college fraternity to find
knee-slapping reminiscing and
Oxford, Ohio - 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...
This from the Christian Science Monitor, illustration by Scott Wallace.