Caleb Dayton, 22, was known as a very smart and very thoughtful young man—the kind of person who enjoyed debating ideas for hours.
“His biggest strength was the way he thought,” remembers A.J. Moghaddam, who was best friends with Caleb from third grade through tenth grade.
“It wasn’t like, you ask me a question, I give you a response right away—he would pause and really analyze it,” Moghaddam explains. “He definitely liked to play the devil’s advocate, too.”
Dayton’s childhood friends are now coming to terms with the fact that the sweet, intelligent boy they remember—who is also the nephew of the Minnesota governor—committed suicide last month. While he had bounced around between high schools and colleges and struggled with addiction, friends say he was feeling good about his next steps and were shocked to learn that he had jumped from the Sherman Plaza Parking garage in downtown Evanston.
“Back when I knew Caleb, the Caleb I knew, I could never even possibly fathom that he would do something like that,” Moghaddam said. “I have no idea what he was going through.”
Although Dayton was living in Evanston at the time of his death, he grew up in Minneapolis, MN, and comes from a well known family within the state. Beyond his relationship to Gov. Mark Dayton, Dayton is also the grandson of Douglas Dayton, who was the founder and first president of Target
Dayton graduated from high school in 2009, then attended several different colleges and universities, according to friends. Most recently, he completed courses at Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies in the winter and spring quarters of 2013, but was not currently enrolled, according to a university spokesperson.
“We extend our condolences to the family and friends of Caleb Dayton,” vice president for university relations Al Cubbage said in a statement. “His absence will be felt and he will be remembered by his friends, fellow students and the Northwestern community.”
Early Classmates Remember Dayton As Smart, Generous
Moghaddam met Caleb in the third grade at Breck School, a small private school in suburban Minneapolis that enrolls students from preschool through 12th grade. The two played videogames and paintball together, went to the park to play with Dayton’s Golden Retriever, Buddy, or talked for hours about history and politics, among other subjects.
“He was one step ahead of everybody else, saying … very mature things,” Moghaddam recalls. “Every topic, we would talk for hours and hours about it.”
In school, Dayton was at the top of his class, according to Moghaddam. He was especially good at math and history, and had a precocious vocabulary.
“I remember when he came over to my house, my parents were just blown away by the words that he used,” Moghaddam said.
Dayton was also good at sports, especially cross-country skiing and martial arts, and Moghaddam remembers that he had a black belt in karate.
Fellow Breck classmate and cross-country skier Anne Whiting also remembers Dayton as a standout on the team and in the classroom. When she struggled with chemistry as a freshman, she remembers him generously helping her out.
Whiting also invited Dayton to the school’s Sadie Hawkins Dance, where the girls traditionally ask the boys.
“He was just, in my opinion, a really awesome, really intelligent, really handsome, nice guy,” she said. “It’s really a tragic loss, and I think we’re all very shaken by it.”
Breck School classmate Alexandra Buffalohead also skied with Dayton, and remembers him as smart, well mannered and outgoing, with a warm smile. She and Dayton dated briefly in middle school, until she found out that he kissed another girl during spin-the-bottle. She remembers him as attractive and romantic.
“One of my best friends, it was really kind of romantic—,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Your eyes are two blue icy pools that I want to jump into.”
Switching High Schools, Pranks and Lawsuit Followed
After the 10th grade, Dayton switched from Breck School to Blake School, a very similar private school in the Minneapolis area. That seemed strange to many of his fellow students, given the intense rivalry between the two schools, according to Moghaddam.
The rivalry dates back around 100 years, Moghaddam says, and is particularly fierce around sports games. Pranks were common, including a semi-annual ritual in which kids from Breck would paint a rock at Blake School.
Around the time that Dayton switched schools, he and Moghaddam fell out of touch. Moghaddam says Dayton never really explained why he decided to switch, and didn’t tell him he was leaving until the last day of tenth grade.
“He said something about, ‘I want to meet new people,’ but he didn’t give me specific reasons,” Moghaddam recalls. “I was really bummed to hear that.”
Two years later, when Dayton was 18, his parents sued three fellow Breck students, claiming physical and emotional damages for two years of egging and other acts of vandalism to their Minneapolis home, which began around the time Dayton switched schools. The New York Times picked up the story, reporting that the family sought $4,112 in damages to their home and more than $50,000 in emotional damages per family member.
“In an effort to bring this matter to a rest, we reached out to the families of those whom we understood were involved,” the Daytons said in a statement to the Times. “Unfortunately, despite repeated efforts to work with the young adults, their parents and the authorities, we still find we are under attack and suffer continued harassment and vandalism.”
Asked whether he believes the pranks were malicious, Moghaddam said he thought it was just “adolescent mischief.”
“Regardless, it wasn’t right for anybody to do that if you don’t like somebody or not,” he said.
Fellow Breck School alum David Briggs says he does remember some bullying occurred before Dayton even transferred schools.
“He was a redhead, that was one thing,” Briggs said. “And then, coming from the Dayton family, he kind of seemed like an easy target.”
Out of the roughly 100 kids in their class, Briggs says, it was a very small group of people who actually targeted Dayton.
“He was the sweetest kid in the world … he really didn’t deserve it,” Briggs said. “He was always open minded and had an open heart.”
Dayton Was Excited About Transferring Colleges
The last time Moghaddam saw Dayton was during their freshman year of college, when Dayton was going to Washington & Lee. He later transferred to the University of Minnesota, before winding up at Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies, according to Moghaddam.
Shortly before he died, Dayton was trying to transfer schools again, and had just applied to the “StepUP Program” at Minneapolis’ Augsburg College, according to friends. The program serves students who are in recovery for drugs and alcohol.
A spokesperson for the college said information about applicants is protected under federal law, so she could not confirm whether Dayton had applied or was accepted.
Briggs, who graduated from Augsburg, remembers that Dayton messaged him on Facebook about transferring about a week before he died.
“He was really excited to keep moving forward with his education,” Briggs said. “I just didn’t see it coming.”
Joey Joyce, who attends Augsburg College and knew Dayton in high school, had also talked to Dayton about transferring. Joyce knew Dayton from two rehab programs they attended in 2011, one in Minnesota and the other in Washington.
“He was very excited that he was able to come in and get accepted into this program,” Joyce said. “He was very excited to move on and be back in Minnesota.”
Dayton reached out to Joyce in hopes that Joyce could serve as a reference and help him get into the step-up program, according to Joyce. The two were supposed to have coffee the day the day after Dayton died.
When Joyce found out about his death, his first reaction was disbelief—because in their last conversations, Dayton had seemed so excited about his next steps.
“He was very excited to … move forward with his life,” Joyce said. “There was a real joy to being around him.”