Dakota Parker once said something that stuck with Alex August, his best friend and pledge brother.
"'Look at each person as if they have value and wealth, and you’ll find it in them,’” August, freshman in business, said. “'Even those most criticized by others.’”
Dakota was struck and killed by a passing train early Saturday, April 9. He was 19 and in his second semester at Auburn. Police are still investigating it as an accident.
August was with Parker at 17-16 on Friday night, but he went home early to study for a flight class. The next morning, nobody knew where Dakota was. August found out about Dakota’s death from his mother, Shannon Parker, at approximately 9:30 a.m.
“I was just in total shock,” August said. “It didn’t really seem real. I felt like Dakota was just going to walk in the door at any second. I was mad because I was there with him the night before. And I felt like it was almost my fault because I left and went home early, and I could have just stayed there and watched him. ... I was just confused more than anything.”
Growing up, Dakota was an avid Alabama fan, according to Shannon. He even painted his room crimson, gray and white. But all of that changed on a college visit with a high school friend.
“He called my husband on the way home and said, ‘Father, I’m going to Auburn,’” Shannon said.
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Dakota was one of the first people August, an Indiana native, met at Auburn at the beginning of their pledgeship at Sigma Phi Epsilon.
“He was one of the first people to reach out to me and extend real friendship,” August said.
However, August said he didn’t like him the first time they met, remembering their first interaction with a laugh. But when they had a chance to hang out and have a conversation, they “clicked,” according to August. Dakota was always with people. He never wanted to be alone.
He’s even the reason Emmy Leberte, freshman in journalism, stayed at Auburn.
“I was going to leave school, and he made this group message and was like, ‘These are going to be your friends, you’re going to stay [at Auburn], and you’re doing everything with these people,’” Leberte said. “And it worked.”
August described Dakota as “a matchmaker for friends.”
“He started a GroupMe called ‘Rage Gang,’” August said. “We all got to know each other through the GroupMe and through hanging out and through Dakota.”
Leberte said before Dakota, her only friend was her roommate Jackie Starck, freshman in graphic design. Starck and Leberte met Dakota during their first semester at Auburn, and were fast friends who went to concerts.
They saw “bizarre and different” bands together, and their favorite was STS9. Starck and Leberte kept his dog, Spud, at their house because he couldn’t have him at his apartment.
Dakota got Spud off Craigslist for free, according to August. He laughingly said Spud was a weird dog that liked to sit on top of people, but Dakota loved him.
August never went to a concert with Dakota, but they went on several spontaneous road trips to places such as Birmingham; Pensacola, Florida; and Little Grand Canyon in Lumpkin, Georgia.
“[Spontaneity] made him so unique,” August said. “He’d always be looking to do something, no matter what time of day it was.”
Shannon said Dakota was so spontaneous because he loved challenges.
“Throughout high school, our house was always full,” Shannon said.
Dakota’s door was always open for anyone but especially his friends. He was hardworking and selfless, according to Starck and Leberte.
“He was always the life of the party,” Starck said. “He was always smiling, always included everyone.”
During severe weather approximately one month ago, Dakota invited several of his friends to spend the night with him at the fraternity house. They cuddled in his room with their dogs and ate pizza while riding out the storm.
“He texted us, and he was like, ‘I need to make sure all of my people are safe,’” Leberte said.
Earlier that night, August was in another friend’s room when he had a seizure. It happened suddenly, and August said Dakota was there almost immediately to take him to the hospital.
Dakota had big dreams and plans, they said, but his friends and Spud were always part of them.
“They had the best relationship of dog-owner,” Starck said. “[Spud has] been looking for him. It’s really sad.”
August said the pledge class and fraternity as a whole have grown from Daktoa’s death.
“He was always looking for ways that he could better the fraternity and bring people together,” August said. “Dakota was always looking for ways to break down barriers between older guys and younger guys.”
Dakota played football and baseball at Priceville High School in North Alabama.
Dirk Strunk, Priceville’s varsity football coach, coached Dakota his senior year. Strunk said the starting safety was a “big brother and mentor” to his son, David.
“My son really looked up to Dakota,” Strunk said.
Leberte said she learned many lessons from her friendship with Dakota.
“He’s taught me so much about friendship,” Leberte said. “You could be the weirdest human in the world, and he would be hugging you the minute he met you.”
Shannon said she is having people bring photos of themselves with Dakota so she can “experience his experiences.”
Starck and Leberte said they will remember him as an animal lover and by his smile and curly hair. They had plans for the future with Dakota, but are thankful for their time with him.
“At first, we were like, ‘This isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this shouldn’t have happened to him,’” Leberte said. “But we were thinking about it on our car ride home, and we were like, Dakota’s purpose, all he ever wanted in life was for his friends to be together, and he fulfilled his purpose. We’re all going to be together through thick and thin, and that’s not going to change. We think Dakota came here and did his job, and that was for all of his friends to find each other.”
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