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Drinking age war pits Schaumburg mom vs. college presidents
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 9/15/2008 12:24 AM

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NEWS ITEM: One-third of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq were 18-21 years old.

NEWS ITEM: College presidents want drinking age lowered to 18.

NEWS ITEM: Pressure intensifies on states to raise driving age to 18.

Two years ago today, I wrote a column in this space about the problem with the "age of majority" in Illinois and everywhere else in the U.S - that it doesn't really exist and how that causes confusion, conflicting messages and deaths.

At age 16, a person can drive in Illinois. At age 17, it is OK to join the military, with parents' permission. At age 18 one can vote, hold many public offices, serve on juries and perform various other civic functions.

At age 21 a person can buy and drink alcohol.

It was and still is a "helter-skelter approach" to the granting of legal rights, an approach that makes little sense.

The jagged patchwork results in this question: Why do we trust 18-year-olds to own cars, drive tanks, adopt children, have abortions, vote for president, get married, fly airplanes, serve on juries and file lawsuits but we don't trust then to legally buy Miller Lite?

Recently, there have been separate moves under way to raise the driving age and lower the drinking age, essentially arriving at an age of consensus in this country that would be 18.

The Marine Corps recently lowered the permissible drinking age from 21 to 18 for Marines on liberty overseas and those taking part in official on-base command functions.

But there is certainly no public consensus on doing it here.

This summer, though, 130 college presidents across the country called for lawmakers to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 as a way to discourage binge drinking on campus.

Ninety percent of all alcohol consumed by people younger than 21 is in the form of binge drinking, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Local college leaders who signed on to the growing initiative included the presidents of Chicago State, Lake Forest College, Robert Morris and Roosevelt.

The presidents of Duke, Ohio State, Dartmouth, Maryland, Syracuse, Trinity Lutheran and Butler were also on the list.

"I learned to drink in the homes of professors and after church services. They showed me that drinking was part of a larger social fabric," said Butler University President Bobby Fong, who taught his own children to drink responsibly at home. "We cannot provide that social fabric because serving alcohol is against the law."

"It's the joy of 'I can get away with this' . . . the joy of being a rebel," said Heidi Landwehr, 18, a Butler University freshman from Arlington Heights.

"When you get older, you don't see people getting totally trashed. It's more casual drinking because it's legal. At our age, people want to do it because you can't do it," Landwehr told the Indianapolis Star.

Coincidentally, as I was writing this column, an e-mail arrived from Rita Kreslin of Schaumburg. She had attached a letter to Butler University President Bobby Fong, which she copied to many of the other college presidents who backed the lower drinking age.

"You may not personally remember me, but I hope you remember my last name or maybe the full name of John J. Kreslin, Jr.," began her letter to President Fong. "You attended his funeral 6 years ago this past Labor Day weekend."

"John is my son and he lost his life at the age of 19 on August 30, 2002, just days after he started his sophomore year at Butler. He was studying to become a pharmacist. I believe it was the same weekend you started your first year as president at Butler."

Her son was a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend. Two other girls were in the car.

"There was alcohol and marijuana involved in the crash. The driver hit a tree going 65-75 mph in a residential area, where the speed limit was 25 mph. My son died instantly," Rita Kreslin stated in a description on the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists Web site.

Her letter to Fong asked whether he has "forgotten how my son lost his life? If you have I will gladly refresh your memory. I will send you a few photographs from the car crash."

"John is still remembered and greatly missed," she wrote. "Losing a child is grief that never goes away and one I hope you never have to experience. Changing the drinking age would be a big mistake and would cost more lives than save lives. To say the least, I am very, very disappointed to see your name on that list."

Rita Kreslin's pain is obvious and understandable and it is difficult to disagree with her. But like so many who have lost teenagers, she doesn't claim to have a solution to the underage drinking problem.

Fong believes the 21-year old drinking age is the problem and that lowering the age to 18 to curb binge drinking is the solution.

"Drinking and driving is a crime," he says. "It is irresponsible whether one is 15, 18, 21, 35, 48 or 70."

I keep going back to the statistic that one-third of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war have been 18-21 years old. They lost their lives fighting for freedom in a foreign country - where the drinking age is 18.

Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at chuckgoudie@gmail.com