Fellow Tiger Max Gruver was only 18 years old and 29 days into his college career at the University before he died from a hazing ritual at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. Since his death on Sept. 14, 2017, the tragedy has inspired his family to use his story and promote change in the overall culture of hazing.
LSU President F. King Alexander announced a week of reflection for Maxwell Gruver last year lasting from Sept. 18-22. Coincidentally, this was also during National Hazing Prevention Week. Among the events were a memorial service for Gruver at Christ the King Catholic Church and a Rally Against Hazing led by LSU Student Government.
Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, Max’s father and mother, met with Rev. Andrew Merrick from Christ the King after his death, and expressed their desire for the church to hold a memorial mass in honor of their son’s life at the University. Before continuing with the traditional mass, Merrick read aloud from a remembrance of Max’s life written by his family.
“Max never shied away from opportunities to challenge himself,” Merrick read. “This is one of the reasons he was so comfortable in his decision to attend a college out-of-state where he would not know any people at the start. This confidence and warmth gave him the ability to instantly connect with people so quickly he made LSU his home.”
Gruver, a native of Roswell, Georgia, came to the University interested in the mass communication program. But LSU was not Max’s initial first choice, Rae Ann told The Daily Reveille. The family are fans of Clemson University, where Rae Ann graduated. But after hearing testimonies from friends about how great LSU was, and with his desire to go to a “sports school,” Max decided to apply to LSU. And though it was one of the last applications he submitted, LSU was the first college to grant him acceptance.
His first college acceptance was something to celebrate. Stephen and Max visited the campus and enjoyed it so much that shortly after they got home, Rae Ann arrived home from work and saw an “LSU Bound” sign already posted in her front yard.
“I think it was his No. 1 [choice] and he just didn’t want to tell me that,” Rae Ann said. “But that was a really exciting time for all of us — to see how excited he was for LSU. He found his own place.”
Max also didn’t initially plan to rush with a fraternity, but decided to do so the summer before arriving at the University. After receiving invitations from multiple fraternities, Max decided on Phi Delta Theta, Rae Ann said. He was attracted to the smaller size of the fraternity, which could later potentially allow him to move up to a leadership position.
Max’s parents researched Phi Delta Theta and were glad to see the fraternity credited itself for being anti-hazing and having an anti-alcohol house.
Max updated his parents frequently during Rush Week, noting his excitement to pledge and how all was well. But Max wasn’t a regular texter or caller, Rae Ann said, so she began using Snapchat to communicate.
“Max and I snapchatted, probably, right before he walked into that house, to go to that ‘Bible Study,’” she said. “I said to him that I missed him, and he sent back to me that he missed me. I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me. That was my last communication with my son — on Snapchat.”
LSU Police discovered that “Bible Study” was the hazing ritual where Max was targeted and forced to chug 190 proof liquor when he answered questions about the fraternity’s history and recited the Greek alphabet incorrectly. He had a .495 blood alcohol level at the time of his death.
In a paper he wrote about blessings, Max stated, “God works in funny ways. He does bad things sometimes because in the end they are good. Something bad can happen to you, but it may happen because it will make you better. He does bad to ultimately create good.”
The burden of that tragedy was a fog to Rae Ann and the family. But that quote, read aloud at his funeral and the University memorial, inspired Max’s parents. The Gruver family used his loss to advocate for a bigger cause. Rae Ann and Max’s high school girlfriend Blakely ordered bracelets that read #FlyHighMax and #StopTheHazing, and they were sold to family and friends. Interest among Max’s friends in sororities and fraternities grew, and more and more people wanted to keep the conversation active.
Max’s parents decided to open up and speak out about the tragedy at his high school in May 2018. From there, the Gruvers began speaking to fraternities and universities across the nation.
“We want to remember Max’s life and how happy Max was,” Rae Ann said. “And what an easy-going, super laid back, nice kid he was. We don’t want to live in what happened to him at the end, but at the same time, we want to change things for other young kids. We don’t want this happening to another family.”
On May 31, 2018, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed four anti-hazing pieces of legislation into law. These laws were created to enforce stricter penalties for the crime of hazing, deter organizations and leaders from taking part in hazing and hold them accountable if hazing occurs.
Max’s parents established a nonprofit organization called the Max Gruver Foundation to work to help other states establish anti-hazing laws and provide awareness, including their home state of Georgia. They also have a Facebook page titled “Fly High Max.”
LSU Student Government hosted the “Rally Against Hazing” in front of Memorial Tower on Sept. 21, 2017. Then-LSU SG president Jason Badeaux welcomed the crowd, noting the importance of the turnout of the event and the community coming together to rally against hazing.
“We’re here to reflect on Max Gruver,” Badeaux said. “While he was a student here for only a short time, we did lose a fellow Tiger and a member of our community in a terrible tragedy. It’s very important for us to reflect on that and not forget that.”
SG hosted the event to give students a chance to stand against hazing. Banners reading “Tigers Against Hazing” were painted by students with gold and purple handprints to show the students’ solidarity.
“I know we’ll never know if we’ve saved anyone’s life, but I feel that we are,” Rae Ann said. “It’s changing mindsets and it is making organizations — down to the young adults — more responsible and more accountable.”
Evan Saacks contributed to this report.