Fraternities: A Reformed Landscape
By Tim Lindsay Until George Hutcheson Denny, after whom the University of Alabama football stadium is named, entered office as President of Washington and Lee, fraternities at W&L seemed to resemble an eccentric and fleeting collection of small chapters. Under Denny, the school’s endowment escalated and enrollment rocketed. He brought a sense of youthful exuberance to the campus by encouraging more informal attire and permitting dances, but notably, he boosted fraternities and student autonomy. In Come Cheer for Washington and Lee, Warren Mame remarks, “As a Sigma Chi, Denny encouraged fraternity life, and plans were made for off-campus fraternity housing that in time replaced the “ranches,” which were student boarding houses scattered throughout town.” So while in 1879, three W&L fraternity chapters had one member each, it seemed that during his presidency, Denny laid the groundwork for an established fraternity system. And from the 1920s through the late 50s, fraternity membership, including pledges, represented “ninety-five to ninety-eight” percent of the student body. After WWII, when fraternity houses acted as officer’s clubs and military quarters, fraternities quickly grew back to their previous character; however, only remnants of that initial character remain today.
Frank Barron, a freshman in ’48, remembers rushing during a one-week period in September as opposed to January. That year also feature the first freshman class after WWII that was composed mostly of citizens rather than veterans; yet, a significant portion of Barron’s friends were still 21 and 22 year-olds hardened by war, procuring higher emotional and maturity levels as a result. Barron himself was only 16 years old. Despite there being 17 fraternities scattered throughout Lexington, Barron estimates that 80% of the student body joined a Greek society—similar to today, but all members lived at the house. After the Delta Tau Delta house burned down in the spring of ’48, Barron moved into a refurbished building across from the old post office. The house, not unlike others at the time, had an army of maids and butlers. At the time, DTD had a butler named Reid whom all the residents endeared. He served their meals, washed the sheets, and by the time afternoon classes finished, had cleaned each room and made the beds.
Wally Barre, class of ’70, commented that Mon Mayes wasn’t only an assistant but, “also a friend and guardian at times.” Ward Hunt, ’69, also recalls his house mother Ms. Myrtle Allen fondly, “We played lots of very good natured jokes (telephone slack o’ meter is one) on her but always with the best of intentions. She always ran a good ship—food and house help were as good as you could ask for.”
Despite their esteemed position, house mothers all ensured a sense of formality unfamiliar today. Barron’s house mother Ms. Blakely made certain that her boys wore coats and ties around at all times outside of athletic events, and a member of DTD escorted her to every meal. And since the Beanery, an army mess hall turned dining hall, was still gaining legs, fraternity meals were a necessity in the 40s and were offered three times a day by a female chef—a notable disparity from today’s male chefs. And even while the dress code was declining in the late 60’s, Barre still remembers 3 meals a day, all delicious, cooked up by Ella.
Fifty years ago and further, fraternities also might have scoffed at the recent and stern modifications to Virginia’s anti-hazing law. Mame remarks, “Around 1929, the faculty urged that Hell Night be toned down and reformed. In February 1930 my father, Stuart Sanders ’31, described the 'reformed' Hell Night in a letter to his dad, who was an alumnus. The event lasted from 6 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. ‘It was by far the most elaborate affair we have ever had of this kind. We had boxing matches, an electric chair, all kinds of terrible food, cat combinations, torturing machines, and so on. Next to last we started beating them [at midnight] at 1:30.’” Sanders then remembers pledges searching the country for hidden notes until six. Barron himself spoke fondly of pledgeship. He said, “I wouldn’t even classify it as hazing. It was a lot of fun.” His experience in 1948 consisted of memorizing all the active members’ names, memorizing high school fight songs, and a Hell Week concluded with a paddling. Barron still has his paddle, signed by all his brothers who, during the event, were all offered the chance to paddle but mostly refused.
One source for the intense modification of the fraternity system could possibly have begun with fires—likely one source for today’s stringent fire regulations. James Price, a Phi Delt, remembers leaving the house early one day in ’64 for football practice when sirens sliced through the summer silence. Abruptly awakened, a few KAs, whose house used to sit behind the Post Office half a block away, grabbed lawn chairs and a cooler and watched the firemen in action.
Nonetheless, the Phi Gamma Delta house’s incineration in ‘84, along with a rampant decline in overall fraternity membership, the low of which was in ’74, seemed to instigate what would be known as the Fraternity Renaissance, according to Come Cheer for Washington and Lee. A complete renovation of the increasingly dilapidated fraternity houses, the introduction of sororities, and other student governing groups seemed to instigate a system comparably indistinct from before. Certain traditions such as using “big brothers” to assimilate freshmen into the school and social scene endured through the changes, but much of what existed abated.
By no means though, can one belittle fraternities’ rousing impact on the Washington and Lee’s identity and foundation—a history increasingly lost on today’s W&L community. Most importantly though, Hunt considers the lifelong bonds formed within fraternity havens as a “heartwarming reminder of life in Lexington.”
Warren, Mame. Come Cheer for Washington and Lee: The University at 250 Years. Washington and Lee University Press. 1998. Print.