Lost But Not Forgotten: A Look at the Closure of One of W&L’s Most Notorious Fraternities
By Libby Sutherland and Tim Lindsay In many ways, fraternities at W&L used to embrace a philosophy of drunken debauchery and rowdiness not necessarily unfamiliar to current fraternities, but certainly different. For instance, a 1978 article in the Ring-Tum Phi reported that the Judicial Council once fined Sigma Chi $100 for kidnapping a freshman pledge and abandoning him on “Route 60 near the Blue Ridge Parkway.” However, Sigma Chi was seemingly punished not for hazing, but rather, for pledging “outside the city limits.”
Delta Tau Delta’s departure reflected the similar departures of the handful of other fraternities disbanded at W&L in the twentieth century. In May of 1981, according to the Phi, the IFC put the Delts, who consistently assumed a large presence on campus, on two weeks social probation- not an uncommon punishment- due to a noise infraction, and later that year, on a one week probation for failing a house inspection. In 1983, police discovered a small amount of cocaine in the fraternity house which was then located on Lee Avenue; this occurred at the same time the school considered characterizing drug-dealing as an honor violation. According to Burr Datz, the director of the Catholic Campus Ministry for Washington and Lee, the Delts also had a string of honor trials in the late ‘80s. “There were two public honor trials in '87 and '88 (I think) involving two brothers: one was drunk, and he stole a bunch of wine, then invited his buddies over to finish the wine, and he somehow was found not guilty,” he said. “And then a year later, one was accused of cheating on a homework/accounting assignment, and his defense was that it was a used textbook and the answers were already in the book. He was found not guilty.” Eventually, after other instances of debauchery, the Student Affairs Committee disbanded the chapter in 1992. According to Datz, the final straw “occurred when the Ring-Tum Phi published a photo of kicked out drywall in the house with empty beer cans in it, and the caption said how the chapter was getting head start on renovating the house during the fraternity renovation program in early 90s.” The cause for a fraternity’s dissolution at W&L has more or less resembled that of Delta Tau Delta. It is ATO’s exile from W&L, however, which remains unquestionably the most infamous, unique, and prone to exaggeration.
ATO’s Rumored Train Scandal:
While the details may vary from person to person, the overall story remains the same. W&L alumni are always excited to pass along the wild account of how Alpha Tau Omega ceased to exist at the University. As the story goes, ATO hijacked a train and redirected it from its original destination to Roanoke so they could pick up their dates from Hollins College before a big formal. As a result, they were supposedly kicked off campus and not given the possibility of reactivation until the death of the last member. Some versions include the use of Tommy guns, and the estimated date ranges from the late ‘20s to the late ‘40s. Despite the varied details, the popularity, frequency and outrageous nature of the story makes the notion of its falsity seemingly impossible—you just can’t make something like that up. However, there is no record of the incident in the W&L archives. ATO was seen often throughout the Ring-Tum Phi in 1946—there were mentions of formals, ATOs in leadership positions, and intramural results. In 1948, the Ring-Tum Phi stopped mentioning ATO completely. There was never any article discussing the closure of the chapter.
Bobby Grainger, the director of expansion for the national Alpha Tau Omega foundation, said that there was nothing in their records about the closure of ATO at W&L, which would have been the Beta chapter. The lack of records at the national foundation is strange since almost every other chapter closure from around that time was documented. Grainger also stated that their archives include letters from the foundation to W&L in the late ‘70s about potentially re-activating the chapter, but no record of a response letter from the school.
The fact that the story has been around for such a long time leads us to believe that there is some truth to it. A. Fletcher Sisk, an alumnus from 1950, remembers hearing about the story when he arrived on campus but never knew for sure whether or not it was true. Although we were unable to find definitive evidence of the incident in the W&L Archives, the national ATO archives, or from the alumni we interviewed, our research did lead us to a few promising theories.
Theory 1: “The Last Robbery On The B&O Railroad”
On March 10, 1949, the Ambassador, a train on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, was robbed shortly after it left a stop in Martinsburg, West Virginia—about two and a half hours away from Lexington. Two young men who had been riding on the train as passengers began robbing other passengers and forced the engineer to take the train back to a crossing where they got off. The Ambassador had been scheduled to make a stop in Roanoke, which is where Hollins college is located. The story made national headlines and the two men were sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. The robbery marked the last robbery on the B&O railroad which is interesting since some versions of the ATO story describe the event as “the last large scale train hijacking.” The idea that ATO was somehow involved in this may be farfetched but if the story of the train scandal is simply just a rumor perhaps it was this train robbery that inspired it.
Theory 2: W&L’s Private Rail Car
Back in the day, Washington and Lee owned a private rail car that could be attached to trains. It was often used to transport students to and from sporting events and parties. It is possible that perhaps this rail car could have been attached to a commercial train without permission in order to pick up girls for a formal. Such an incident would likely be handled by the university instead of local law authorities possibly explaining the sealed nature of the story and the lack of information in public records.
Theory 3: Lack of members
The third and least exciting theory involves ATO being shut down for a lack of members. There is a mention in a 1953 Ring-Tum Phi of the old Alpha Tau Omega house being taken over since the fraternity had lost it due to financial issues. The article reads, “Due to circumstances beyond its control, the thirteenth chapter member, ATO, went inactive on the campus after WWII.” In the same year, a different issue reported, “World War II found the ATOs unable to meet financial obligations.” Moreover, many ATOs were observed to eat at the Pi Phi house around 1947 while Pi Phi also experienced a rapid growth in membership in that same period. Likely, many remaining ATOs, having been disbanded, “socially joined” another fraternity. While this story seems the most realistic, we can’t seem to ignore the story of the train scandal. Additionally, the Ring-Tum Phi issues that do mention Alpha Tau Omega before 1948 discuss many of them in leadership positions on the Interfraternity Council, the Cotillion Club, and other popular organizations. Their parties and formals were mentioned frequently. It did not appear that they were an unpopular organization that would have trouble getting members. The prevalence and enduring nature of the story makes us think that something along those lines definitely occurred. How close to the original story is unclear.
We wish to continue to explore the story in our next issue and ask that anyone who would like to share information, whether it be stories that were passed down or a definitive account, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Photo Credit: Drew Jacksich, Wikimedia Commons