2011-05-05 / Front Page

Father of son killed in car crash delivers powerful lecture

By Geoff Campbell

Dan Converse Dan Converse On Nov. 5, 2007, after a night of drinking, John Converse, 16, decided to get into a car with a drunk driver and minutes later was partially ejected from the car and killed when the car crashed into a telephone pole just a mile and a half from his home.

“This never leaves my head,” Dan Converse, John’s father, said Monday night to a gathering of 30 students, parents and school personnel in the North Kingstown High School auditorium.

Converse said that his son’s death was the result of “many decisions made that evening, not just by John, but by dozens of other young people and adults that led up to his death.”

Sponsored by Working Together for Wellness, North Kingstown’s substance abuse prevention coalition, the event was titled, “I’m Invincible … NOT!!! — Choices in the Teen Years.” The focus of the presentation centered on the importance of good decision making during the adolescent years and beyond.

Converse described his feelings about John’s choice that night: “John was a passenger, he made the choice not only to drink but he made the choice to get into a car with someone who had been drinking and he is dead because of it and I am angry at John for making that choice and I am angry at the driver for making that decision to drive recklessly and I am angry at the two boys in the back seat who could have stopped it at any moment.”

The evening’s message was clear and it began with an explanation of Rhode Island law as it pertains to young people. Converse pointed out the difference between the maximum blood alcohol content for adults (.08) and the level for anyone under the age of 21, which is .02.

“One beer, and you are involved in a crash where somebody dies, and you are going to jail.” Converse said.

“The number one cause of death in the country for people under the age of 21 [is] alcohol related reckless driving,” he added. Converse said that 90 percent of the young people that died on the highways in this state because of reckless driving and alcohol impaired driving were not wearing a seat belt.

“John’s dead because he didn’t have a seatbelt on.”

Following the crash Converse said that he needed to know everything he could about the crash that took his son’s life and he returned to the crash site, examined the car and spoke at length to police. He asked a detective of the Barrington Police Department if John would have survived if he had been wearing his seat belt. The detective answered, “In all probability, yes.”

Surrounded by poster-sized photos of John waterskiing, playing soccer and wearing what Dan described as a “goofy” hat, Converse explained the shock that comes from realizing that an alcohol related car crash can happen to anyone. “That happens to the other family,” he said, “it doesn’t happen to me.”

“I stand here before you, talking for John, John talking to you through me to tell you that there is no immunity to this no matter what you do for a living, how much money you make, how big your house is [or] how many times you go to church a week,” he said. “There’s no immunity. It can happen to anyone at any time.”

Converse explained that “sorry” means nothing when you have caused the death of one of your friends. He described in vivid detail a scenario in which a lifelong friendship is ended by a bad decision and the parents of the victim — in spite of the relationship built on shared memories since kindergarten — is standing before the judge asking for the maximum sentence because a drunk driver and best friend took something from the parent that he or she can never experience again.

“It all changes when you’ve taken someone’s life,” Converse said. “It’s a different ball game.”

Following a recent talk at a school, a student told his counselor following the event, “Mr. Converse sounded angry.”

“I am angry,” Converse said at this speaking engagement, “and I have every right to be angry; my son is dead.”

Reminding the group that fatal alcohol related crashes don’t just occur on graduation night or on prom night, Converse said, “It can happen on any obscure night of the year.” Converse made the point another way: “This is a class that you are in right now … that you have to take everyday for the rest of your life … with two grades — pass or fail —you pass it, you live a long healthy productive life. You fail it, you go to jail, you end up in some hospital bed or you end up in a grave site.”

On the crash scene that November night, Converse said that the police had to tell him three times, “Mr. Converse, he didn’t survive the crash” before it sank in. He asked the students to envision their parents at a crash scene because of a decision to drink and drive or to ride with a driver that had been drinking.

Dan described in painful detail the choices that had to be made before the wake, like what clothes he should choose for his son’s body to wear, which caterer to use and what items should be taken from his room to be placed on tables at the funeral home to represent his son’s short life. Converse explained that burying your son is “not the natural order of things. John should be burying me 30 years from now.”

“Alcohol killed my son,” Converse said, “It deceives you into thinking that you can do things that you shouldn’t.”

He encouraged every parent in the room to sit down with their child and write a contract to say that no matter what the circumstances their children would call their parents for a ride instead of driving drunk or getting in the car with someone who has been drinking.

In the final moments of the presentation, Converse unrolled a poster of a photo that one of John’s friends took at school. John is standing in front of a poster that reads, “In life there are no makeup exams; choose carefully.”

“This is a message from my son to you and it sums up every thing that you have heard tonight,” Converse said. “The consequences of your choice can lead you to success, happiness or it can lead you to jail or death.”

“Make the choice that you know is right in your heart.”

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