College fraternities: from pranks to public service
A reporter returns to his college fraternity to find knee-slapping reminiscing and what-were-we-thinking introspection.
In a creaky back lunchroom of the Phi Gamma Delta house, a gaggle of graying baby boomers is reminiscing about college frat days. As one story rolls off the lips of a 1973 grad, Dwight Ritter, the intervening decades seem to evaporate:
"The Pi Kappa Alpha fire engine kept being stolen off their front lawn, and the chapter president made me swear to help him find and prosecute every last perp," recalls Mr. Ritter, now a San Diego lawyer. "I came back to the Phi Gamma Delta house and [brother] Scott Sedam told me, 'Dwight, you shoulda been there. A bunch of us stole the Pike fire engine last night.' "
And so the laughter swells and the yarns continue – apocryphal, embellished, or exactly-as-it-really-happened, no one knows for sure. The gathering is the 50th anniversary of a particular fraternity (Phi Gamma Delta/Fiji) on a particular campus (Miami University) in a particular college town, (Oxford , Ohio).
The stories they are telling are particular as well, but universal in theme – prank, adolescent caprice, tomfoolery. They paint images of college fraternities that are as endearing to some people as they are obnoxious to others.
One grad recalls breaking into the Beta Theta Pi national headquarters to steal initiation "pledge" paddles. Several remember the late-night ritual of throwing ketchup bottles against buildings and laughing as if the red splotches left behind marked the unfortunate demise of "blind crows."
The common catalyst behind much of this activity – binge drinking – was well-entrenched on college campuses in the early 1970s, even though it wasn't called that yet. It would become a major national issue in the mid-1990s. By then, the US fraternity system, stung by alcohol-related deaths, had rethought its mission and created new drinking and initiation rules. But it wasn't soon enough to stop a slide in membership.
In light of the passage of time, the present-day recollections tell a larger story about why one of the most enduring features of American university life – the social fraternity – ultimately waned for more than a decade. But they also help explain why the phenomenon still appeals and why its retooling is aiding something of a rebirth with the "millennial" generation.
"The party animal frat boy is old school and old hat," says Jon Williamson, executive vice president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 5,500 chapters on 800 US campuses.
This week, the recollections are coming from some 400 Fiji alumni (including me), who have returned to this Mayberry-quaint southern Ohio town for four days of barbecues, breakfasts, and banquets. Members representing every one of the 50 years are donning purple and white Fiji caps, signing up for golf and tennis – and meeting classmates many have not seen in decades.
The house itself, a classic colonial with Greek columns and a portico, crowns a hill above the university and below the town. It draws a symbolic demarcation line between the rigors of academia and what little escape from it there is in Oxford, a village of book and retail stores, pizzerias and bakeries, clubs and theaters.
Inside, the house looks remarkably as it did 30 years ago. Rooms are wallpapered with posters of girls and rock bands. Mounds of clothes clutter the corners. The accouterments are standard-issue college guy – black lights and lava lamps, with the occasional organic chemistry book lying about, conspicuously.
Yet it's apparent how different things are, too. A recent Fiji pledge class served alcohol during a formal pledge function. That would have been de rigueur in our day. Today it brings the gendarmes. Just two weeks before the reunion, national Fiji officials announced they were closing the undergraduate chapter of the fraternity on campus indefinitely for "hazing and drinking violations."
Outside on the lawn, where alumni nibble ribs and reminisce amiably, the change in attitudes is evident as well – though induced, in this case, by middle age and maturity.
"It was fantastic to see everyone and strike up conversations and relive memories as if 35 years had not really passed," says Jerry Hornung, 1975, a lawyer in Cleveland. "What troubled me most about the weekend was observing the collateral damage of underage drinking. As we all raised our glasses throughout the weekend as adults, I could not help but wonder how our behavior over time affects students younger than we are."
That turns out to be a common theme over the weekend: what-were-we-thinking introspection, coupled with knee-slapping delight over old stories. One group is doubled over in laughter recalling the practice of "fig leafing" – wrapping a fellow frat brother in a blanket, carting him across campus, and releasing him, nude, to find his way back.
"They let me out by Harrison Hall – about a quarter mile from the house, and I had to run the entire way up slant walk with everybody watching," recalls one 1974 graduate.
Despite such antics, it's striking how many of the alums have gone on to hold serious establishment jobs. There are lawyers and Wall Streeters, doctors and professors, dentists and spies.
"My recollection is that most of us were middle-class kids as opposed to kids of privilege, and that our rebellion then did not translate into a life of 'tuning in, turning on, and dropping out,' " says Jim Narduzzi, class of 1975, a dean at the University of Richmond. "Quite the opposite, in fact. We became a bunch of hardworking family men. Who'd have thunk it?"
Everyone, for the most part, looks and feels the same as 30 years ago, except that they've all been sent to central casting for a little gray on the sideburns and ballast around the middle. Curiously, many at the reunion revert to the old hierarchies: If one guy was "cool" in college, others here who may have surpassed him in life on the success scale still kowtow in the old ways.
"There were many relationships that were exactly the same, mostly in good ways," says Scott Sedam (1974), a Michigan home builder.
To more than a few here, the biggest benefit of having lived in a fraternity was the social milieu – learning how to live with a diverse group of guys, even if you didn't want to break Swedish meatballs with all of them.
"Living in close quarters under all kinds of social and academic pressures at such a formative time forces you to grow," says Mike Stanley (1969), a career businessman and now a lay minister in Powell, Ohio. "I got into leadership positions early on in business because I learned about getting along with people – some of whom I liked and some I didn't."
Today's fraternities seem as likely to attract new members for academics and altruism as shenanigans and debauchery. At least that's the view of national fraternity officials, who portray the typical Greek house as a sort of UNICEF rather than something John Belushi would inhabit.
"Those fraternities which are marketing high scholarship, community service, philanthropy, and ways to develop leadership are the ones that are attractive to today's millennial student," says Mr. Williamson. "The [fraternities] which have the reputations as partyers are more often the ones that are struggling."
Could be. But it's not hard to find undergrads from Boston to Berkeley, Calif., who say partying is in no danger of vanishing.
From 1990 to 2000, membership in undergraduate fraternities in the US dropped from 400,000 to 300,000. Today it has edged back up to 350,000. Still, it's a tougher sell. Many students don't relish communal living, opting instead for virtual communities on websites such as MySpace.com and facebook.com.
But for one generation, for at least one weekend, the old face-to-face method was what felt right. As John McHugh (1974), an auto executive, put it: "How different we all are. And how I wish we were together, again."