Walking into the Dhanens home, one is greeted with smiles and warmth, but the warmest smile of all comes from a senior portrait in the living room.
The photo rests on a cabinet in remembrance of Philip Dhanens, the 18-year-old Fresno State freshman who lived in the house before his death.
Philip died Sunday, Sept. 2 after attending a party at the Theta Chi fraternity to which he was pledging at the time. The cause of death was acute alcohol poisoning, according to the Fresno County Coroners Office.
He left behind his mother and father, Diane and Paul Dhanens, as well as his two older brothers, Niles and Joseph Dhanens and his girlfriend of more than two years, Zoe Tucker.
Philip was born and raised in Bakersfield and was always larger than his two older brothers, their mother said. She remembered when Philip was in kindergarten; she was washing mud off of his feet and was so surprised to see his ankles were larger than hers. She thought that they were swollen and asked the pediatrician if Philip was okay. The pediatrician only said that Philip was going to, “be a big boy.” Philip grew to be 6 feet 5 inches.
Philip was a little bit different, Diane said, always standing out in one way or another. He was always the tallest kid in his classes and while his brothers would look on with terrified faces while their mother scolded them, Philip would giggle or laugh.
In kindergarten, Philip would get in trouble for talking in class. It was always the same, said his mother. He would lean over and tell jokes or make the other children laugh.
Philip kept these habits into high school, leaning over to tell friends and classmates things.
“He was very into humor at a very young age,” Diane said, and he was able to talk to just about anyone.
Once while Philip and his uncle were having dinner, a woman in her 60s was celebrating a birthday party. She was sitting close to where Philip was eating.
“Philip leans over and asks her, ‘how many years young are you?’ What 15-year-old is going to say that?” Diane said.
They hit it off and they chatted throughout the night.
Philip was always one to hug people, said his mother, and sometimes lift them up into a giant bear hug. He would also lean on his mother and Zoe, always in an affectionate manner.
“I would go ‘No no no! Don’t lean on mommy!’” Diane said.
Philip attended Garces Memorial High School, a Catholic school in Bakersfield where he played football for three of his four years.
Philip’s oldest brother Niles recalled Philip viewing school differently than his brothers had growing up.
“We were there for the grades, he was there for the relationships,” Niles said.
Philip’s mother said his greatest passion in life was Zoe.
“He really wanted to get married and have a family,” Diane said.
The two met their freshman year in high school and Philip liked Zoe from the start. He became her first boyfriend after confessing his feelings via text message, but Zoe demanded Philip make it official in person the very next day.
“I said, ‘Philip! You need to ask me right now or I won’t talk to you,’” Zoe said.
The two became inseparable after that.
“We had it all planned out,” Zoe said. “We pretty much had our lives all dialed in by junior year. We were just waiting for things to unfold.”
In fall 2012, Philip was admitted and began his first semester at Fresno State while Zoe remained at home as a student at CSU Bakersfield. He loved being a Bulldog, even though it was for a short period of time, his mother said.
Though he was an undeclared major, Philip had plans to move back to Bakersfield after college and become a construction manager and marry Zoe in a Catholic church.
Only three days before his death, Philip told Zoe he wanted to join a fraternity after meeting some Theta Chi members.
“He met the guys and he just really liked them and he was like, ‘yeah, these guys are so cool! And this guy really liked me and I really want to join a fraternity because it sounds like a lot of fun and I just really like all the guys there,’” Zoe said.
Zoe was happy he was so excited.
To add to the excitement, Philip’s brother Niles planned to visit his little brother that same weekend. He hoped to see Philip for the first time as a college student — but he would never have the chance.
Philip’s funeral was held on his third year anniversary with Zoe. She still wears his class ring on a chain around her neck.
“Since Philip died, two-thirds of my dreams— he’s been in them,” Zoe said. “The ones that are the most comforting are the ones where he tells me that he’s sorry. I wake up not sad, it’s more you’re happy he’s in your dream.”
Philip’s mother said that though she feels her son’s death was a tragedy, there is a purpose for everything — that God meant Philip to live for 18 years and though she does not understand his death, God does.
Niles said he still feels like Philip is part of the Fresno State community.
“It’s not like it ended when he died,” Niles said. “When I hear about Fresno State, I think about Philip.”
This year was the first Thanksgiving without Philip for the Dhanens family. It was their turn to host the holiday for their extended family and though everyone asked if they would prefer to have it somewhere else, Philip’s mother insisted they have it at their home, saying she needed to be busy and surrounded by family.
“I just knew that I wasn’t going to get that kiss on the top of my head, because nobody can kiss me on the top of my head like Philip could,” she said. “Or put his head on the top of my head or lean on my shoulder or tell me how good that smells— ‘I can’t wait mom, I love your stuffing.’”