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Obscure Solemn Rituals

Our third essay from the 50th reunion for the class of 1957 is “How I Managed to Not Change the Fraternity System,” by Peter Elbow ’57. If you aren’t reading all these essays, you are missing out on the most interesting parts of EphBlog. Five hundreds members of the class of 2007 graduate next month. In 2057, many of them will be back for their 50th reunion. I hope and trust that our own Diana Davis ’07 will write an essay on “How I Managed to Not Change Anchor Housing.” Fifty years from now, what essay will you write?

This was all a long time ago and I have only a few memories, yet my experience with fraternities has always felt like an important episode in my life.
I can’t remember much about my freshman year. Having come from a run down prep school in New Hampshire (Proctor Academy–which I dearly loved), my dorm room in the freshman quad seemed luxurious. Two Junior Advisors, Sherm Hoyt and George Olmsted, were remarkably generous and became friends. I knew our class was the first deferred from rushing but I can’t remember any feelings about that. The goal was to forge class spirit, and I remember one of the ways it was forged: the inhabitants of the quad would stand outside at night facing each other shouting “Sage eats it” “Williams eats it.” Did I join in? Was I a snob or a rowdy?

I can’t remember rushing except a general nervousness. But I was relieved to be invited to join a fraternity considered high on the social pecking order. But soon I was troubled by two things. There were all these guys I didn’t know calling me Pete and clapping me on the back and telling me how close to each other we all were. I was also bothered by all the obscure solemn rituals. Not just that they felt fake in their pretense of spiritual mutual commitment. In addition, I felt them as offensive parodies of Catholic liturgy — for I was a serious Catholic at the time. (In later years, I remember reading that U.S. fraternities borrowed their ideology and ritual from Freemasonry — which had taken it from Catholicism.) And despite being a Catholic who looked pretty WASP, my father was a Jew, and I occasionally reflected to myself that these guys wouldn’t have taken me as instant bosom buddy if they’d known that. (I probably even felt a little hypocritical for not mentioning it — and about Elbow coming from Ellenbogen. But it was only much later in my life that I came to take my Jewish roots seriously.)

My good friend Bill Scoble was with me in this fraternity. He too had misgivings of his own. Fairly soon after we joined in the fall, we both decided to quit. Because he was a star athlete and notable member of the class, brothers were bothered by his defection, and alumni brothers soon wined and dined him in New York to try to bring him to his senses. In fact they told him it was impossible to quit, he had to be expelled. No one much worried at my decision.

After I left, I don’t remember spending all that much time thinking about fraternities. I enjoyed meals at the student union with the other nonaffiliates. Did we even talk much about fraternities? I enjoyed being a Junior Advisor; and senior year loved living in the spacious run down quarters in that old white wooden Graylock Hall.

But I was troubled by how the fraternity system worked, and I could certainly see how it caused much needless hurt. And I couldn’t have been unaware that plenty of fraternities blackballed Jews. (By my junior year, all of them had finally offered a bid to at least one Jew.)

So I do remember feeling deeply involved in producing the short document that the “terrible twenty-two” of us wrote to the President and Trustees and distributed around the campus the night before a Trustees meeting in the spring of 1957. (A testament to how half-assed we were: there’s no date anywhere on the document!)

I was proud at having been at least one of the hands involved in writing it. I find that I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to change things that don’t seem right. My roomate, Bob Adolph, wrote a Swiftean “Argument Against Abolishing Fraternities” (that’s still a treat to read on page 113 of our yearbook), but our official document is unrelievedly earnest without a trace of wit or irony. The only real evidence of my writing role is circumstantial: something I do remember that Clay Hunt wrote in the margin of one of my essays senior year: “Save it for Sunday!”

The stir on campus lasted only a moment and the president and trustees didn’t give it the time of day. But our thinking was sound, our plan was good, and before long the college took just the path we laid out.

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#1 Comment By & On May 16, 2007 @ 9:46 am

Thank you for this.

I don’t know whether you have scanning capabilities. If not, maybe someone could scan in the manifesto and Adolph’s yearbook piece.

And, ah! the legendary Clay Hunt and his gruffness. Pretty funny comment, though. I’ll have to remember it.

I envision the old Greylock as much like the old Williams Inn/Dodd. Did all of the unaffiliates live there, or did the college have other housing (other than the Freshman Quadrangle)? Was West used for housing?

While I was at Williams, I never thought too much about the way it had been before my time even though things were rapidly changing, with the recent abolition of fraternities and the addition of women.

#2 Comment By Anonymous On May 16, 2007 @ 10:18 am

This is like one of those bad Hollywood movies where a 40-something remembers how good their life was in college and goes back as a student. It was the peak of some people’s lives and that is sad to consider.

#3 Comment By Anonymous On May 16, 2007 @ 10:57 am

“It was the peak of some people’s lives and that is sad to consider.”

That’s not the impression I get at all — rather, that it was just the beginning.

#4 Comment By Henry Bass ’57 On May 16, 2007 @ 1:21 pm

West College was a major housing unit for fraternity guys and nonaffilliated guys to room together. Morgan Hall was also available for this.

#5 Comment By frank uible On May 16, 2007 @ 3:18 pm

As I recall, in the 50s West College was highly sought housing by many students of various stripes, thereby making it exclusively or almost exclusively for seniors – seniors having first choice in housing. Greylock Hall (on the real estate now filled by the Greylock Quad) and the fraternity houses acommodated the vast majority of seniors, with a sprinkling of juniors. Morgan being regarded as less desirable was occupied mostly by juniors and sophomores. The Sophomore Quad (now called, I believe, the Odd Quad) was for sophomores and possibly some juniors.