By Howard Fineman March 15, 2015 (Originally published in The Beta Theta Pi)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a 17-year-old freshman at a small college in a small town in Central New York State. Colgate had fewer than 2,000 students. (My high school had 3,000.) The college, like many others, was all male. Culturally, it seemed as far away as I could get. Which is why I went there. I wanted something different.
I loved the idea and the reality of the core curriculum in the liberal arts, a dedicated faculty that was like family, a small place in a beautiful rural setting, full of history and tradition.
But I knew no one. Not a soul from my high school, so far as I knew, ever had ventured there. I was alone in a small place.
We all know the risks and periodic disasters of fraternity life. They must be urgently addressed, and are. They are inexcusable.
But there still is something to be said for the idea of friendship for its own sake, and for offering young men a sense of home and the mutual responsibility that goes with it. In packs, young men can be dangerous, and certainly self-destructive. And yet they also can learn how to fashion a useful and generous community. Fraternities can be a step – not the only one, to be sure – towards maturity.
Such small victories for responsible sociability garner no headlines, nor should they. It’s what fraternities make possible every day in thousands of places on hundreds of campuses.
In my case, that place was the Beta Theta Chapter of Beta Theta Pi.
It was a literature class that led me there. I was good in English, which allowed me to register for an upper-level course. I got to know two of the brightest juniors in the class. Pete Bowman and Mike Barclay were NOT “throat men” – blowhards in the Colgate parlance of the time. When they spoke, they had something interesting to say. They were cool. They knew music. They knew about the Village, about the blues, about the Beats. They cared less about grades (though they cared about those) than about getting to some deeper level of thinking and acting.
Quite simply, I liked them, and they saw to it that I was rushed.
I knew almost none of the other members my pledge class. Beta was thought of as
a “prep” house, and there were men from Deerfield, Loomis, Andover and so on. But Colgate was changing, and most were public high school products of a certain winsome kind: witty in a wry way, socially adept, smart but not show offs, serious but not dull, athletes but not intercollegiate jocks. I liked them. I was proud of them. I was proud to be among them.
Just before we were scheduled to leave school and travel home for Christmas break in my sophomore year, the house decided to hold a Secret Santa gift exchange. I have to confess that I don’t remember the gift I gave, or to whom.
But I remember what I got, and from whom. It involved my love of music. My tastes ran to country rock at the time. My favorite group was called the Lovin’ Spoonful, whose leader, John Sebastian, had the odd distinction of being the only rock ‘n roll star of his time (or any time) to strum an Autoharp clutched to his chest as he sang.
The Autoharp gave the Spoonful a unique sound, and framed their lilting, simple tunes. I was thrilled when they performed on campus.
At the Santa ceremony Bob Bentley – an acerbic, antsy Texan who smoked a lot, talked about the South a lot, and seemed skeptical of everyone and everything, yet was fiercely idealistic – gave me a replica of an Autoharp. He had cobbled it together out of scrap wood, bakery string and nails. I was embarrassed, but thankful, and almost shocked by his thoughtfulness. Bob laughed (actually cackled in a suburban cowboy kind of way), and accepted my thanks. That was that.
It was a small gesture. We weren’t close friends, before or after Christmas. I’m sad to say that we lost touch, though he is no doubt the reason why I’ve always liked Texas and Texans.
As I began my trip back to Pittsburgh later that day, it occurred to me that something had changed. For the first time I had chosen a new version of home, and it was the Beta House.