When I enrolled at KU in the fall of 1977, it was like attending school halfway around the world. Even though my parents were alumni, my universe to that point was confined to a geographical area within roughly 50 miles of my central Kansas hometown. Hutchinson, Hays, Salina and Wichita seemed like distant cities. At that point, I had never set foot in Memorial Stadium and had been to Allen Field house just once. I pledged a fraternity – the DU house – because my best friend and high school classmate, John Holt, was a triple legacy there. Looking back, my life to that point had been pretty sheltered.
Needless to say, all that changed. But it wasn’t until Hollywood released the movie Animal House my sophomore year that the world flipped upside down. The fictional Delta house became the new standard for fraternity conduct. Raunchy behavior–already deeply entrenched in the frat culture–had a new poster boy. Toga Parties, road trips and double secret probations became en vogue. Back then, the drinking age was 18, which meant 16. For many, academics took more than a back seat; it left the seating area altogether. Pre-med became pre-telemarketing. Pre-law became pre-paralegal. The Mad Hatter–a frat bar on New Hampshire–had a “drink and drown” night on Thursdays that tested fire codes and Friday morning class attendance equally. That bar was famous for something called “Hatter Batter” – fluid that collected on the Top Siders of anyone who stepped inside. Part beer, part Bacardi, all nasty.
I watched all this unfold from a distance. Like my hometown buddy who wanted to be a television anchor someday, we stayed true to our academic goals. But many others crashed and burned. Guys went home for Christmas, received their grade card and never set foot on campus again. Others came back but made Bluto’s nine-year college run in Animal House seem short. I watched how college generally and fraternities specifically can wreck the best of academic plans.
So naturally, when my second son decided he was KU bound, I tried to steer him in the direction of other housing options, but my run at scholarship halls lasted just seconds. Plan B was attending an open house for seniors last fall. We got a tour of one of the dormitories on Sunflower Hill. It was newly renovated, and the students were welcoming. Tommy politely demurred.
Within a couple weeks, he was exploring Plan C–exploring the Greek alphabet not seen since Aristotle studied under Plato. He would leave Saturday afternoons, returning Sunday around noon, land on the couch and saw logs until dinner. Questions about the weekend were greeted with big smiles. “It was awesome, Dad,” he would say. Other details, such as a college major, tuition financing and post-college goals were tossed to the wind. Initially, there were zero pretensions that this was anything resembling a search for a home for the next four years.
Tommy had the benefit of at least 10 different fraternity “rush parties.” One weekend he drove to Lawrence with plans to attend a party hosted by the
Sig Ep house. He got lost and then re-oriented. Tommy and his buddy walked in, got a nametag, worked the crowd and around midnight learned he wasn’t at Sig Ep, but Kappa Sig. No matter – “It was awesome!”
Some fraternities had poker tournaments, pool tournaments, ping pong and beer pong, and some had nothing organized at all except for visits from the nearby sorority girls who, shall we say, made dermatology-challenged 17-year-olds feel downright mature. Shockingly, no fraternities had quiz bowls or chess tournaments. Meanwhile, I kept bringing the topic back to reality, with “this is a big decision…” And with time, he equipped himself with pretty solid judgment; he knew some had rules that were actually enforced, some cared about his ACT score and to join, some required more than just a pulse. He ended up in a good place, we believe, but whether he continues to make good choices remains undetermined.
For me at least, I moved into the DU house and like my high school buddy, called it home for four years. By the spring of 1981, most of my pledge class had left; many had disappeared completely. Those few who stayed with me remain my best friends today. I’m hoping my son’s college journey is just as rewarding.
words by Matt Keenan