By Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
Brett Jensen is there in the backyard, where his family planted a garden and adorned it with decorative dragonflies.
He is there in the house near Silver Lake, on shelves filled with keepsakes, fresh flowers and his ashes. He is in his father’s journal, his mother’s tears and the face of his 20-year-old sister, Megan.
His presence is everywhere in the Jensen home, this young man who had such bright promise. But Brett is gone.
The straight-A scholar and former student body president at Cascade High School died May 7, 2002, in a fall from a balcony at his fraternity house near the University of Washington. He was 19.
Since then, the lives of Don and Jan Jensen have been scarred by grief, anger and an intense need to act.
“We need to do that for Brett,” said Don Jensen, a Cascade High School counselor before he retired. “If we can save one other parent’s child, it will mean a lot.”
In September, the Jensens settled a lawsuit against the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity for an undisclosed sum. The settlement was announced last week. According to the family’s lawyer, Mark Johnson, Brett Jensen died after a “Century Club” fraternity party where participants drank a shot of beer every minute for 100 minutes.
The Jensens sued the fraternity’s UW chapter and its national organization for allegedly making alcohol available to minors.
There was no admission of wrongdoing. The attorney said the settlement establishes a scholarship in Brett Jensen’s name, and the fraternity promised changes in its training manuals. The national organization also will list sanctions against local chapters on its Web site.
Among many snapshots of Brett Jensen and his friends is one of his fraternity brothers.
“They were great kids. We don’t mind them,” said Jan Jensen, a teacher at Eisenhower Middle School in Everett. “It’s the system, the culture.”
From the “Animal House” film comedy to Tuesday’s New York Times with its headline “Drinking deaths draw attention to old campus problem,” by every indication the fraternity culture is drenched in alcohol.
“He didn’t drink at all, not at all” in high school, Don Jensen said of his son.
With dorm space tight, information on fraternity and sorority housing came with UW admission packets, the Jensens said.
“Brett did his research. He called the Pi Kaps a gentlemen’s house. He said this one was different,” said Don Jensen, who lived on Greek row at Washington State University and had advised his son against joining a fraternity.
But after a “dry” rush period to encourage freshmen and their parents to join, he said, “alcohol was present almost every day.”
“There was a kegger as soon as they moved in. It’s everywhere, at all their functions. If it weren’t for alcohol, the Greek system wouldn’t exist,” Don Jensen said.
While sororities have adult “house mothers,” 18- and 19-year-olds in fraternities live in unrestricted freedom, he said.
The couple’s fury extends to the UW, which they said never sent anyone to their son’s memorial service and never acknowledged any responsibility for what happens in the Greek system.
Megan Jensen attends Western Washington University in Bellingham, where she lives off-campus after starting out in a no-alcohol dorm.
Binge drinking in college is much in the news.
At Colorado State University, the body of 19-year-old Samantha Spady was found Sept. 5 in a fraternity. According to The New York Times, she had chugged up to 40 beers and vodka shots the night she died.
On Sept. 17, 18-year-old Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr. died of alcohol poisoning at a University of Colorado fraternity house. At least three other college deaths have been linked to alcohol since September, according to an article this week in USA Today.
In homes like the Jensen’s, there is heartbreak.
Mike Therrell, who teaches government and history teacher at Cascade High School, called Brett Jensen “the finest student ever to walk these halls.”
Brett Jensen had mentored elementary school students in Cascade’s Bruin Buddy program. He was a crowd favorite when he worked at the Everett AquaSox ballpark. He volunteered at the Everett Gospel Mission.
His parents believe it’s the good kids – the inexperienced drinkers, – who are in particular peril. Alcohol is flowing freely, and the young people want to belong.
If such a tragedy could happen to Brett Jensen, it could happen to anyone – your child, or mine.
In their garden, the Jensens are surrounded by figures of dragonflies, which remind them of their son. They think of him as soaring above, watching over them, but unable to come home. Asked about faith, Don Jensen said, “We have to believe we’re going to see him again. That’s what keeps us going.”
That, and not giving up. “Every chance I get, I talk to young people about it,” Don Jensen said.
“We’ll never be as happy as we once were,” he said. “And I can’t go to the UW. I used to go to football games. Now, every time I drive down there, I look away.”
Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or email@example.com.