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Adam's Legacy: Looking out for others

This article originally appeared in the Gordie Center's 2021 print publication.

Adam Oakes grew up in Northern Virginia as “the baby of the family” — he was the only child of Linda and Eric Oakes and the youngest of three grandchildren by 20 years. “The family saw him as a blessing who became everyone’s baby. He was spoiled rotten with love and affection,” Courtney White, Adam’s first cousin, says. Growing up, Adam spent a lot of time with his grandparents and loved to travel with his parents — whether riding roller coasters for hours at amusement parks or spending time at Sunset Beach in North Carolina. Beach vacations were Adam’s favorite. They represented being surrounded by loved ones and having fun in the ocean or pool. Instead of joining his friends during Beach Week after graduating from high school in June 2020, Adam chose to stay at the beach with his family — he wanted to see his friends, but he didn’t want to risk exposing his family to COVID-19. His dad drove him all the way to his friends’ beach house in Myrtle Beach, SC, but Adam decided not to get out of the car, opting instead to go back to his family’s beach house in NC and hang out with his cousins and grandparents. He was absolutely adored by his cousin’s children, with whom he played on the beach, swam at the pool and in the ocean, and played basketball and video games. The whole family was very close-knit. “When Adam entered the room, we immediately  smiled and were happy to see him…and he was even more happy to see us,” Courtney says of Adam’s interactions with her family.

Adam was always known for his caring and kindness. Eric recalls, “When Adam was 9 years old in 4th grade, he was playing rec league football when a kid he tackled on the other team didn’t get up right away. As is customary, both teams took a knee on the field, but Adam stayed standing. From the sidelines and the stands, it looked like Adam was standing over the injured kid and maybe trash talking him. Adam’s coach got very upset with him and pulled him off the field. I came over to Adam on the sidelines and he was heartbroken — ‘Dad, I hurt my friend! He’s in my math class, so I was just standing there telling him I was sorry, and I hoped he was going to be okay. I didn’t mean to hurt him!’ The injured player was bruised but able to continue playing, and after the game, Adam made a point of going over to apologize to him again. That’s who Adam was…sweet. The type of person who would go up and introduce himself to the new kid in class.” As he grew up, Adam kept that same demeanor and sweet personality.

Adam school picture
Adam's high school senior portrait.
That’s who Adam was…sweet. The type of person who would go up and introduce himself to the new kid in class.
Little Adam at the kitchen table
Little Adam at the kitchen table.

Adam called his tight group of friends “the boys,” and he loved playing Xbox with them. He loved playing games but playing with his friends and talking online meant the most to him, especially during the pandemic when hanging out in person wasn’t possible. His friends were everything to Adam — he was a great listener and always happy to give his honest opinion or advice about any situation. “He was a fun person to be around — upbeat and positive, charismatic, with an infectious smile,” Eric says.

Sports were a huge part of Adam’s life. He played football, basketball, and baseball in various recreational leagues growing up, and volunteered as a coach when his playing days ended. He loved to talk or debate about sports, and he was the commissioner of many Fantasy Football leagues with family and friends. These experiences and overall love of sports influenced his decision to major in sports marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA.Like many college freshmen in the fall of 2020, Adam’s freshman year wasn’t going as planned. The COVID-19 pandemic had pushed all of his VCU classes into an online format, but Adam felt like he would miss out on the full campus experience by living at home in Potomac Falls, VA (2.5 hours north of VCU). Linda and Eric were supportive of Adam’s desire to live at VCU, even though that meant he would be quarantined in his residence hall room, as the university was prohibiting indoor gatherings of students.

He was searching for a group of guy friends like he had back home, so he decided to join a fraternity.

Adam spent the fall and the early spring semester traveling back and forth between VCU and home — sometimes he would go home for a long weekend and stay a few extra days because he was lonely without a social outlet. Adam had a strong group of friends from high school, but he’d always been a homebody, and very close to his parents. Because of the campus pandemic restrictions, “Adam was having a hard time meeting people because he was sequestered in his room doing online classes and studying,” says Eric. “He was searching for a group of guy friends like he had back home, so he decided to join a fraternity.”

Tragically, the decision to join the Delta Chi fraternity at VCU cost 19-year-old Adam his life. On February 26, 2021, Adam attended the Delta Chi Big/Little brother reveal night. The event was his first as a pledge, and along with a few of his friends from high school, he hoped the process would lead to Delta Chi membership. Early the next morning, Adam was found unresponsive in the Delta Chi house where the event was held. When first responders arrived, Adam was pronounced dead at the scene. The medical examiner’s report stated that Adam’s cause of death was alcohol overdose. Courtney released a statement about the medical examiner’s findings that read, in part, “We now have the scientific evidence needed to confirm his death was caused by hazing, specifically the excessive amounts of alcohol the fraternity supplied and pressured him to drink that night at the Delta Chi Big/Little event.”

Adam with friends at VCU
Adam with friends at VCU.
We now have the scientific evidence needed to confirm his death was caused by hazing, specifically the excessive amounts of alcohol the fraternity supplied and pressured him to drink that night at the Delta Chi Big/Little event.
Little Adam and Dad at baseball game
Adam with his dad, Eric, at a baseball game.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Adam was at home with his parents. They knew he was participating in fraternity recruitment, and not knowing anything about the fraternities at VCU, Eric and Linda supported their son’s decision to join. Thinking their only child was safe by joining a chapter that was officially recognized by the campus, they were happy he was trying to make friends, getting out of his residence hall, and breaking out of his shell. During Adam’s zoom interview with Delta Chi, Eric overheard someone ask Adam what he would bring to Delta Chi should they offer him membership. Adam responded that he had given a lot of thought to what he could bring to the group, and that he was great with websites and social media. He felt like he could help them with their online presence. The Delta Chi members responded  enthusiastically to Adam’s answer because their current website guy was graduating that spring, so Adam could fill that need for them. “Adam was really excited to feel like he found a place where he fit and had something to offer,” Eric remembers.

After the interview process in mid-February, Delta Chi offered Adam a bid to join their pledge class. Adam had been at home virtually attending classes, and returned to VCU that week specifically so that he could attend the big/little reveal night event. The day before he went back to Richmond, Adam and his mom went shopping for a suit to wear at upcoming pledge events. Prior to leaving his residence hall to attend the event that Friday evening, Adam was nervous about what the Delta Chi members were planning that night. He was anxious and worried. Courtney says, “We didn’t know what fraternity he was pledging, so we had no information about them. We only knew that Adam was going to learn who his big brother was that night. The big brother was to be his mentor — the person to look out for him, take care of him, show him the ropes, and teach him about fraternity life. That night ended up being Adam’s first and last night as a Delta Chi pledge. No one looked out for him.”

When Adam died, so did a huge piece of us. He was our sunshine.

After Adam’s death, his family learned even more about his character. At Adam’s memorial service, a friend shared a story about a girl sitting on the floor in the hallway of their high school. She was crying, and students bustled around her to get to class. When Adam saw her, he stopped and sat down next to her — he didn’t know her, but Adam told his friends to go ahead to class without him so that he could sit with her until she felt better. That’s just who he was. Courtney says, “He never left without hugging you goodbye and saying, ‘I love you.’ His last text to me was just that, ‘I love you.’ That’s the type of kid he was — he wanted you to know how he felt about you, no questions asked.”

His death devastated the entire family, especially his mom and dad. Eric shares, “When Adam died, so did a huge piece of us. He was our only child and a true gift from God as we thought we couldn’t have children. He was our sunshine. His death has ruined our lives and left a huge hole in our hearts that will never be repaired. We miss him so much! How do you go on without the light of your life?” Adam’s family quickly formed the Love Like Adam Foundation to keep his memory alive while also doing good for others. Their foundation will award 3 annual scholarships to students from Adam’s high school who mirror Adam’s characteristics and traits — students who may not have a 4.0 GPA, but are kind and good to other people. They also want to share Adam’s story to equip graduating seniors and their families with a better understanding of the pressure’s students face during the transition from high school to higher education. The family is lobbying to change Virginia’s hazing law from a misdemeanor to a felony to deter hazing as well as hold those who haze more accountable for their actions.

Adam with parents
Adam with his mom and dad, Linda and Eric.
Nobody should fear for their life to gain entry or acceptance into a fraternity, sorority, or any other type of club.
Adam and Courtney
Adam with his cousin, Courtney White.

Adam’s family connected with the Gordie Center shortly after Adam’s death, after the Gordie Center reached out with condolences. “It was so beneficial to read about Gordie, his story, and his family’s journey throughout this process,” Courtney says. “Our hope is that the Gordie Center will continue to get the word out about hazing, its prevention, and its impact on everyone involved. Adam was an amazing person, a kind and caring soul who always tried to include everyone in everything he did. He is more than what happened to him. We hope that sharing Adam’s story will help the Gordie Center educate others on the dangers of hazing.”

“Adam’s death, as well as the deaths of other hazing victims, was preventable. All were special kids with amazing lives to be led, only to be cut short by the choices other people made to haze, not get help, and to continue a tradition of destruction. If you think this won’t happen to you, please think again. Nobody should fear for their life to gain entry or acceptance into a fraternity, sorority, or any other type of club. We do not want any other families to go through the pain, heartache, and misery that we go through every day since Adam’s death. Adam had such a wonderful future ahead of him that was senselessly cut short. Please educate your kids on what constitutes hazing, what to do if they see it happening, and above all, teach them what to do when they think someone needs help,” Eric pleads.

Linda’s birthday came on June 27, exactly 4 months after Adam’s death. Eric heard an alarm going off in their house that day and traced the sound to Adam’s MacBook. Adam had set a calendar reminder for Linda’s birthday, so when Eric looked at the laptop screen, he saw the calendar alert and the note Adam had written with the alarm: “Happy birthday Momma you’re my favorite.” The moment was a sweet and heartbreaking reminder of their precious boy and what they have lost. Eric says, “Adam didn’t want to die that night. He only wanted to join the fraternity to make new friends. Adam believed in being kind to everyone and bringing out the best in people. I know he made my wife and I better just by knowing him. It’s time for hazing to be eliminated for the safety and health of all. We want Adam’s legacy to be about change.”