September 12, 2013

Friends Remember Chris Dennis ’13 as ‘True Altruist’

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Described as “the only true altruist” and as someone who “would have changed the world,” Chris Dennis ’13 was remembered by his friends as a free-spirited individual who was committed to environmental justice.

Dennis was reported missing in May, shortly before he was due to graduate with the Class of 2013. After separating from his friends to canoe alone on Cayuga Lake, Dennis disappeared, and Seneca County officials and Cornell students launched a search for him.

During the course of the search effort, Dennis’ canoe was found overturned in the middle of the lake, The Sun reported in May.

Dennis, who was a double major in international agriculture and rural development and communications, worked as a videographer at The Sun and was a member of KyotoNOW! He had a passion for remedying climate change that led him to shoot many videos for the climate justice movement and the anti-fracking movement in New York State, according to Anna-Lisa Castle ’13.

“He was really committed to the environment, to his friends and to loving other people. He loved people in an unconditional way that I have never seen before,” Castle said.

Sarita Upadhyay ’11 said that Dennis, despite being only 22 years old, had already made his mark on the world.

“At 22, [Dennis] had already accomplished a lot of things and had a huge impact,” Upadhyay said. “He just had a huge amount of unique potential for the future that the world will lose out on.”

People who had worked with Dennis, such as Sandra Steingraber — a member of the anti-fracking movement New Yorkers Against Fracking — remembered him as being a talented videographer. Dennis shot a video titled “Don’t Frack New York” for New Yorkers Against Fracking, which Steingraber said was a powerful piece of work.

Despite his many accomplishments, Dennis was a modest person, Castle said.

“Chris was somebody who handled a lot of things and was behind the scenes in many ways, but I don’t think he ever realized how big an impact he actually made,” Castle said. “He never tried taking credit for anything, but one would see his name at the bottom of a video, saying, ‘Shot by Chris Dennis.’”

Kelsey Erickson ’13 also emphasized Dennis’ talents behind the camera.

“His movies were beyond anything that I had ever seen for someone his age,” she said. “I had visions of him becoming a big movie producer someday, but he was so humble that I knew he would never try to.”

Dennis was also a creative person with a unique way of thinking, Upadhyay said.

“[Chris] always did exactly what he wanted to be doing, and I think that is something special that you don’t find in most people,” she said. “He saw a lot of possibilities that other people don’t see. He was very open to a lot of ideas that most people wouldn’t have even noticed.”

Dennis started a discussion group to help broaden the public’s perspective on science and the media last semester with the co-founders of, a site for alternative media on issues of science and agriculture, according to Erickson.

“He was really excited to give them the opportunity to talk to students so that these students would attain a more wholesome perspective on science and understand the corporate interests that bias scientific claims regarding agriculture,” she said.

Deeply sympathetic to the damage done by the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti, Dennis took time off the 2011-12 academic year at Cornell to work on reforestation projects in Haiti, according to Castle.

“He started a non-profit in Haiti to grow bamboo as an earthquake-resistant building material,” she said. “He was somebody who could just go with the flow and commit to something but at the same time he was very free spirited.”

Upadhyay said that Dennis had taught her how to appreciate the little things in life.

“For me, he really taught me to be happy and how to really love life and every little thing: a sunset, a sunrise, the beauty of a tree or animal or food,” she said. “He was really excited about and compassionate toward every person he met. That was really beautiful.”

Upadhyay said she urges Cornell students to have a positive impact in the world in honor of  Dennis.

“Chris cared a lot about having an impact, and the best way to honor his memory is for people to think about how to have a positive impact on the world,” she said. “His memory and time with me have inspired me, and I hope he inspires other people in the Cornell community.”