I always enjoy it when a calendar entry takes me to a place I never experienced firsthand.
And this week we’re setting the Tardis for a most colorful location –a Sixties college fraternity in all its chug-all-night, twist-and-shout glory.
Specifically, we’re headed to the Sigma Chi house at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, a place where America’s future engineers worked hard and played harder:
(Why Sweetheart Weekend is on my grandpa’s calendar is an open question, as he did not go. My dad thinks my Aunt Elaine might have visited that weekend as a date for one of his fellow Sigs.)
My intro to this post is actually misleading. Sweetheart Weekend was — and probably still is — a formal Saturday night dinner-dance held at a local country club, not a beer-swilling basement hoedown.
But there were plenty of parties at Sigma Chi in the Sixties. (As my dad likes to say, “Some people don’t realize that ‘Animal House’ was a documentary.”)
And besides, this calendar entry made my mind ramble past a specific event and dwell on the broader subject of Greek life — which is, for the most part, a mystery to me.
Where I went to school, fraternities and sororities made up a small part of the social pecking order. In a city throbbing with students and nightlife, Greek organizations seemed kind of irrelevant. Only a small percentage of students belonged.
I was not among those pledging or rushing. Fraternities seemed best-suited to little college towns where you had to make your own fun, not cities like Boston.
Also, I might have bought into an opinion I heard many times freshman year in floor-lounge and cafeteria chats — that fraternities were for people who couldn’t find friends anywhere else or, worse, for people willing to “buy their friends.”
I would later fall into an organization — the student newspaper — that served as a sort of co-ed fraternity/sorority for the hardcore staffers who essentially lived there. Some of my best college party memories involve dancing atop the newsroom desks where, not long before, I was making phone calls to nail down a story.
But the Daily Free Press (which was always accused of anti-Greek bias in its news coverage, and maybe correctly) didn’t have the traditions of a Greek organization. There were no formals, no Sweetheart Weekend, no community service and no pledge/rush process.
I didn’t get a broader view of Greek life until I visited my dad’s old fraternity house in Troy. I’ve been there twice, but a visit last year for a reunion weekend particularly opened my eyes to the lasting connections that a fraternity can foster.
Looking at the old photo albums and overhearing these guys talk, it was clear to me that the traditions and responsibilities of a fraternity had bonded them in a lifelong way. Clearly, these were not bought friendships, nor shallow connections that ran out when the kegs did.
Nor were these guys paying lip service to their fraternity traditions. They wouldn’t have been there 45 years after graduating if they didn’t care. The fraternity experience improved them in some intangible way, and it still means something to them.
These connections are not limited to Sigma Chi, nor even to fraternities. Before writing this entry, I spoke at some length with an old friend (we’ll call her “Goofy,” her sorority nickname) who was a Delta Gamma at American University in the Nineties.
My friend talked about how difficult it was to bring 80 young women to an agreement, and how Greek life taught her to build consensus at a time in her life when she was also learning to be independent.
She told me about enjoying fall sorority football games. “It was serious,” she said, proudly. “We had a playbook!”
And she told me about how Delta Gammas from multiple classes joined together to raise money and support for a fellow DG fighting an aggressive form of cancer. (Unfortunately, my friend’s friend passed away over the weekend. A support site for her can be viewed here.)
Having heard and observed these stories of Greek connections, I don’t personally regret not rushing. I’m not sure how a fraternity would have fit into my college experience.
But I have a newly acquired respect for the Greek system that I didn’t have when I was 20. It’s not really about rich kids play-dressing in Greek letters and making everyone else knock to get into their treehouse.
It’s about personal connections, and maintaining and honoring tradition … things a family-history blogger can appreciate.
That said, I do still cling to one rule about fraternities and sororities that I learned in the Daily Free Press newsroom:
“Don’t call them ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ unless they’re related.”
Sorry, Dad and Goofy. I have my own deep-rooted college traditions by which I have to abide.
Come back tomorrow for a special coda, featuring value-added multimedia content. Trust me — you won’t want to miss it.