(EDITOR NOTE: Thursday marks the second anniversary of the death of 19-year-old Tucker Hipps, a Clemson Universary sophmore. This story was first published in February 2015 after we talked to his family and friends who then, like now, are still waiting for answers about the circumstances surrounding his death. )
After nearly five months of waiting for answers, the family and friends of Tucker Hipps are still in the dark about the circumstances surrounding the death of the 19-year-old Clemson University sophomore in September.
Jimmy Watt, an Oconee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said the death is still an active investigation. But he said the agency has scaled back the number of investigators working the case.
Deputies have interviewed more than 30 members of Hipps’ fraternity. Some of them had attorneys present during questioning, Watt said. That doesn’t mean criminal charges should be expected, he said. But authorities have not ruled out hazing as a contributing factor in the death.
The day after Hipps fatally fell from a bridge into a shallow portion of Lake Hartwell after a run with his fraternity brothers, Clemson suspended activities for all of its fraternities, citing reports of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct but stopping short of tying the ban to the death. Hipps’ fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, has since been banned from campus for five years.
On the law enforcement side, an endless trail of paperwork and man hours spent still have not led to any answers – at least any that have been made public – as to how Hipps fell into the water and hit his head on the rocks below.
Meanwhile, his loved ones miss him.
For Cindy Tucker Hipps, the pain of losing her only child remains in the forefront of her mind every morning and every night. Seeing news coverage of the case is like pouring salt into an open wound, she said.
But not hearing anything from authorities is just as bad.
“I hope no parent has to see what we saw,” Hipps said. “Seeing your only, precious son in a body bag is devastating.”
A sense of brotherhood
The pain of waiting for answers has been slightly lessened for Hipps’ loved ones by remembering a life that affected so many others.
From a young age, Tucker Hipps had a passion for being part of a brotherhood. He found it playing sports, then later at Palmetto Boy’s State. It was the same type of brotherhood he sought in a fraternity.
“He loved being in the middle of something worthwhile,” said his mother, whose family lives in the Upstate town of Piedmont.
Hipps said that from day one, her son had a big and inquisitive imagination and was an energetic child. If the sun was up, he was up.
She said he always thought of his grandparents’ home, on Lake Hartwell, as a second home. The Hipps family often would go there to spend the day boating and swimming.
“We would ride in the boat and park it near the bridges (on S.C. 123 and S.C. 93) so we could swim in the lake and wait for the train to come by,” she said.
He also spent time building things with his grandfather, for whom he was named, she said.
“They worked in the woodworking garage, making items for Tucker’s room,” Hipps said. “Tucker made a shelf when he was 4 or 5, hammering each and every nail.”
Hipps said Tucker and his grandfather would play cards together on a table they made, keeping track of who was winning with match sticks.
“I can still see both Grandpa and Tucker sitting at that same table playing cards,” Hipps said. “I know they are doing it in heaven.”
She said her son would often invite his friends to come and enjoy a day, or three, at the lake as well.
“We always looked forward to hosting all those kids even if it meant cooking three days and three meals a day,” Hipps said.
Hipps said after both of her son’s grandfathers died, he made “a special point to love on his grandma and grandmother.”
Hipps said while Tucker was attending Powdersville Middle School, it was tough to pin down about which sport he liked the most. If you asked him if he liked baseball or basketball better, he would pick whichever sport was in season.
She said the days of traveling with his baseball team were some of the best times of their lives.
After exploring opportunities in soccer, baseball and basketball, Tucker found a particular interest in football. That love for the hard-hitting team sport would carry into his high school years
Wren High School athletic director Jeff Tate coaches the varsity football team. He said Tucker, who played defensive back, was one of those athletes who came “ready-made.”
“He could fit in any environment he was placed,” Tate said. “He was one of those guys that could be out front or he could be in the mix. You wish you had a lot more athletes like him.”
Tate said not only did Tucker have a great attitude on the field, he also always had a great sense of humor off the field. Tate said one year Tucker got on the school’s P.A. system during spirit week to tell everyone he had licked another student’s armpit.
“That’s just Tucker being Tucker and just having fun,” Tate said.
Tucker always accompanied his sense of humor with a contagious smile. Tate said that in every photo, that smile was a testament to the kind of person he was.
The photos “reveal a lot about him,” Tate said. “That kid could have fun and make other people feel welcomed, too.”
Tate said Tucker’s encompassing attitude and his ability to get things done were why he recommended him for Palmetto Boy’s State.
‘We fed off his energy’
When it came to Palmetto Boy’s State, Tucker was “all in,” according to his mother.
The program is a youth government camp held for one week each year and aims to teach a select group of rising South Carolina high school seniors the importance of state government and leadership.
After attending the youth government camp for two years as both a camper and junior counselor, Tucker was selected to come back for a third year to be a senior counselor, leader of his own “city,” or group of campers.
“We fed off his energy, and he really brought out the best in us and encouraged people to try,” Greg Stoffelen said.
Stoffelen, 18, was a member of Tucker’s group of campers called the “Santee Streak.” He said Tucker made sure that his campers knew that failure was not the end of the world.
“He encouraged me to run for the treasury positions, and I made a fool of myself. But, I saw him smiling and just shaking his head,” Stoffelen said. “He was definitely like the big brother of the family.”
Max Fleming, who was also part of that group, said the confidence their leader had was something they called “Tucker swag.”
“He always wore the nicest clothes and had the best style,” Fleming said. “He used the word ‘swag’ a lot, even when it was dated. So we said he had ‘Tucker swag,’ which was kind of how he walked and dressed.”
Fleming also recalled his friend’s love for his girlfriend, Katie Clouse.
“He had a beautiful girlfriend,” Fleming said. “He loved her hands down, and he would have given the world to her.”
The love of his life
Katie Clouse, a freshman at Clemson studying special education, said she met Tucker when a mutual friend introduced them at a football jamboree the summer before her sophomore year at T.L. Hanna High School, a rival of Tucker’s school.
“I went home that night and told my mom how I thought he was so cute, with a great personality – and I had the biggest crush on him,” Clouse said.
For two years, Clouse said she put Tucker in the “friend zone.” But she eventually gave him a shot after he kept texting and flirting with her.
“We went on our first date to Spill the Beans in downtown Greenville and talked for hours after in the parking lot,” Clouse said. “On our one-year date, he parked in that same spot and told me how much he loved the year we spent together, and how thankful he was for the conversation we had in that spot that sparked everything.”
Clouse said she never had to open a car or restaurant door after she started dating Hipps.
“Not only the way he loved others, but the way he loved me are unforgettable,” Clouse said. “And he was a true Southern gentleman. Everyone always told me that he was constantly talking about ‘his girl’ and how beautiful she was on the inside and out.”
Clouse said the first semester of her freshman year – she’s a year younger than Tucker – has been hard since losing him. But the outpouring from the Clemson community, and her friends in her sorority, have helped ease the pain.
The news of Tucker’s death also struck deep for Katie Clouse’s mother, Sherri, who said she loved him like a son.
“Anyone who was around Katie and Tucker knew they were truly in love,” Clouse said. “Tucker was a gentleman, and he loved Katie the way a woman is supposed to be loved. If you saw them together you just knew.”
Cindy Tucker Hipps said Katie Clouse was the only girl her son ever brought home.
“The summer of 2014, Tucker was able to share a week in Florida with Katie and her family as well as a week at Kiawah with his family,” Hipps said. “This is the week I knew Katie was sure to be in our family for a long time to come.”
The death of a Tiger
Orange and purple pumped through Tucker Hipps’ veins from a very early age.
Tucker’s grandmother retired from Clemson as the dean of nursing, which initiated his exposure to everything Clemson. Although his mother and father did not attend the university, they, too, were loyal Clemson fans.
Cindy Tucker Hipps said that for 17 of her son’s 19 years, the family had season football tickets. They only missed two years, because of Tucker’s own involvement in sports.
Hipps said her son initially started in an engineering track in high school, but later changed his coursework to prepare for double major in political science and communications at Clemson. Hipps said he was influenced by his time at Palmetto Boy’s State and by Katie’s brother-in-law, who is an attorney.
With a passion for public speaking, Tucker had dreams of becoming becoming a sports announcer or being involved in state-level politics. After completing courses through the bridge program at Tri-County Technical College for a year, he became a Clemson Tiger.
On Sept. 22, 2014, Cindy Tucker Hipps received a call from Sherri Clouse at 3:30 p.m. that Tucker was missing.
As she and her husband drove to Clemson, she told him she knew the news would not be good.
“The coroner was very kind and prepared Tucker so we did not see all the injuries,” she said. “Just his face, so we could identify him.”
Thousands of students from Clemson and the University of South Carolina wore orange the day after Tucker died and held candlelight vigils to commemorate his life.
Champ Squires, who knew him through Palmetto Boy’s State, said the thing he cherishes most is the memory of his “Tucker hugs.”
“One of the first things that comes to mind is that he was ‘Tucker the hugger,’” Champ Squires said. “Whenever you saw Tucker, no matter who you were, he would hug you. It was an embrace that couldn’t be put into words – it had to be experienced.”
On Clemson’s campus, Tucker’s mother said, multiple people came up to her looking for a “Tucker hug.”
“I was told they could feel Tucker in my hugs,” Hipps said.