Greek organizations give students a family on campus

Portraits Editor

 Theta Sigma Delta
Theta Delta Sigma alumnae pose for a photo during Alumni Weekend in 2008. Shown here are, front row, from left, Ericka Thomas, Shannon Lugaila ’08 and Katie Harmon. In the back are Eileen Keeney, Heather Rulander, Brittany Killen, Jillian Wales and Kelly Winward-Green.

    Bob Hand ’93 never considered himself a fraternity-type guy.
    Yet there he found himself, one cold and damp April day in Bradford, cruising along Campus Drive with a bunch of fraternity buddies crammed in his compact car, and the random thought occurred to him, “Let’s go canoeing.”
    “I’ve always been fascinated by the Tuna Creek,” Hand admitted. “Here’s a case where I think my being from Bradford kind of kicked in. My family owned a canoe. So we were driving down Campus Drive, and I said, ‘Hey, does anyone want to canoe down the creek?’ I knew I was with the right group when everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’”
    The canoe trip from campus down the Tunungwant Creek to around Davis Street became an April tradition for a few years for the brothers of Sigma Lambda Chi, a local fraternity founded at Pitt-Bradford in 1988.
    It’s one of Hand’s favorite memories of Greek life at Pitt-Bradford and a good illustration of what is often embodied by the less-than-concrete word “brotherhood.”
    “It was just fun,” Hand said of being a Sig. “The parties were fun. Hanging out was fun. Goofing around at meetings was fun.”
    Chris Mackowski ’91, on the other hand, always wanted to be a part of a fraternity and pledged the university’s first Greek organization as soon as he was eligible, winter term of his freshman year in 1988.
    “I think that we all had this sort of romanticized vision of living ‘Animal House,’” Mackowski said of the classic 1979 film that brought to light the best and worst of Greek life through the misadventures of the Deltas, the lowest fraternity on the totem pole at fictional Faber College.
    At Pitt-Bradford, Delta Omega Phi was founded in 1985 an experiment of sorts.
    Without national affiliation, the 17 men who founded the fraternity leaned on Dr. K. James Evans, vice president and dean of student affairs, who served as their advisor for the first year.
     “They weren’t without their problems at first,” said Evans, flashing a flyer for open rush that featured a naked blonde woman with strategically placed black rectangles.
    Evans served as the advisor for each of the first three fraternities for a year as they developed their letters, missions, constitutions, rituals and more.
    Bringing in national fraternities would cost much more money than the students could afford at that time, Evans said, and so a local system was founded.
    Without oversight by national organizations, however, Evans said that the system “would require close oversight by student affairs if it was to be a local system.”
Mackowski remembers that part.
    “There was always that tension between what we wanted to do and what the university would let us do,” he said. “Now that I’m an adult, I look back and see how you need that balance that the administration required.”
    But once beyond the confines of campus, the administration had less influence. And so “houses” emerged. These were not the traditional houses found at other colleges owned by the chapter as a group, but rather anywhere from six to a dozen brothers living in a house together that became Party Central.
    Mackowski lived in the first Delta house on Barbour Street.
    “There was a certain stereotypical lifestyle that people wanted to participate in,” he said. As far as planning parties and taking care of the house, “Everything was just sort of done by consensus. When things got really gross, we all kicked in and cleaned it up. The romanticism quickly wears off.”
    “That whole idea about Greek life had appealed to me, but it wore thin,” he said. “But there were so many other aspects of that experience that were really important to me – the camaraderie and the support network that guys have for each other. That stuff’s all real. It was a really valuable experience in that regard. People will find an excuse to party whether they’re in a fraternity or not.
    “Some of my best experiences in college were related to the fraternity. I know some people dismiss it, but college is so much more than what happens in classrooms.” By his senior year, Mackowski was working the early Sunday morning shift at WESB radio and having a hard time greeting the preachers who came in to do their shows given the social obligations of living in the Delta house on a Saturday night. He moved out.
    Over at Phi Kappa Epsilon, the brothers of had “the fraternity house of all fraternity houses,” said their advisor, Dr. Michael Stuckart.
    The “’Gog” was a large former synagogue on South Avenue – a place designed for hundreds to gather, but for few to live. “Obviously, it was great for large parties, but not much else,” Stuckart said.
    A year after the Deltas were formed, women at Pitt-Bradford wanted the same experience for themselves.
    Six women, led by Ame Zelinski-Walter ’87, came to Evans for help forming a sorority.
    She and Charlene “Charlie” Wissinger had been best friends in high school in St. Marys, Pa., roommates at Pitt-Bradford and were good friends with many of the Deltas.
    “We said, ‘Hey, let’s do it,’” Zelinski-Walter said. They would form Zeta Alpha Chi, the first sorority on campus.
    They both had class with Dr. N. Jane McCandless, a feminist sociology professor.
    “We loved her as a teacher, and we were probably just talking about starting the sorority. She just started giving us information. She gave us the outline of how to do it. We did the work, but we wouldn’t have known how to do it,” Zelinski-Walter said.
    Evans said McCandless saw the sorority as a way to empower young women, which certainly seemed to be the case with Zelinski-Walter. “I still put it on my résumé,” she said. “We created stuff, and we were just 19-20-year-old girls.”
    They spent a lot of time coming up with a name, logo, T-shirts, colors, bylaws, pledge process and more.
    Zelinski-Walter said that even at the time, she realized the groundwork she and her sisters were laying would be the foundation for future generations of Zetas.
    “We wanted to make sure that we became a part of the Bradford community,” she said and chose to work with the rape crisis center, working hours and holding a campus kickball tournament that raised money for the center.
    As an undergraduate, Julie Ploss Speaker ’89 noticed and joined Chi in the winter of 1987.
    “Ame was really a leader at Pitt-Bradford,” she said. “She had a full-time job and great grades, and I looked up to her and Charlie.
    “I didn’t know much about sororities – just that it was a good group to be with. We would have community service and study groups, and we went camping. We just kind of did girl things together.”
    A second attraction, she said, was to be part of a group while living away from home.
    The group affiliation is forged primarily through the pledge (now called new member) process, a sometimes controversial process that used to involve a bit of public humiliation to bring the group closer. That is less true of today’s pledges. Stuckart, a fraternity man himself, advisor to Phi Kappa Epsilon for about 15 years, and associate professor of anthropology, has insight into the process on a number of levels.
    “Rituals build community,” he said. “There’s no question about that. The two arenas in which people form the tightest bonds in college area fraternal organizations and athletics.”
    Pledging, Mackowski said, “was a lot of being ridiculous. It was intended to give the pledges a common experience. There was a bit of embarrassment. I actually thought it was valuable.”
    He added that there was a communal aspect to the embarrassment.
    “If it’s you and five other guys – in some strange way, it does create this bond, and that’s the whole idea of a fraternity in the first place. A good pledging program does things that promote that mutual support. One of the things that has always impressed me is our motto, ‘Loyal Brotherhood Forever.’ I think that mindset is really important.”
    Indeed, aside from their Rudolph’s nosebright red-satin jackets, the Deltas may be best known for their cry “Delta Omega Phi! Loyal ’til I die!” – an unofficial motto that, no doubt, came out of pledging. But, there are some things brothers cannot tell.
    Students at Pitt-Bradford weren’t the first to discover the value of rituals and fellowship, of course.
    Social learning societies began in the late 18th century to combat the boredom and bleakness of life in college dormitories. These debating and literary societies set themselves apart and elevated their status by using Greek letters and mottos to evoke the golden age of Greek learning and democracy.
    These were exclusive groups, with private houses, libraries, kitchens and lounges that were better than those provided by universities. An element of secret rituals derived from those of Freemasonry gave them an air of prestige.
    Greek populations over the years have waxed and waned, but are currently at an all-time high with more than 800,000 Greek undergraduates, according to Dr. Ron Binder, associate dean of student affairs at Pitt-Bradford and a national leader in Greek affairs.
    “If you graph Greek membership, it has varied widely,” he said. “No one wanted to join anything in the 1960s. The ’80s were the ‘go-go’ years.”
    The popularity of Greek life in the 1980s, along with the growth of Pitt-Bradford, made it a natural time for the start of fraternities and sororities on campus.
    “As colleges grow and mature, they get a lot of different organizations, and Greeks certainly are one of them,” he said.
    The Deltas, Sigs and Zetas were followed on campus by the formation of Theta Sigma Delta sorority in 1988, Phi Kappa Epsilon fraternity in 1990 and Lambda Xi sorority in 1991.
    Each organization has varied stories of how each was founded, often involving dislike for another one of the groups.
    Various incarnations of the Sigs’ origin story involve a student who was spurned by the Deltas (according to the Deltas) or just formed one night at a party held in a hotel room when the power was out on campus (according to the Sigs).
    The Thetas originally envisioned themselves as the “little sisters” to the Deltas, there to clean rooms and help out, but Evans wisely viewed that as a little sexist and suggested that they just form themselves as “sisters” – no “little.”
    Carol Kosinski Mesalic ’92 was the founding president of Lambda Xi, the third sorority on campus.
    “I just didn’t want to pledge one of the other groups. I wanted my own group,” she said. “It was a learning process for all of us at the time.”
    The original six fraternities and sororities were it on campus until a second wave of colonization hit more than 20 years later, when a fourth fraternity, Gamma Psi Omega, was added itself to the pantheon of Pitt-Bradford Greeks in 2009.
    Around the same time, a group of young men sought to bring a national fraternity to campus and chose Kappa Sigma, one of the country’s largest fraternities based out of Charlottesville, Va.
    Eric Gillis ’10 was one of the founding members and now serves as alumnus advisor.
    “One thing we were really sold on were the values of Kappa Sigma,” which has a no-hazing policy, he said. “Those were the biggest things that sold us, but also the national aspect. I love Bradford, but it’s also nice to go to other cities, and you can run into another brother from the fraternity.”
    The Pitt-Bradford chapter did not have a sponsoring chapter but received a lot of support from the national agency, Gillis said, which provided a clear checklist of obligations that had to be fulfilled before it could move from colony in 2007 to chapter in November 2009.
    The national formula is working well for Kappa Sigma, which attracted 13 new members this spring, more than any of the Greek organizations on campus.
    Binder said that nationally, fraternities are growing again as more diverse Greek organizations become popular. “There are Greek organizations for Asians, Latinos, gay men, lesbians and more,” he said. “You name it, it’s being founded now.”
    A national sorority, Phi Beta Chi, a historically Lutheran organization founded in Illinois, is also being colonized on campus. It seems both the national and local models have something to be said for them.
    “I’ve talked to people over my post-college years, and I think that nothing compares to having our own little fraternity,” Hand said. “All our ideas were our own. Everything we did we did – our logo, colors, party themes. I think that’s what ended up appealing to me. It was our own independent brotherhood, and I thought that was kind of cool.”