An Update on ATO
By Libby Sutherland In our Winter issue, The Spectator explored one of W&L’s more mysterious stories: the rumored Alpha Tau Omega train scandal and the fraternity’s subsequent disappearance. As the story goes, ATO members 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 last member of W&L’s ATO chapter dies. When first setting out on covering this story, we were not prepared for the difficulty we would face in finding tangible evidence to prove the story. After scouring old Ring-Tum Phi’s and Calyx’s, we found no written account of the supposed scandal. ATO was featured in the 1947 Calyx and throughout a few Ring-Tum Phi’s in the 50’s, but subsequently disappeared in later editions with no mention as to why. After reaching out to a number of alumni who attended W&L at our estimated time of the scandal, we couldn’t find anyone to give us a first hand account.
Admittedly a little discouraged, we began to wonder if the story was even true at all. However, as we stated in our previous article—you just can’t make something like that up. The prevalence and wild nature of the story made us confident in its validity. Armed with a range of stories passed down from alums and our research conducted in the University’s archives, we came up with three possibilities: 1. ATO was involved in the 1949 robbery of The Ambassador, known as the last train robbery on the B&O Railroad; 2. ATO simply had attached W&L’s private rail car to a commercial train without permission; 3. ATO disbanded due to a lack of members and their inability to meet financial obligations.
At the end of our article, we noted that we would like to continue to explore the story and asked that anyone who would like to share information email The Spectator. On the day the article was released, we received an email from a current W&L student who said his father had a friend who would be able to give us a first hand account of the train scandal.
Interestingly enough, the account comes not from a W&L alumnus, but from a Vanderbilt one. Bob Benham began his freshman year at Vanderbilt in 1957. In his first year there, he and a couple of his pledge brothers went to visit friends at W&L for the weekend of a spring dance. After picking up his girlfriend from Southern Seminary (now Southern Virginia University) in Buena Vista, Benham made his way to Lexington. At a Beta party that night, Beta remembers one of his friends saying, “Hey, lets go for a train ride.” The friend had worked one summer for the Louisville & Nashville railroad and knew how to operate a locomotive.
Benham, noting “I can’t remember why we seemed to think this was a good idea,” said that the group loaded a keg of beer into the bed of a pickup truck and took off towards the train depot. The group was made up of about 15-18 people and included both men and women as well as W&L students and visitors. Benham believes that the group specifically included members of Beta Theta Pi, but notes that members of ATO were likely there as well. The group hoisted the keg onto one of the flat cars. The W&L student operating the train began “backwards down the line real slow…I guess our thought was that if we saw a headlight we would just jump off.” After about 8 miles however, the boy driving the train decided to return it to the station, as he was fearful of being run over by another train. When they returned the train to the station in Lexington, the police were there waiting for them. Benham and a couple of his friends were able to escape by running from the tracks through the woods, eventually making it back to the W&L cars and then to their cars and back to Vanderbilt. They were unsure of the fate that any of the W&L students met due to the incident. Benham was not certain if this event was the cause of ATO’s eventual dissolution from campus but believes that it is certainly possible. Benham remarked that he was both impressed and surprised that the incident was still being talked about today.
Another email from a source who did not wish to be named recalled his father recounting stories of ATO being involved in incidents of both fire and theft in the late 20’s and early ‘30s. He also remembers hearing a story of a train hijacking that he believes took place during that same time frame. He mentioned that his father and a few friends who had been ATO’s during that time contacted the school in the ‘50’s about potential reinstatement of the fraternity. He said that their request was met with refusal and the school’s statement that ATO was banned for 100 years. So perhaps there are multiple train heist incidents in W&L’s history . Regardless of who did it or what their punishment was - the legend of the ATO train scandal certainly lives on.
Photo Credit: Drew Jacksich, Wikimedia Commons