She has come back several times to Morgantown, W.Va., since her son became a freshman at West Virginia University in August 2014. That fall, she went to the WVU Canopy Tour with Nolan and the rest of the family. It’s the day they took her profile picture. The sun was bright against a blue sky.
(L-R) Alexandra, Kim, TJ and Nolan Burch at the WVU Canopy Tour. (Photo Provided by Burch family)
“The last time I was with my son here, on a zipline up on a hill, he said, ‘Mom, I’m home,’” she recalls. “And when your kid feels that good about leaving home and saying that another place is his home, how can we not feel the same?”
Kim says that people ask how the family feels about visiting Morgantown, now. She says that her family loves coming to Morgantown, driving down four-plus hours from their home in Williamsville, N.Y.
The people asking expect it to be hard because of what happened to Nolan.
On Nov. 12, 2014, Nolan was on the last night of pledging with a fraternity when he was given 750 ml of 100-proof whiskey and told to drink it within an hour. From time-stamped security footage in the fraternity house, we know that about 90 minutes later, people placed him on a table and left his limp body there. Some walked past. Another kicked him.
Finally, one person gave him CPR and another called 911. After 300 family members and friends filed through his hospital room for a final goodbye, Nolan was taken off life support two days later. The medical treatment he received allowed four people to receive organ donations.
This story is documented in “Breathe, Nolan, Breathe,” a documentary from former WVU student Dan Catullo’s production company City Drive Studios and WVU, in collaboration with the Burch family’s foundation, Sugar Studios LA and ANYONE Collective. The film won the 2020 Emmy Award for the Ohio Valley Region Best Documentary Cultural/Topical.
Watch the full "Breathe, Nolan, Breathe" documentary.
On Nov. 14, 2019 – five years to the day from the night that took Nolan’s life – the University launched the “Would You?” anti-hazing campaign designed to be used nationwide by colleges, schools and community groups. It asks students to look out for each other, summon medical assistance and prevent hazing behavior from seeping into their social groups.
At the launch of the film that night in the Gluck Theatre in the Mountainlair, President E. Gordon Gee told the hundreds of people crammed into the theater and those watching from an overflow room that he was grateful to Catullo for his work and to the Burches for sharing their son and his story.
“It might be easier, and it certainly would be in many ways for a university to let such an incident fade into its past,” he said. “But at this University, we never want to forget. We remember – with the hope that another tragedy can be prevented.”
‘We have to do something’
Dan Catullo III, who attended WVU in the early ’90s, was in his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., when his wife called to him from downstairs. She was watching a Dateline production on hazing, and Gee, whom Catullo had known for several years, was on TV.
In the Dateline segment, Catullo learned more about Nolan Burch and how he died.
“I watched it, and I was heartbroken,” he said.
“I knew what happened with Nolan. I watched the episode, and I immediately reached out to Gordon, asking him, ‘How can I help?’ I said, ‘We have to do something to make sure it doesn't happen again and get the story out there.’”
He suggested creating a documentary together with the University and the Burches.
“And when I told Gordon my idea, he didn't hesitate,” Catullo said.
The Burches met Gee for the first time at a conference room at WVU while Catullo looked on.
“It was a really touching moment,” Catullo said. “The first time they came here, there was a big hug with Gordon.”
Catullo has a long career of producing films of concerts, such as Brad Paisley’s performance at WVU in 2016. Then he worked on documentaries, including “The Square” on Netflix, because he was seeking deeper meaning in the work he produced. The documentary on Nolan he says, “is by far the most personal.”
President Gee and Kim and TJ Burch meet for the first time at WVU. (Photographed by Jennifer Shepherd)
‘We’re doing it for you’
The film is hard to watch. It starts with security camera footage of the night Nolan died. It features photos from Nolan’s childhood, raw interviews with his parents, interviews of some of the fraternity members, of the doctor at WVU who tried to save Nolan’s life and experts in hazing. It details the risks associated with the fast intake of hard liquor and dissects how hazing happens across ages and social groups. The film shocks but doesn’t scold.
“I can't believe how, one, brave they are for allowing me to use that footage because it's very personal,” Catullo said of the security tape. “And then, two, Gordon and the University – most universities try to bury something like this, especially five years later they hope it’s on page six on Google.”
“The first thing that I want them to think about isn't that, ‘Oh, someone died here: The hazing incident,’” Catullo said. “I want someone to know that someone died of a preventable death, that they died because someone didn't get them help.”
The Burches (second and third from left) and Dan Catullo (second from right) visited the Tamron Hall show in December 2019.
The concept of hazing can come across as far less serious than it is, something that is unpleasant but not a big deal. TJ finds the term insufficient for what it describes.
“I think there should be maybe even a new definition of hazing, if not even a whole new word,” he said. “Because hazing is almost like a connotation, like it's not as bad – somebody died, but it was hazing.
“Somebody died. In many cases, it’s manslaughter, murder.”
Before the documentary screening last year at the Mountainlair, the Burches had a short film version of Nolan’s story that starting in 2018 they took to schools as part of the Nolan Michael Burch Foundation, an organization they started to prevent hazing and train people to take action when they see others in danger.
Before the Burches arrived at WVU for the screening, they had just been to a high school where they showed the film and spoke to 10th graders over seven different periods.
“I think one of the great questions from one of the students was, ‘I didn’t know Nolan, and it really hurt me to watch that video – how do you watch that?’” Kim recounted.
“And we say: We’re doing it for you. We’re doing it for your families because we don’t want another family to have to go through this.”
When Nolan died, Matthew Richardson was the Greek Life adviser at the University of Pittsburgh, and he said the effects of Nolan’s death were felt throughout college communities. And more deaths would follow, with at least one hazing death of a college student every year making national news.
“It started this conversation of ‘enough’s enough’ and parents starting to come together,” he said.
In 2015, WVU created a director of Greek Life position, and in 2017 Richardson assumed that role. His office, now called the Center for Fraternal Values and Leadership, has led a transformation in how fraternities and sororities are learning to stop hazing and other negative behavior before it starts. The office oversees all social, service, academic and honorary fraternities.
“His death caused the University to take a firm look at fraternity and sorority life and provide resources into creating the kind of model community that they’re looking for,” Richardson said.
The fraternity that Burch belonged to, Kappa Sigma, had lost its charter days before Burch died, and has since become one of five unaffiliated fraternity chapters off campus.
In 2018, the University created a blueprint called Reaching the Summit that set guidelines for how Greek Life could become more accountable. Generally, it looked at decreasing negative behavior and raising academic success. In addition to providing oversight to the chapters, Richardson’s office provides mentorship and leadership training and publicly posts any sanctions or probations facing chapters.
Emerging leaders can take part in the Nolan Burch Greek Leadership Academy, an eight-week course that covers individual strengths and leadership as well as hazing prevention. At the end of the course, the Burch Fellows are bestowed medallions by Kim and TJ Burch. It’s a peer leadership program that Richardson expects to support growth in students who will go back and influence their chapters.
By the summer of 2015, with the help of advocacy from WVU students and staff, the West Virginia legislature passed the Alcohol and Drug Overdose Prevention and Clemency Act that allowed for amnesty for those who seek emergency medical assistance if they cooperate with responders and stay with a person who needs help. Also that year, WVU put in place a medical amnesty policy in the Student Conduct Code.
Before COVID-19, Richardson shared the Would You? Campaign with students from the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State University. And during the pandemic, he participated in a Delta Chi national session online to share the documentary. While the health crisis has interrupted in-person screenings, the film is still available and being viewed online, including a virtual viewing at WVU this fall.
Richardson says this work is designed to bring out the best in social groups on campus. Being in a fraternity has been an important part of Richardson’s life, making him lifelong friends, he said.
“I want you to have fun. I want you to meet new people. I want you to make those memories,” he said. “I was the best man at one of my fraternity brother’s weddings. I go on vacation every year with my fraternity brothers and their significant others.
“I want you to have that, but I want you to have it in a positive way.”
Members of fraternities and sororities were at the screening, among healthcare workers, alumni, other students, administrators and friends of the Burches. The theater seated more than 200, and others had to sit in an overflow room.
TJ and Kim Burch (left) and Dan Catullo (far right) took part in the discussion following the first screening of the documentary at the Mountainlair.
At the Q&A after the film, a young woman asked how those present could influence students who weren’t attending the event.
Catullo answered: “When we’re done tonight, the documentary’s online, so do everybody a favor and blast this thing out,” he said. “Send it out to everybody. Put it on social media. Email it to people. We open-sourced this on purpose because we wanted everybody to see it.
“I think if they see that, they might think twice.”
Call to Action from the Nolan M. Burch Foundation
Notice the behaviors of those around you as abusive and inappropriate. These actions can be both physically and emotionally damaging.
Obey the buddy system and be with a trusted friend. Always have someone to look out for your well-being and vice versa.
Lead the change and create positive outcomes. Step up and be the leader if there is none. Do not follow the crowd and assume someone else is taking charge and keeping people safe.
Act in a timely manner to avoid danger for yourself and others. Time may be vital, with someone’s life at risk as each minute passes. Know CPR and general first aid.
Notify someone immediately of the situation. Get help now and call 911. Reach out to a family member, fellow student or an authority figure. Tell someone and call 911. Having a family plan in place is recommended.