The only sound inside Numen Lumen Pavilion was that of sniffles and tears as hundreds of students gathered Sunday amid palpable shock, confusion and grief that hung in silence.
Missing from the Sigma Pi Fraternity brothers circled in the center of the room was Derek Winton, a fifth-year senior known for his watermelon Crocs, the adventitious nicknames he’d give his friends and the way he’d show how much he truly cared for people as soon as he entered a room.
Winton, 22, died Saturday morning after being found unresponsive at his apartment. He was a sport and event management major and former Teaching Fellow at Elon University.
His friends, teachers and fraternity brothers sat together processing the news from a day prior, trying to come to terms with the fact they’d never see and feel the warmth of his large, joyous smile or loud, distinct laugh again.
They took stock of the countless memories they shared with Winton, whose smile resonated with anyone he'd interacted with.
He would make jokes and take the edge off the sometimes-stressful classes and programs the Teaching Fellows took part in.
He would roll the windows down in his car and bust out singing “Defying Gravity” from the musical “Wicked.”
And he’d yell your name the second he saw you — so loud it seemed like everyone on campus could hear — and immediately give you his undivided attention, asking about your day and your life.
“Whenever he would walk in a room, you'd get excited to see him,” said senior Alexia Moore, who studied abroad in Costa Rica with Winton in spring 2014.
Derek Winton (far left) with his family: sister Mariel, mother Julie, father David (submitted by David Winton).
Winton, of Lexington, Massachusetts, was pronounced dead at Alamance Regional Medical Center early Saturday morning, not long after Elon Police responded to a report of cardiac arrest at his Phoenix Villas Apartment. Winton had been found unconscious, and first responders performed CPR.
As of Monday, Town of Elon Police were conducting an investigation into Winton’s death, but there were no signs of foul play. Alcohol and/or drug use was involved, according to an incident report, but the State Medical Examiner has not yet released an official report.
He's the son of David and Julie, and the brother of Mariel, a student at Quinnipiac University.
While at Elon, Winton served as vice president of Sigma Pi, and was a member of the Premier Sport and Event Society. He was loyal to his fraternity brothers, whom he was living with this year.
To his classmates in the School of Education, Winton was known for the way he interacted with kids.
He tutored children as part of the It Takes a Village Project and did work with the Boys and Girls Club. There, he'd play dodgeball and parachute with the children, and engage in dance-offs with them — even if the kids were far better dancers than him.
“Derek loved kids,” said Laura Hollister '16, who was partnered with Derek for a group project in their "School in Society" class freshman year and remained friends with him afterward. “He was good at working with them. His goofiness made him like that — he was very approachable.
“He was a good role model for those kids."
Grace McDavid ‘16 student-taught last spring, and one of her students, Jaleed, had been in an after-school program with Winton. Each time she saw Winton, who was in her education cohort, he’d ask about Jaleed.
“He always wanted to know how he was doing,” McDavid said. “He wanted to make sure academically he was doing well, socially he was doing well. He did care for kids a lot.”
Derek Winton (top right, wearing hat) poses with the teaching fellows in 2012. Photo submitted by Alexia Moore.
When Winton switched his major, Cara McFadden, assistant professor of sport and event management, became his adviser. She taught Winton in class, served as his faculty supervisor for his internship last summer and volunteered with him at United Way events.
Winton would smile and ask Caelan, McFadden’s son, questions about school and sports whenever they saw each other. Once, as Winton waited to meet with McFadden, he sat at a table with Caelan, drawing pictures and playing with Legos.
“With a heavy heart, it is lightened knowing that, when I think of Derek, I can see and feel the warmth of his smile,” McFadden said in an email. “Let us remember his smile by sharing a smile and kind words to others.”
When Winton left his education cohort, his classmates gave him a superlative — “The one that got away.” It was written on a paper plate, accompanied with “Derek WE MISS YOU” written in blue, red and orange marker.
That sentiment rang true Saturday and Sunday as news of Winton’s death hit the Elon community. Tissues remained on tables at Numen Lumen Pavilion as his fraternity brothers embraced in bear hugs at the center of the room.
“I can think of specific classes, times and days of the week where Elon was better because of Derek, and because we were friends and because we were in class together,” Hollister said. “He’s not going to be forgotten.”
Video by Ashley Bohle.