A year ago, Jim and Evelyn Piazza’s lives changed when their son’s ended.
The New Jersey couple still have each other, their work, their home, another son.
But Tim is gone.
The 19-year-old Penn State sophomore spent 12 hours enduring fraternity triage at the hands of would-be brothers at Beta Theta Pi rather than getting medical attention for his cracked skull, injured brain and steadily bleeding spleen. When help was finally called, it was too late. Tim died a day later when the machines keeping his broken body functioning were turned off.
The next 12 months were a roller-coaster ride of official announcements, criminal proceedings, meetings with legislators and talking about the issue that prosecutors and the university say stole their child. Hazing.
No time to say goodbye
“So much has happened. On the one hand, it’s good to be busy. On the other, I don’t believe we’ve had the opportunity to appropriately mourn,” Jim Piazza said, sitting at the kitchen table next to his wife, across from the seat that is always empty now.
“That’s Tim’s chair,” he said, with a barely there gesture and a tight, sad smile.
Tim is gone, but he is part of everything the Piazzas do.
They don’t visit him on campus, but they are frequent fixtures in the Centre County Courthouse, where they went through the preliminary hearings for the fraternity and a long list of members. They went through grand jury recommendations, manslaughter charges being dismissed and the discovery of more evidence on erased surveillance video, leading to more charges.
They think the knowledge that those images exist is part of why Tim’s case has brought so much attention to the issue.
“Never before has there been this kind of video evidence,” Jim Piazza said.
The face of hazing
Most people haven’t seen the images, but Evelyn Piazza said the details in the Centre County grand jury presentment have painted vivid pictures of what happened that night and into the next morning.
There was the “gauntlet” of alcohol that had their smiling red-headed son pounding 18 drinks in 82 minutes. There was the “hair-first” fall down the stairs to the basement bar. There was backpacking him with books to keep him from choking on vomit while fraternity members Googled and texted about what to do for hours before actually doing it. There were blows to his already internally bleeding abdomen. There was another fall.
Tim wasn’t the only college student who died in an alleged hazing incident in 2017.
“He was the first,” his mother said.
Maxwell Gruver, 18, died at Louisiana State, then Andrew Coffey, 20, at Florida State and lastly Matthew Ellis, 20, at Texas State.
Just a couple weeks away is a meeting in Greenville, South Carolina, the meeting of a club no one wants to join.
“I got in contact with Rae Ann Gruver,” Evelyn Piazza said. “From there, we contacted about three other hazing moms and from there, it’s grown.”
“I think a number of people had the same idea. There are a lot of lives affected. This is about no one ever having to go through this again,” Jim Piazza said.
The parents, and a few guests, such as antihazing organization leaders and victims of hazing, will talk about what they’ve been through and what needs to be done.
They know there will be more members of their club before things change.
“This isn’t going to get fixed right away. It’s an epidemic. It’s going to take time,” Jim Piazza said. “We’re going to have to prod away at national fraternities and universities.
When parents just don’t understand
One of the fraternities suspended since Tim’s death was Sigma Alpha Mu, shuttered for violations over Parents Weekend in April. Penn State President Eric Barron has said parents can be part of the problem. That’s a place where the Piazzas agree.
“Some of them are ignorant to what damage hazing and binge drinking can do,” Jim Piazza said. “And some of them are trying to relive their glory days.”
There are the ones in denial.
“They think that it can’t happen to their child. It can,” Jim Piazza said. “Tim was a really good kid. Not a drinker. He was more than happy to play video games with his friends. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”
Then, they say, there is another group, like the parents of the 26 frat members charged with various crimes related to that pledge party.
“If they think their sons are innocent, they should be driving them to the (district attorney’s) office and saying, ‘Talk,’ ” Jim Piazza said. “By not making them say anything, they are helping a cover-up and teaching them it’s OK to cover something up.”
Where it all happened
The house where Tim sustained his injuries is no longer home to students, but it hasn’t remained totally empty.
The property is a bone of contention in two lawsuits between Beta Theta Pi alumnus Donald Abbey and the housing corporation of the Alpha Upsilon chapter.
In September, the Associated Press discovered the house was being offered for stays to alumni. In the course of Abbey’s suit, it was revealed that drinks were once again being served in the basement where Tim fell.
“That’s a smack in the face to us,” Evelyn Piazza said.
To Jim Piazza, it shows the alumni’s actions as similar to the members who didn’t call 911. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said.
So what should happen to that big brick mansion on Burrowes Road on Penn State’s campus? Jim Piazza has thought about it being leveled. He’s thought about it being a park or a building in Tim’s name.
“I’d be very disappointed and disturbed if they let it become another fraternity,” he said.
“Maybe a place for Thon families to stay,” Evelyn Piazza said.
For the kids
When Tim died, it was just two weeks before the high point of Greek life at Penn State every year — the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. Fraternity and sorority members and other Nittany Lions point to it with pride. The largest student-run philanthropy in the world, it pulls in millions of dollars in donations for pediatric cancer every year.
It was part of what Tim loved about Penn State. So did his brother, Mike.
“They were both excited for it before they even got to Penn State,” Evelyn Piazza said.
For Tim, it was a perfect fit.
“He loved kids,” Jim Piazza said.
He also loved engineering. His dream was to build prosthetics.
Evelyn Piazza smiled as she spoke about how the two brothers each had plans to participate in Thon. They went separately to a meeting. They showed up at the same group, Ayuda.
Tim’s photo from his freshman year at the massive Bryce Jordan Center dance party is on Ayuda’s Thon website. So is a photo from last year, when members held up their team name in giant orange letters, but did it standing behind a large white banner that said “For Tim.”
The family laughed as they talked about his first Thon. On a canning trip, Tim wasn’t content to just take spare change donations. He donned a full-body Spider-Man costume. For $5, donors could get their picture with a fundraising superhero.
“Will Tim always be a part of Thon? He’ll always be a part of the family,” Evelyn Piazza said.
A different gift
Even though he is gone, Tim is still giving to kids.
A little boy is about to get an amazing gift from him. The Timothy J. Piazza Memorial Foundation will soon make its first gift of a prosthetic device to a 6-year-old.
The foundation wasn’t something the Piazzas thought about initially. It came together when a friend wanted to raise money in Tim’s name through a golf outing. They pulled together an idea for a way to keep giving back for their boy. The nonprofit is focused on two areas: the prosthetics Tim wanted to build — especially for kids — and scholarships to deserving students from his high school.
Golf was just the start. There have been other events, other fundraisers. There are bracelets with the foundation’s motto: “Live like Tim.”
“They have raised over $250,000. That’s just people who just wanted to do it,” Jim Piazza said.
But in the end, Tim is still gone. That’s the new constant they live with.
“Tim was just an amazing person,” Evelyn Piazza said.
That’s their real struggle. Not just with his loss, but with the belief that if the situation was reversed, their son would have made different choices to help someone.
“Tim would have carried a kid to the hospital himself. He would not be able to abide what was going on,” Jim Piazza said.
As a father, Jim Piazza still finds himself occasionally including his son when making plans for something, and then gets hit with reality: “He’s not there.”
For Evelyn Piazza, there is never a break.
“He is the first thing I think about every morning. He’s the last thing I think about before bed. Even in my dreams, I know he’s gone,” she said.
The family has an attorney. Tom Kline was one of the lawyers who represented people who filed claims against Penn State for abuse by Jerry Sandusky. As critical as the Piazzas are of the university, they want people to understand that there is nothing about their crusade for change that is about money.
“We will never get what we need,” Jim Piazza said.
“We need Tim,” Evelyn Piazza finished.
Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce