Archive for the ‘fraternity’ Category

Nothing adds a little spice to the college experience like a parental visit.

Admittedly, I’m speaking from a distant perspective here. I’m 40 years old. It’s been almost 20 years since my parents visited me as a collegian — and that was for commencement. So I’m not exactly a current expert on the subject.

But memory says that Parents’ Weekend and other scheduled visits bring forth conflicting urges.

There’s that innate desire to clean up, do the big pile of laundry, wash the sheets, scrub the funk out of the bathtub, and show the folks you’re trustworthy and you’ve got your act together.

And then there’s the innate desire to rebel a little bit — to leave the beer bottlecap next to the kitchen sink, and the condom wrapper in the trash can — just to sting your folks with visible knowledge that you’re independent, and beyond their purview, and Charting Your Own Path, and Doing Your Own Thing.

(Not for years will you realize that they already know that. These are the people who remember changing your diaper and feeding you Ritz crackers to calm your three-year-old appetite as they cooked dinner, way back when in Nineteen Seventy-something. They already know you are functioning independently; the nightly silence in their house makes them keenly aware. But you feel the need to rub it in, all the same, because you don’t have the perspective to know any better.)

This week’s calendar entry captures that kind of moment.

May 13-14, 1966.

May 13-14, 1966. The Mets, mirabile dictu, are outperforming the Yankees. The luckless Johnny Keane has been jobless for a week; he has fewer than seven months to live.

If there was any tension between my grandparents and their only son/elder child, I suspect it had played itself out by May 1966.

At that point in time, my dad had completed his undergraduate degree, and had pretty well finished the additional work required for his master’s of science in management — the degree that kept him an extra year at RPI.

I’m fairly sure he was no longer living at the fraternity house where he’d spent some undergraduate time, as well. I believe he was living in a rat-infested off-campus apartment — the exterior of which I’ve seen two or three times. (Hopefully, the interior’s been improved since the Lyndon Johnson administration.)

I don’t know if my dad had his job offer in hand yet. But I know that just about a month later, he started work at the only company he would ever really work for. So he had probably gotten past his college indulgences and was ready to join the working world. In the month following Parents’ Weekend, my dad would put away collegiate things forever.

(If you’ve never read my “Blues for Mother Yellow” post about my dad’s corporate career, go read it now. I’ve been forming words into narratives since Nineteen Seventy-something, and they’ve never gotten better than they did that week.)

Still, I imagine Parents’ Weekend and the Talent Show were a spur for a long-ago cleanup … the impetus to get the underwear off the floor,¬† and wash the dirty dishes, and open the windows to banish the reek of beer.

No matter how mature you are, or how close you are to turning your tassel, you never quite let it all hang out during Parents’ Weekend.


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The following has absolutely no connection with family history. If that’s why you’re on the train, come back next Monday.

I love beer. Adore it, in fact. Nectar of the gods and all that.

There have been beer-related posts here before; and there are likely to be more in the future.

In fact, here comes one now …

# # # # #

For this past Monday’s post, I found myself looking at pictures of my parents’ rehearsal dinner, held in July 1967 at my grandparents’ house in Stamford, Connecticut.

Many of my dad’s fraternity brothers attended. So it’s no great surprise that beer mugs, cans and bottles are visible in the pictures.

I decided it would be an interesting historical expedition to try to figure out exactly what my grandparents chose to serve on their big occasion.

(I assume my grandparents, as gracious hosts of the party, supplied the beer, and that it was not brought by the fratboys. I am sure my grandparents would have wanted to make sure everyone was happy.)

And what did the hosts with the most offer their guests? For the most part, they served a brand still familiar today:

My dad-to-be with the Champagne of Beers.

My dad-to-be with the Champagne of Beers. Is there a sweeter sight than a nearly-full mug of beer?


Not sure whether the cans pictured are flipped upside-down because they’re empty, or whether it was the Thing to Do to open them upside-down. (If you’re using a church key, you can go either way, no?)

But Miller High Life wasn’t the only brew there … and that’s where things get historically interesting.

The can in my dad's hand is probably a Miller, though it looks vaguely Schlitzy. But more importantly, what's that brown can -- Gabl-something?

The can in my dad’s hand is probably a Miller, though it looks vaguely Schlitzy. But more importantly, what’s that brown can — Gabl-something?

Another brown can in the hand of my dad's best man, Louie Chiappetta. Looks like we can complete the name: Gablinger's.

Another brown can in the hand of my dad’s best man, Louie Chiappetta. Looks like we can complete the name: Gablinger’s.

My dad and his buddies might not have realized it at the time, but they were on the bleeding edge of a massive development: Light beer.

Just two weeks before the rehearsal dinner, Time magazine ran a story about how Rheingold, the venerable New York brewery, had purchased a Swiss chemist’s formula for making carbohydrate-free beer.

As of July ’67, the beer had just been rolled out, and was being pushed in the Tri-State Area by a “saturation advertising campaign,” the magazine noted. Perhaps it was that selfsame ad campaign that inspired my grandparents — or somebody — to pick up a sixer of Gablinger’s for the big party.

(The development of lower-carbohydrate beer is also commonly credited to a biochemist named Joseph Owades. Perhaps Dr. Owades, who worked for Rheingold, took the Swiss chemist’s formula and adapted it for Rheingold’s use.)

Gablinger’s print ads stressed that the beer was made the same way as any other brew — except with a mysterious “extra step” that removed carbs, making Gablinger’s a beer that “wouldn’t fill you up.”

Other ads, more directly aimed at weight-watchers, described Gablinger’s as a “diet beer” with fewer calories than skim milk.

Neither pitch connected with the frothing mass of America’s beer drinkers.

Perhaps those people felt that drinking “diet beer” was tantamount to an admission of being overweight. Perhaps, if they were slimming down, they simply chose to cut out beer altogether. Or, perhaps the pale golden brew simply didn’t deliver enough beer flavor and body to win over drinkers.

Whatever the reason, Gablinger’s was a failure, and Rheingold went out of business as an independent brewery less than a decade after the “diet beer” was introduced.

It was Miller — that other brand at my folks’ wedding reception — that finally hit paydirt years later with light beer, using a humorous, jock-filled series of TV ads that emphasized the tastes-great, less-filling angle while playing down the “diet” pitch.

(Using athletes was an ingenious way to connect with diet-shy drinkers: “That’s Mickey Mantle! He can’t be fat; he’s Mickey Mantle. Hence, Miller Lite must not make you fat.”)

And today, light (or “lite”) beer is inescapable. There will be countless rehearsal dinners across America this summer where the participants quench their thirst with Bud, Miller or Coors Light.

Personally, I’d rather have a Sam Adams … or, in a pinch, a Miller High Life.

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As promised, a coda to yesterday’s post.

As fraternities go, RPI’s chapter of Sigma Chi might have been a fun one to join.

In addition to an interesting cast of characters, the Sigs of the Sixties had their own R&B party band, Oedipus and the Mothers.

Oedipus might not have had the stage presence of Otis Day and the Knights, but they were surprisingly funky for a group of future engineers, architects and college professors. Their bust-ass versions of James Brown’s “Night Train” and Bo Diddley’s “Can’t Judge A Book” are still some of the strongest arguments ever crafted for the existence of the Greek system.

Full disclosure: I have twice had the pleasure of playing guitar with Oedipus at their reunion gigs, which is what brought me to my dad’s frat house.

You won’t hear me on the following songs, though. These are live recordings from the spring of 1965, taped at the Sig house on Pinewoods Avenue, Troy. This is what a Sixties frat party sounded like — at least, at a fraternity fortunate enough to have its own band.

I’ll provide the music; you provide the toga. Enjoy:

Night Train

Can’t Judge A Book

Oedipus and the Mothers:

Woody High, guitar and vocals; and Jim Straw, bass.

Lou Chiappetta, drums and vocals.

Gary Simundza, trombone.

Rod Blumenau, saxophone.

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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:

Dec. 11, 1965. Four days earlier in 1941, the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor.

(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.

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