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Iowa State Daily

Olivia’s Legacy: Addressing alcohol safety, love and grief from mother of late Iowa State student


It was a Tuesday night in September, and people gathered in the Great Hall for an event hosted by the Iowa State Lecture Series. Members of Delta Delta Delta sorority filled up the front rows. A couple of cards were passed around and signed, and one girl even brought flowers. Tears were already in audience members’ eyes before the lecture had begun.

A room full of students came together to hear Dr. Penny Wheeler’s lecture on the love and loss of her daughter Olivia Chutich, a member of the Delta Delta Delta chapter at Iowa State who died of hypothermia and alcohol intoxication in January 2021.

Dr. Penny Wheeler, retired chief executive officer of Allina Health and Chutich’s mother, started her presentation by thanking the audience for coming and saying, “Tears are okay. We think of them as healing.”

Wheeler said that this was the first time she and her wife, Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich, have been back to Iowa State since their daughter passed. They went to the Delta Delta Delta parking lot where she was found and laid flowers and decorations shaped like butterflies in remembrance.

“We were devastated and heart-crushed by this loss,” Wheeler said. “We are so grateful to have those 21 years with her.”

Wheeler said the last time she saw Chutich was when she went into Chutich’s room to give her a kiss on the forehead and to say “I love you,” before she went back to Ames.

“She said, ‘I love you,’ and one more I love you as I was going out the door,” Wheeler said. “We didn’t know it was our last goodbye, but if you’re going to have one it was wonderful.”

According to Wheeler, Chutich was excited to see all of her friends. She went out to the bars on a night that was described by Wheeler as “unseasonably cold” and did not dress for the weather.

Without her friends’ knowledge, Chutich left the bars and walked home. Her friends checked her location and saw she was at the Delta Delta Delta house.

“She was found the next morning in the parking lot, unresponsive and dead,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler now uses her grief and experience as a lesson to students on how to be safe when going out. Wheeler’s lecture focused on five main lessons: discussing intentionality and safety with alcohol, supporting friends, dealing with grief and extending kindness and love.

Wheeler emphasized that alcohol has much more life-threatening effects in the cold and that it is important to dress for the weather.

“I will never forget what I asked the medical examiner after Olivia died,” Wheeler said. “I said ‘Okay, if it was spring, would she be here?’ Yes, she would.”

Wheeler said she knows it isn’t always cool to wear a coat, but it is so important.

A video of Charlotte Everist, a friend of Chutich, was shown during the lecture. She used her experience of losing Chutich to make a change through her work in Student Government and the Party SmartSMART campaign.

SMART is an acronym that stands for “Stick with friends, Make sure to eat, Alternate with water, Reach out in a crisis and Travel back safely.”

Everist said that the reality is that going out and drinking is part of most college kids’ social lives. They will go to bars, frats and tailgates. Drinking isn’t going to stop, but the way in which you go about it can change.

“The biggest thing is we wanted to take away a lot of the shame,” Everist said. “We wanted students to feel safe reaching out if they need help, if they feel unsafe, if they lose someone, if they need a ride home.”

“The last text I had with Olivia was ‘Pace yourself and be safe,’” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said that there are approximately 1,800 college-aged students who die every year from alcohol-related deaths.

“It was just a perfect storm of events,” Everist said. “College feels like a very isolated, small intact community where you’re kind of invincible and it’s you against the world, and sometimes real life breaks through that barrier.”

Wheeler stressed how important it is to be smart when it comes to drinking and to be there for friends when they need it. She said that when tragedy strikes, it is that much more important to continue to support the ones you love.

“The extension of love saves lives,” Wheeler said. “I know it saved ours.”

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