefully.

2010-04-19 16:56:19

dc [unverified] said:

As Ms. Cynical noted - it was reported despite doors being SEALED by the person who killed himself.

I'm not sure how I am being insensitive here - I merely asked what the issue was.

From all appearances this poor guy killed himself - why is that the fault of anyone else or the university that no one found his body earlier?

The Purdue student was drunk and made a horrible mistake - ehat does that have to do with this case?

Should college students be issued a biometric medic-alert bracelet as part of tuition? Would they wear it?

My niece goes to IU - I love her dearly but if she kills herself I wouldn't blame IU!

Is there hints of murder here or something? I just don't get it I guess - sorry?

2010-04-19 16:59:18

Robert Knilands [unverified] said:

User was banned for obnoxious trolling and the comment was removed. --Admin

2010-04-19 22:32:33

Rose [unverified] said:

Ruth, I'm glad you posted on this. Whole thing is VERY very disturbing, on so many levels. From the news stories, it seems a lot like he only had friends from high school, and must not have made any proper friends at college. I think that's sad.

I, too, was surprised to see that he was black. He probably didn't have much handed to him on a silver platter and had to work hard for all those accomplishments he had, but somehow, didn't make any real connections in college. Maybe before he killed himself, he was thinking no one would notice right away that he was gone, and that turns out to be true. I think that's extraordinarily sad.

If you're in an off-campus house or apartment, you've hopefully already made some friends, or you're alone because you want to be alone. But if an upperclassman chooses to be in a dorm, it seems kind of like they were seeking out some sort of community. Looks like Willoughby didn't find any sort of community at all, anywhere on campus, and he played in an orchestra and had a job and lived in a dorm. I think it will all happen again, at a campus that large, factory-like, and disconnected. It's not enough to have formal psych services on campus, if you can be dead well over a week an nobody notices that you're gone. In most of the so-called "real world", I think usually if you were missing from work for a week, most likely, someone would notice.

2010-04-19 22:47:06

Rose [unverified] said:

By the way, to Willoughby's family, if you're reading this: Our hearts go out to you, and this is NOT your fault. It would be ordinary and normal in college for a student not to talk to mom and dad every single day, or even every single week. He could have just been busy with things. It's NOT ordinary and normal, though, for a student in college to be dead for multiple days, maybe weeks, and nobody at all notices, and then when they finally do notice, they only notice because of the stench, not because of anyone at all noticed his absence. There's a lot wrong with that picture.

2010-04-19 23:01:14

George Stuteville [unverified] said:

You say it exactly as I see it. Thanks, Ruthie, for posting this. Reminds me in a way about the death of an IU student I covered back in 2001. The core issue was binge drinking and the lack of medical treatment by his friends following a head injury.

2010-04-20 12:18:22

Marycatherine Barton [unverified] said:

Yes, it is good that we acknowledge the loss of one of our youth, to suicide inside a dorm at Indiana University, which was not discovered for a long time, even though classes were in session. Tragic!

2010-04-20 21:33:21

branbresea [unverified] said:

As a member of the family, I am saddened and encouraged by the words I find here.

The point is not to blame IU, but to look at the overall education provided to students in all higher learning institutions. Moving on to college is a difficult time for most young adults. In essence, it is the time of self-discovery. It would behoove our prestigious insitituions to take this into consideration.

Developing our young adults, in all capacities, should be the goal of colleges and universities. It is not merely enough to design curriculum that is challenging. It is equally important to aid in the development of mental and emotional stability. All of these will mold together to create a generation of graduates who are prepared for what the world has to throw at them, both good and bad.

2010-04-21 08:49:24

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

I can only imagine the turmoil this young man suffered before he (apparently) ended his own life.

If IU's residence hall staff can learn something from this tragedy, it will be welcomed.

2010-04-21 09:33:26

John M [unverified] said:

This is a very sad story, and it is disturbing that he perhaps killed himself 7-10 days before anyone figured it out. Still, Mr. Willoughby was a 21-year old adult man who was nearing the end of his third year at IU, not a wide-eyed freshman. When I was a student at IU, Willkie was a typical dorm, mostly populated by freshmen with a smattering of sophomores. When I graduated in the mid 1990s, Willkie was closed for a couple of years while it was renovated into apartments for two to four students (and a smaller number of single rooms with with shared bathrooms, which is where Willoughby lived). Freshmen are not allowed to live at Willkie, and per the IU website students must have lived at least two semesters in a "traditional" dorm to live there. Another significant tidbit from the website is that Willkie does not have RAs, but rather has elected floor presidents.

The creation of the current iteration of Willkie was for the express purpose of providing an alternative to off-campus apartments, where students have absolutely no structure or oversight outside of their interaction with faculty. It seems to me that Willkie is better considered as an on-campus apartment building than as a "dorm." The people who live there are upperclassmen who want the benefits of living on campus (proximity, price, meal plan, etc.), but also don't necessarily want to deal with the hand-holding of an RA as would be (and should be) the case in freshman-dominated dorms. Any parent whose (adult) offspring lives in Willkie and believes that his offspring is in a traditional dorm where he will be under the constant supervision of residence hall staff is sorely mistaken, as is obvious from a cursory review of IU's website.

Further, the implication seems to be that the failure to discover his body establishes that his suicide could have been prevented. That's possible but far from established. Seemingly happy people, including middle-aged adults, students at small, close-knit colleges, and high school students who live with attentive parents, commit suicide. That he was a college junior and was living in a single room without much of a connection with a suite mate, and that none of his friends or family reported him missing, suggests that he was a loner. Wells Scholars, for those who don't know, are the cream of the crop at IU, roughly the top 20 of the ~8000 freshmen admitted in a given year, and they are required to maintain a 3.4 to stay in the program. Students at this level of intelligence/achievement can be a bit different. I don't know if he was, and I'm surprised that there isn't more of a connection between Wells Scholars and the program directors. Still, the Kitty Genovese comparison seems specious. We don't know if there were any cries for help. Sometimes, unfortunately, there aren't big lessons to be learned. What can be done to prevent suicides like this? Telling other 21-year old superstar students that they can't be loners?

2010-04-21 10:38:23

IUProf [unverified] said:

The conditions that led to this should definitely be examined, but likely will not. DC - IU should be a community and it is not about blame but trying to alleviate such suffering. I take attendance regularly and would definitely report a student who didn't show up for several class periods, however my classes are small (21 students or less). Some classes have more than one hundred students and it could easily slip the instructors notice.

I also know that IU has a racially insensitive environment, sometimes openly hostile but more often it is more subtle exclusion and the campus talks about diversity but has not taken any real steps to educate themselves or the community about what that means.

As an African American professor, I would not recommend the campus to any person of color based on my experience there. It can be too traumatizing. It has been for me.

2010-04-21 17:38:00

SaddenedIUStudent [unverified] said:

I am a Junior at Indiana University, and I must say that many of you believe that we don't really care, but I am here to tell you that I do care, and although I did not know this student, I feel deeply saddened by the loss. For the first few days after the incident, it made me sick to commute to Bloomington, and the fact that I have to walk by Wilkie every day to get from where I park to campus makes it worse. I know two people who live on the floor in Wilkie where Gregory lived and they both said they didn't really know the student. Wilkie's doors are much like hotel doors, they have to use key cards, rather than keys, and the doors shut and lock behind them. With that being said, I do know someone who lived on the same floor with Gregory freshman year and he said that he was a very nice, kind person who always had a smile on his face and would be up for anything.

I would agree with the person who said that it is not uncommon for a student to stay elsewhere for any amount of time. I stayed with my best friend in a different dorm building for much of my second semester during my freshman year and wouldn't go to my room for weeks at a time.

All I am trying to say is that you really shouldn't blame the university for what happened and you should all stop debating and just mourn the loss of a very talented young man. The life of a person should not be debated over, it should be mourned and remembered in the best way possible.

2010-04-24 13:04:23

Robert Knilands [unverified] said:

User was banned for obnoxious trolling and the comment was removed. --Admin

2010-04-24 15:32:14

Rose [unverified] said:

Robert? You're not making much sense. You're not offering any solutions. And I think you must have far too much time on your hands, as well as an anger management problem.

2010-04-24 21:25:26

Robert Knilands [unverified] said:

User was banned for obnoxious trolling and the comment was removed. --Admin

2010-04-25 15:36:33

Rose [unverified] said:

Yeah, discussion on this same blog also degenerated in a really boring way a couple weeks ago:

2010-04-25 16:36:06

Robert Knilands [unverified] said:

User was banned for obnoxious trolling and the comment was removed. --Admin

2010-04-26 00:39:19

Jocko [unverified] said:

Thanks for your thoughts about this tragedy. My 23-year-old daughter just lost a former classmate to suicide who also had nothing but a bright and promising future before him.

No one saw it coming, and everyone is left asking how that could be.

2010-04-28 15:24:35

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