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Fraternities And My Time In One

After what happened on that bus full of Sig Eps at Oklahoma U,  and the more recent one that posted inappropriate pictures on their Facebook site, the whole school fraternity system seems to be on trial.  Mike Barnacle recently said on Morning Joe, "It's 2015, who joins fraternities?"  All three Blythe boys were in a fraternity at our time at Iowa Wesleyan.  

If Mike Barnacle were sitting in front of me, I'd ask him what difference does it make what year it is?  I'd tell him that the first one started exactly 5 months after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, and about 139 years before Kiwanis, which you are probably a member of.  And Mike, 17 Presidents were members of fraternities and one is memorialized on Mount Rushmore.  Now before you think I'm some wild-eyed defender, I'll readily admit some fraternities have a history of bacchanal excess.  I suppose there has even been a not-so-good Kiwanis outfit from time to time.  

All fraternities have rituals, songs and tradition.  Now listen to this:  my fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, never had any ritual or song or tradition of racial bias or hatred.  We never had any formal or informal songs that were hateful to any group or ethnicity.  If there were I would have never joined.  If there were my brothers would never have joined either.  

I suppose fraternities and sororities come and go into fashion like anything else.  They have survived or failed on campuses like anything else.  I can tell you that when I was in college there were four fraternities and I can tell you that today none of those fraternities are still around.  The reasons are many I suppose:  too expensive, the school is too small, the advantages have been blunted by the administration,  public perception, to mention just a few.  Nationally, today, I have no idea if the Greek system is is on the ascension or not.  But when I was at Iowa Wesleyan, fraternities were a way to enhance your higher educational experience.  I recognized that as a kid from a small town, a small group within a small school would be more advantageous to me personally.  

Let me list a few things that I gained by being in a fraternity:

  • Public Service - Our fraternity made a commitment to the community.  Once a year in the Spring, our fraternity would do something for the betterment of Mt. Pleasant.  One year we volunteered to clean the city fountain that is in the square.  Another year we raked yards for older people who couldn't get out and do it themselves.  And yet another year we had a blood drive.  

  • Service To The Group - In the four years I was a member, I ran for office twice, as Secretary and Vice-President.  You can't convince me that that is not beneficial.  Giving back in an office teaches tolerance, patience, speaking on your feet, and responsibility. 

  • Learning to Balance Feeding the Individual with Subservience to the Group - This warrants more examination that just a paragraph, but suffice to say both sides of this dichotomy need nourishing.  In life we are both individuals and part of a pack and learning to gracefully navigate between the two is an art that, if done well, can be of benefit to both.  Too much of one can create a deficiency in the other.  This whole process started in the sandbox in Seaton when I was 3 years old with the neighborhood kids, but was further refined as a frat kid.  I'm still working on it.  

  • Friendships that last a Lifetime - My pledge son plays in our fantasy football and baseball leagues.  My brother Mark, who took a trip out West a week ago stopped by to see a fraternity brother in Arizona.  When I went back to the Wombie's retirement party, there were no fewer than 4 fraternity brothers at the function.  RB, my buddy and fraternity brother was from Liberia via United Kingdom with polio who taught me there was a big world out there beyond Illinois and Iowa.   Even today there are 6 people I am still in contact with.  

  • Just Plain Fun - After the studies were done we learned to party.  learning to balance homework with fun is just as important as anything else, I suppose.  Learning to play nice is no small feat and can be important when out in the work force. We had a sister-sorority and interacting with the ladies hopefully made us a bit more polished and whole lot more respectful toward the opposite sex.  Also, attending that Phi Delta Theta Fraternity national Convention in Miami was fun, too.   We had some great parties at the house and later at Hershey Hall, and that is all part of he college experience.  
If Mike Barnacle was here I'd tell him that the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong,  was a Phi Delt.  Lou Gehrig was one, and so is TV journalist Bob Schieffer.  Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, present NBA commissioner Adam Silver,  former Secretary of State James Baker,  Roger Ebert, Sam Nunn,  and comedian Tim Conway are all Phi Delts.  

Phi Delta Theta spearheaded the national drive to remove alcohol from fraternity housing in 2000.  This policy has been adopted by many others since then.  34 members have been governors.  1,100 have died for their country in battle.  9 members have received Medal of Honor or the Victoria Cross. Three have served as justices in the Supreme Court and one was a President.  ( Pulitzers, 6 Oscars, 6 Emmys and on and on.  Not too bad of a group to be associated with.  

Should they remain on campuses?  Are they still viable?  Hell if I know.  Maybe not.  Maybe the clubs of exclusion are antiquated in our modern society.  Maybe the rituals and brotherly camaraderie are passe and of a different age.  If Mike Barnacle were here I'd tell him that maybe, just maybe we have outgrown the artifice of belonging.  My old Reality Therapy founder,  Dr. William Glasser, said that we as individuals need three things to make us emotionally healthy:  To love, to be loved by others, and to belong to things so we are connected to the world.   For a while,  I belonged to a fraternity in college.  It served me well.  But maybe the arc of memberships has peaked.  Is Kiwanis still viable?  Elks? All the other civic clubs?  I suspect the answers are one of cycles.  What is old will be new again.  It is the evolutionary march of time holding hands with better visions.  The Greeks will survive, of course, in a new way, fresh-wrapped in the notions of service and campus giving.  And when it becomes bland enough, and loses the patina of brotherhood and comradeship, then it, too, will die, only to make way for something else.  The hateful songs of prejudice, the myopic tunnel vision of privilege will die away, thankfully and we'll look back on this time in wonderment that such a chilling hate could have filled a busload of students.  Hey, Mike, you can't kill a good idea, but you can give it a new coat of paint and a different direction.  Its called progress.   




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