May 17, 2005

Remembering Dan Pirfo '08

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It’s closing week in Mews Hall, and the Class of 2008 has been busy. In the halls, students are preparing for finals and finishing up long-overdue papers; in the lounges, they’re taking photos of one another and exchanging summer contact info; in their rooms, they’re packing suitcases and stuffing boxes as they stare out the windows, stuffing their memories with every last image of freshman year.

For Sean Clemens ’08, Alex Hahn ’08, and Stephen McGillick ’08, these have been difficult days. Three weeks ago, they reported their close friend, Dan Pirfo ’08 missing and, with the rest of their floor, led an effort to find him. Last week, their search ended when Dan’s body was discovered by three other Cornell students fishing in Fall Creek Gorge.

Saturday night, the three stood among a tearful crowd of students outside Appel Commons for a candlelight vigil in Dan’s memory, beginning and ending with a slideshow of Dan, run to the tune of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life.” Sean, Alex, and Stephen joined Dan’s other friends from Mews’ second floor at a podium to recall their memories of Dan, or — as they knew him better — “D-Unit.”

As Sean, Alex, and Stephen try their best to concentrate for finals, they sat down with The Sun and took another moment to recall the fourth link of what is now a threesome.

“We did everything together,” says Alex. “We went to the gym together, we ate together, but mostly we just hung out in each other’s rooms. You could count on Dan at least once a day to do something that’d make you smile. Having him around just lightened everything up.”

“Dan really lived life to the fullest,” says Stephen, the last to have seen Dan. “He enjoyed almost every second of the time he spent here. He was always very laid-back. Yeah, he was taking tough classes, he had prelims, but you never saw him shutting everyone out like some people do. He put things in perspective and helped us do the same.”

As the three continue to reminisce about Dan, their frowns slowly give way to smiles, their smiles to laughter.

(Who was Dan Pirfo?)

(Dan was a comedian.)

“He had a great sense of humor,” says Stephen. “I remember a bunch of us walking one night, and one of Dan’s Balch friends was poking him, and she said, ‘What’s the deal, Dan? Not ticklish?’ And he just looked at her straight and said ‘Ticklish? Are you kidding me?! I’m training to be an assassin.'”

“He loved to memorize lines from movies,” says roommate Sean, chuckling. “American Psycho was his favorite. He’d make me memorize lines, too, so we could re-enact the scenes. He did Patrick Bateman and I was Paul Allen, and when I’d screw up, he’d say, ‘come on, if you can’t keep up, I’m gonna have to do Paul too.'”

“One night,” says Stephen, “Dan and I were talking to this girl on a bus back from the Pyramid Mall, and she told us she was excited about this class she was taking on Spider Biology — she seemed pretty into her schoolwork, a little stuck-up — and so I asked her if she was taking this class, ‘Magical Mushrooms and Molds,’ one of my friends was taking, and she said, ‘nah, I’m not much of a fungus person,’ and Dan said ‘yeah, I’m not much of a fungi, either.'” Stephen pauses to laugh. “She just looked at him and said, ‘That’s not funny.’ In my mind, I’ll always remember Dan with his track pants and his hair poofed up in that goofy headband. He was never one to care what other people thought of him.”

(Dan was a poet.)

“He was really into poetry, too,” says Sean. “He was great with words. He liked to sit outside when he wrote: A lot of his poems were about nature, some about the poet himself. He put a lot of them on his AIM Away Message and on his door. He liked nothing more than when his poems were being read by his friends.”

(Most of all, Dan was a friend.)

“He was always there for his friends,” the three say in almost perfect unison.

“He was always there to stick up for you,” says Sean. “When he was walking with Manuel back from a party and some kids behind them made a derogatory comment about Hispanics, Dan was ready to go over and confront them, and Manuel said ‘don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal,’ and he said, ‘no, Manuel, you’re my friend. It is a big deal.'”

“I remember I had to wake up for a bus at 7 a.m.,” Sean continues, “and I wasn’t reliable at the time — I’d had a long night — and Dan set his alarm, he woke up early … he pretty much packed my stuff for me. And he helped me take it out to the bus. That’s the kind of friend he was.”

“Yeah, Dan was always helping his friends like that,” Alex interjects. “I remember him insisting on carrying my bags out for me before winter break. Dan was one of the few people to have a genuine ‘goodbye.’ It was more of a feeling that you got from it than something you could describe in words. With a lot of people, it was just a formality — you know — ‘yeah, have a nice break.’ Dan would come over to wherever I was sitting, he’d shake my hand, and he’d say ‘take care of yourself … I can’t wait to see you again…'”

“We’d be at a party, and he’d want to stay and I’d want to leave,” remembers Stephen. “So I’d say, ‘I think I’m gonna go back,’ and he’d say, ‘you’re gonna walk alone?’ And I’d say ‘don’t worry about it.’ And he’d say, ‘no, I’ll walk back with you.'”

“Just the way he was toward his friends makes me believe that he would’ve made a great husband, a great father,” Stephen continues. “He had a niece, Katie, and you could tell he was a great uncle to her — he called her ‘Katertot.’ Once her mother tried to call her ‘Katertot,’ and she said, ‘No, only Uncle Danny can call me that.'”

“We all thought he would just show up one night …” says Sean, “… that he’d say, ‘Are you kidding? You guys thought something had happened to me?'”

“We were all late-nighters,” says Alex. “People would wander in and out of Dan and Sean’s room — at four in the morning, you name it. It’s completely different now, now that half of that room’s just … gone.”

“I’ll never forget the day they came in and started moving out his stuff,” says Stephen, “and I met his mother, and she just wanted to ask me questions about her son: ‘How was Dan when he was here? What did he do in his spare time? Did he have fun?‘ She gave us each a hug before she left. The three of us are going down to D.C. for the memorial service. She really wants to see the slideshow we made of him.”

Stephen, Sean, and Alex will go their separate ways next year, with Stephen living on Dryden Road, Sean living in Cascadilla Hall — he had been planning on rooming with Dan again — and Alex taking a year’s leave at New York’s Mannes College of Music.

But, if you ask them, they’ll tell you that Dan Pirfo remains a very real part of their lives — in their minds, the light that made their freshman year that much brighter.

“Coming to Cornell, I was really nervous about the type of people I was gonna meet, and I met Dan and I met these guys and we were just having an amazing freshman experience together,” remembers Stephen. “And then this happened … and I thought to myself, ‘wow, what an awful way to end your freshman year…’ and I wondered whether I’m gonna look back, remember Dan, and think about the tragedy.”

“But I think as I look back on my freshman year,” he continues, “I’m gonna focus less on the fact that I lost one of my best friends and more on the impact he had on me. Just thinking about Dan gives me a good feeling.”

“What can I say?” says Sean. “I miss having him around. I miss him setting his alarm clock for 9 and waking up at 1.”

“It’s as if Dan taught us all to have fun,” says Alex. “That’s something that’ll stick with us forever.”

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer