Greek life ain’t what it used to be

There isn’t anything in life that lasts forever, especially the past.  Someone is always coming along re-writing it, re-inventing it or re-shaping it.  It’s like that with everything I guess.  Religion and the church, athletics, the military, family life.  It’s all changing and I doubt its ever going to stop.

One thing that caught my attention almost three years ago was the changes in Greek life on campuses.  I was fortunate to be involved in a fraternity during my extended tour of a liberal arts college in my hometown.  I knew a lot of the guys in my fraternity when I entered college and soon I was a pledge traveling the path to brotherhood.

I did so well my first semester that I made dean’s list.  Not the one that is published in your hometown paper, but the one that says “your son or daughter is performing at a prekindergarten level and we will only accept your tuition payments one more semester.  The fraternity still loved me, but as a commuting student living at home, my Dad held veto power over my fraternity life.

Interim spring grades came out and the college confirmed that would still accept tuition payments to be applied towards a degree which was now likely a five year endeavor.  Shortly after mid terms and spring grades, fraternities always conveniently schedule spring initiations.  On April 27, 1973, I became the 63rd initiate of my local chapter of a national fraternity founded right here in South Carolina.

Pi Kappa Phi fraternity bestowed chapter rights on a group founded by local guys that became Gamma Rho Chapter at Lander College in 1970.  There were seven founding members and twenty eight charter members.  In the fall of 1973 our fraternity was in need of new members and two of my closest friends from high school came aboard with a number of other local guys.

Over the next year we assembled a team that would work together for almost three years.  We experienced growth in numbers and our accomplishments were many but we had stumbles along the way.  One fall when we had plenty of money, we spent big on “rush season” and got only one pledge that turned out to be a keeper.

His name was Ralph and he was about 6’7″ tall and he was more than welcome on our intramural teams.  We called him the “Six Million Dollar Man” reflective of the amount we had spent that fall.  As it turned out, Ralph knew other people and that thought our fraternity house was a good place to hang out,  growth continued as it was supposed to.

Somewhere along the line, I had dropped out of school and was working.  I was still involved, not that I was an alumni, but somehow I was on the board of the Housing Corporation.  Now that’s a job that no one wants and everyone should have for at least 10 minutes.  You’re responsible for everything these guys do and don’t do.

You pay the rent on the house and every bit of expense associated with it, just like your own home.  We had a small problem that reared its ugly head every now and then, the oil fired furnace.  In all honesty, this was a problem of our making that took a few years to come back and bite us.

In a nutshell, when we leased that old two story Victorian, we had a budget of a few thousand dollars.  The house had no heat, no paint – inside or outside and was missing many other things.  We opted for the oil furnace installed on the ground floor level and vents upstairs in the floor directly above the blower.  It was a good theory, but it never worked.

Early on, we were a small group and everyone agreed that clothes needed to be worn until bedtime in the winter months.  As the years went by and new guys came in, their definition of clothes was different.  Winter clothes became shorts, t-shirts and flip flops.  The thermostat became the insulating factor for these guys and the oil burned and burned.

What initially was a three tank plan for the cold months became a five tank plan and at more than $300 per tank, you can imagine what that does to your budget.  Like I said, everyone ought to be in charge of a fraternity house for about 10 minutes.

As time passed, others took over and I re-enrolled in school, at night.  I was married and had a career plan and my employer told me that if I finished my degree in accounting there was a future for me.  I was working in the corporate office of a local large privately owned textile company.

The same textile company that held the lease on the fraternity house was my employer.  The lease was held by one of their affiliate companies and of course I knew everyone that worked there.  From time to time, I would get word that my labor of love, my fraternity was seriously behind on the rent payments.  Embarrassed, I would venture forth and find who ever holding the 10 minute job, find out exactly how much cash they had on hand and return with a check that I was sure wouldn’t bounce.

This pattern continued until, I was informed by my employer that the lease was going to be terminated for cause and all back rent would be waived, but eviction would be imminent.  There were howls of protest from these people that I barely knew, but they agreed and soon found more modest quarters in not nearly as good of a location.

The sweetener for them was that my employer had signed a contract for the demolition of the old house to begin on the first day of the following month.  The contractor began staging equipment on adjacent property for the fraternity to see.  Things appeared to be going smoothly and I was relieved.

What I didn’t know was that in true Animal House tradition, they had scheduled one last keg party in the old house on the last night of the month.  Everything had been moved out,  It was an empty house with electricity and running water that would be disconnected the next morning.

When I was in school and active, we had some parties in that house, but these guys broke all known records for parties that night.  Supposedly there were record crowds and the city police paid more than one visit, but apparently no one was arrested.

The house was about three blocks from campus and was situated in a transition area between residential and commercial properties.  The visits by the police were not the first and this was about 1980 and we had held the house for seven years.  The day after the party was one I wasn’t prepared for at all.

Even though I was no longer actively involved, I was summoned by the property manager who always called about the derelict rent payments.  He called my desk phone and said abruptly ” I’m headed to Stanley Avenue and you need to meet there ASAP and he hung up.  506 Stanley Avenue was the address of the fraternity house needless to say.

When I arrived, the property manager was pacing back and forth across the front yard and said let’s go.  Up the steps we went and through the wood and beveled glass door we went.  As you can imagine, it looked like a keg party had been held there the night before.  The carpets were soaked, the place reeked of beer, smoke and whatever else.

The sight I wasn’t prepared for jumped out at me just as I was getting used to the smell.  Every window in the house was broken out.  I’m talking about 100 year old rolled glass two sash windows that were on average six feet in length.  One window at the bottom of the staircase was nearly ten feet in length, it was also broken.  Not just cracked, but knocked completely out.

Rolled glass isn’t safety glass.  It doesn’t shatter or spider, it pretty much breaks out just like in the movies when a bad guy gets thrown through one.  Needless to day in 1980, rolled glass was already rare and valuable.  Back to the contract to demolish the house.

An integral part of the contract for demolition was the value of the rolled glass windows, the heart pine floors, the stair case and all of the other beautiful mill work found inside.  When the contractor came that morning to verify that he could start work, he called and notified the owner, that the contract wold have to be adjusted to compensate for the damage done to the windows.  There was other damage to doors and the staircase, etc.

The reason I was summoned as a witness.  My counterpart, the property manager had just taken a serious butt chewing and was told that the owner, my employer fully intended to sue the local fraternity, the housing corporation and perhaps the national fraternity.

Having relayed this message to me with similar force as it had been passed on to him, he patted me on the back and said “we know they don’t have any money or anything of value, but you go tell them what we said.”  So I did.  I finally located someone responsible for the housing situation and arranged a meeting with a couple of guys that had been at the party the night before.

I forcefully, but calmly delivered the message that legal action against my brothers was looming on the horizon.  They were serious looking as I talked.  Finally, I asked them:  “What exactly happened over there last night?”.  The explanation was jaw dropping.  It had been a “pony keg” party.  Pony kegs are smaller than full sized kegs.

Every time a keg ran out, they simply tossed it out the window it was sitting in from of.  Then somebody got the bright idea to go outside and throw it back through the next window and so on and so on.  The party was over either when the beer ran out or all of the windows had been broken.  I was astounded.

That day was the beginning of the end for my fraternity chapter.  Oh they hung in there another thirty years until the fall of 2014.  But it was the beginning of the end.  They went through periods of time when they had no physical presence in the community.

Then all of a sudden it was on the front page of the local daily newspaper, above the fold.  In bold font:  LANDER FRATERNITY CHAPTER CLOSED, COLONY SUSPENDED.  The article said the chapter was closed by the college, the list of reasons were numerous and the door was closed as long as any current members were still undergraduates.

Ouch!  That’s kind of like the “death penalty” in college football.  I wasn’t exactly surprised but somewhere down inside of me I was pissed that the one thing I had worked so hard on for so many years was gone.  I started making calls to the brothers of my era and was met by a mixture of anger and indifference.

A group Facebook page was soon filled with messages from those wanting to take action and demand that this decision be reversed.  A few of us got together for lunch a couple of times and soon wound up dong nothing more than talking about the old times.  We were getting nowhere fast.

The Dean of Students was a friend of mine and had been there serving on the college staff from my student days.  I sent him an e-mail and soon we were on the phone having a very frank discussion about the events of the last year that had led up to this decision.  To put it frank terms, the patient had been on life support for a year and refused to sign a DO NOT RESUSCITATE ORDER.

The chapter had been out begging for money from alumni, calling in favors where they could find them but continued to act as if they were invincible.  When the end came, there were no more favors and the money and patience had run out.  So that was it.  After 44 years, it was over, done and finished.  It was hard to accept but time faded.

The results have been played out over and over again across the country on campuses large and small.  My national fraternity hired a polling company to e-mail alumni and find out what we thought could be done.  I answered honestly and thoughtfully on more than one occasion.  What happened to the data they collected, I never heard back.

A couple of months ago I read an article in the Charleston Post and Courier about how the College of Charleston had closed Alpha Chapter, the birthplace of my fraternity.  The current President of the college is a gentleman that was a member of Alpha.

He had a long history of of involvement over the years with the fraternity both locally and nationally.  He had been a member of the state legislature and had risen to Lt. Governor.  But the repeated violations of school policy with no signs of reform or remorse were too much.

When I was in school we partied.  But we were always a visible part of the college and tried to give back to our campus and the community.  I guess that just doesn’t fit in with the lifestyle anymore.

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