They Say Frat House Like It’s a Bad Place to Live

It was 2011 when Dartmouth College professor, Charles Wheelan, was asked to speak at the college’s annual Class Day. His speech “10-1/2  Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said” was later turned into a book, because of all of its wit and wisdom. The number one thing that Wheelan insists no commencement speaker ever said is “Your time in fraternity basements was well spent”.

Delta SigsThis past weekend I had a really great weekend. I took a trip back to my college, Wittenberg University, to spend a few days with my brothers from the Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity. 36 brothers that I went to school with attended, and then other brothers from various years stopped by, as well. Also fun, was that many of the current active brothers attended, and were very interested in our traditions and the memories of our times spent in the Delta Sig House.

Right before I left for Wittenberg, I had been contacted by a professional group for college admissions counselors about speaking at a professional development event they are having. I had no idea what I would speak to them about. As I made the 6 hour ride home, however, with a smile on my face the whole way, I realized that I had a great speech for that group, because I learned some of my most important life lessons by being a member of a fraternity.

I went to college in the early to mid 1980’s. It may have been a hey day for fraternity life, with the movie “Animal House” enjoying a pretty solid cult following. And while we may have participated in one or two of the activities from the movie, there was a lot more to fraternity life than Toga parties and drinking games, well, at least in retrospect.

Front porch Sig HouseBack in those golden days of Greek life on American college campuses, fraternity houses were designed to hold a lot of guys. If memory serves me, the Delta Sig House was set up for about 25 guys to live in. That’s a lot of testosterone in one dwelling. I didn’t always like every single guy who wore a Sig shirt, and I am sure not every one of them liked me, but we did co-exist, and we did share a bond, and in the end, that meant something, even between the guys who may not call each other best friends. Every day was an experience and my time spent there was full of life lessons.

Here’s a short list of the most important things I learned living in a fraternity house.

1. If you want to eat, be on time and eat fast – In retrospect, one of the best things about the fraternity house experience was that we ate together every day. We had a cook, Jack Lattimore. A Vietnam vet who loved us all like we were his own kids. We had a dining room with 6 or 8 tables and even brothers who didn’t live in the house could participate in the meal program. So, dinner was served at a certain time every day, and we all sat down together and ate. You often hear in parenting circles how important meal time is. The Delta Sig house was no exception. We talked about stuff that was going on, shared our successes, asked for assistance, planned the next party, and razzed each other. There was generally 36 guys and 39 chicken patties, so if you wanted to eat, you arrived on time and you ate fast, but like a family meal, dinner time was essential to building the bond of brother hood.

2. In order to be a leader, you only have to step up – there were so many opportunities for leadership, you couldn’t walk by without tripping over one. There was, of course, the executive board of the house – President, Vice President, Treasurer, Recruitment, House Manager etc. But there were a lot of informal roles too. We were constantly involved in things. Intramural sports, Homecoming float building, Greek Week activities, etc. The house needed to be maintained, parties needed to be planned and marketed, pledges needed to be recruited. So many possibilities, and they addressed so many of our interests and talents. I was trying to figure out my life back then, and I wrote the “Pyramid” for a time, which was the fraternity’s newsletter. One of the early times I discovered my love of writing. That has paid off well for me over the years.

3. A little ingenuity and self-reliance can carry you a long way – We lived in an old house. We didn’t have a ton of money. None of our fathers lived there with us. I learned some of my best MacGyver lessons trying to keep things going with limited resources while living in a fraternity house. If it broke, we fixed it, with whatever happened to be around. I’m sure not every solution would pass a fire/building code review, but hey, we all lived to tell about it, right? No harm, no foul.

Pledge Class4. Who you surround yourself with matters – Look at good, successful people. Now look at the people they surround themselves with. Good people travel in packs. When I get together at these reunions, I am so happy to see my brothers. They are all wildly successful. I lived with guys in that house who now own their own businesses, who are lawyers, doctors, CEOs, PhDs, and more. We were successful in college, being at the top of the GPA scale every term, winning interfraternity sports leagues and the annual Greek Games. Good people push those around them to higher levels. We were a prime example of that back then, and it has paid great dividends now. If you aren’t as successful as you’d like to be, look at who you are surrounded by. Are they challenging you, and are you returning the favor?

Fraternities aren’t what they used to be, for a lot of reasons. Alcohol and hazing, being near the top of the list of things that colleges target. With the popularity of video games, and the internet culture, college men, for no reason I can fathom, would rather sit in their dorm rooms and game than getting out and getting involved. (My sadness regarding this trend could fill a post all by itself) Lets just say that if you are in a position to influence young men and women. Push them towards engaging in groups in high school and college. This is the beginnings of their life long network. In that same first chapter of his book, Wheelan discusses a study which found that “joining a group that meets just once a month has the same effect on your sense of well-being as doubling your income“.

Depending on who you are, either high school or college have a strong chance of being among the best four years of your life. Because of the guys and girls I hung out with at the Delta Sig house, and the lessons I learned, college was mine.

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  • Frank Wood

    Good stuff! Your wisdom if used makes for a good life!