During my Miami University days, before I knew I would have to put away most of my little boy toys and mentalities and start slugging it out in the adult world, I was a member of a fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon. At Miami in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that was absolutely the thing to do for guys looking for ways to enhance their social lives as a counterbalance to our serious-minded approach to our studies (hard to get through the last half of that sentence without a chortle or two).
Miami has always been steeped in the Greek tradition. As a matter of fact, the university actually is home to no less than five alpha chapters, thereby richly deserving the moniker “Mother of Fraternities” as an homage to its 175-year Greek history. Across our nation on so many campuses, fraternities will tell you they adhere to the same five principles of the Greek community — scholarship and learning, service and philanthropy, leadership, community and brotherhood — that I was expected to uphold.
I’m not sure back in my frat days, though, that I or any of my mates were doing much to advance the causes implied by those principles. Having said that, however, the fraternity experiences I remember bear no resemblance to the all-too-frequent stories of today involving alcohol-fueled hazing and the tragic results that have followed.
From my initial involvement with the Sig Eps as a pledge in the spring of 1970, all the way to my last days as a Brother of the Golden Heart, I neither was subjected to nor did I subject others to anything that was inordinately humiliating or, worse yet, physically harmful.
Recently, I’ve thought a whole lot more about my big fat Greek times from long ago, especially when I read of pledge deaths caused by being coerced by peer expectation to consume massive amounts of alcohol to prove worthiness to join an organization, which, of course, registers a zero on the logic scale.
In 2017, there were four well-publicized cases where lofty fraternal ideals still listed in handbooks were cleared off the table to create more space for a few more bottles of Jack and Jim, which led to deaths on the campuses of Florida State, Texas State, LSU and Penn State.
Currently, a number of universities are doing far more than looking disapprovingly in the direction of their frat houses and issuing slaps on the wrist for alcohol-related incidents. Many have suspended all fraternity operations, showing an unwillingness to put their university in line for a black eye. What once was a system used as a selling point to entice a potential enrollee has now become a liability in the minds of many administrators.
And, like so many societal ills that seem to be far more prevalent now as we roll into the 21st century’s 18th year, it has been documented there has been at least one hazing death every year since 1961.
Perhaps the difference is now many are willing to shed more light on these totally unnecessary and senseless tragedies. Author Hank Nuwer, an anti-hazing activist, has written two books on the subject and, with no great sense of joy, is in the process of writing a third, entitled “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” to be published later this year by Indiana University Press.
As for my own recollections of my initiation week in that spring of 1970, the alcohol-related events were mild in a time when the legal drinking age was 18 for low-test beer. For example, imagine a couple of pledges standing nose to nose and being given an Alka-Seltzer tablet to put in their mouths and being told to take a swig of beer so that we could foam all over one another. Silly, yes, but harmful, no.
Contrast that with the death of Tim Piazza at Penn State, where security cameras in the frat house revealed he was given 18 drinks in a 90-minute period, resulting in a state of intoxication so extreme that he fell down a flight of stairs.
Looking back on my times, much of what we were expected to do was actually either educational or helpful to the eventual bonding we hoped to engender with the rest of the house. For example, we were expected to recite the Greek alphabet seven times on a burning match or face the “rigors” of 10 pushups. And, we were expected to keep a small notebook with us at all times and study and memorize the name, hometown, major and girlfriend’s name of every member of the house to avoid buying a member a pop if he so desired. To this day, I can still repeat that Greek alphabet, and I will always remember Bill Pierce was from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
My hope is that fraternities and other organizations such as bands and athletic teams are willing to reconfigure what parameters they use to initiate new members in ways that are long on welcoming, with a little silliness thrown in, and nonexistent on anything that humiliates or, worse yet, imperils.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.