The taming of Animal House
Cherry tomatoes can be the absolute death of a formal dinner — just prodding one with a fork can squirt juice everywhere or send the...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Cherry tomatoes can be the absolute death of a formal dinner — just prodding one with a fork can squirt juice everywhere or send the slippery devil flying into another guest.
That's one lesson a group of burly students learned this month when an etiquette coach arrived at their University of Washington fraternity house to teach them table manners.
This month the frat brothers also learned how to cook pad Thai and enjoyed an evening at the ballet.
"It was a real interesting experience. I'd never been to the ballet," said sophomore Scott Twaddle, 20. "I didn't know they didn't talk."
Meet the new brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon — SigEps — a frat that, until 18 months ago, threw boozy parties every Tuesday and Thursday and had a thick file of indiscretions on record with university officials. Now each of the brothers is part of a program they call "Balanced Man."
With 39 members and growing, the house is regaining stability after a wrenching transition. When frat leaders insisted on a fundamental culture change in the summer of 2004, 90 percent of members either left or were kicked out — one only after legal action was threatened. The house came close to folding, and the chef of 18 years worked without pay for three months.
The seven brothers who remained began rebuilding, seeking out the types of recruits who are more Dr. Phil than Animal House. They say Balanced Man, a program launched by the SigEps national organization, is about fulfillment, strong academic performance, diligent work habits and community service. And good, clean fun.
There's no more hazing of new pledges, or, for that matter, a pledge system. New recruits are handpicked and become full members from the beginning. The frat no longer pays for beer, and parties are held just once a quarter. Brothers "deep-clean" the house every Sunday by vacuuming the carpets and washing the windows. The grade-point average has jumped dramatically, making the SigEps one of the UW's most successful fraternities academically.
And the relationship with sororities has also improved: Groups of young female students regularly visit SigEps for shared events, sometimes pairing up for "date nights" like the trip to the ballet.
"It was a neat process; the students did an internal cleanup," said Dominic Greene, the fraternity-system adviser at the UW. "Oftentimes, the direction comes from headquarters or alumni. But in this case, the undergraduates came together and really decided what to do, and who would stay, and to sign up with Balanced Man."
But students from the other 28 UW fraternities aren't necessarily impressed. Those contacted wouldn't speak on the record — many fraternities enforce blanket media bans to combat what they view as years of negative coverage.
"There are always rumors going around like you're not cool anymore because you don't party anymore," acknowledges senior Ryan Rastetter, a 21-year-old SigEp. "People don't like what they don't understand."
The UW chapter of SigEps was founded in 1922. At its peak, SigEps was one of the larger UW frats, with more than 100 members. Occasionally, it would pop up in news stories, like in 1991 when members of a rival frat stood on their roof and fired bottle rockets at the SigEps. A street brawl ensued in which one 19-year old was hit in the head with a broom and needed stitches.
Today in the neighborhood just north of the university, there are plenty of signs that the Greek system, home to about 3,000 students, is still thriving. One tall tree is filled with pairs of shoes that have been tossed into the branches. Battered sofas sit on front porches. Dumpsters overflow with old beer cartons. Outside one fraternity house, dozens of plastic forks lie in the yard.
With its bright seasonal lights and potted plants by the door, the SigEps house looks cheerful by comparison. On one recent night, a visitor was greeted by a freshman in an immaculate tuxedo. He was on his way to a Christmas choir practice.
Inside, benches are stacked atop dining tables in an orderly fashion. Some students relax on black leather couches in front of a 65-inch TV with surround-sound, which is usually tuned to sports. That part of the house hasn't changed much.
But overall, it's a vastly different scene from the one that senior Kyle Jones, 21, stepped into three years ago. He remembers raucous nights, a pervasive smell of stale beer and an incident in which vomit lay on the carpet for a week before it was cleaned up. He found the halls so "gross" that he tried not to leave his room.
"All the lights were burned out in the house — it was like living in a cave," he said. "My mom and grandma both cried when they saw the house. They shed tears."
SigEps president Neil Doherty, another senior who survived the transition, acknowledges the promise of a bawdy lifestyle was a draw when he joined.
"I heard about partying with the older guys and my eyes lit up," he said, adding that the experience soon wore thin.
By the end of 2003, the place had become a sty, known mostly for parties and beer. Apathy reigned and the leaders found they couldn't rely on juniors and seniors to stay. Membership had dropped to about 65.
That's when Doherty, Rastetter and others, with support from alumni, turned to Balanced Man, which had been running in some SigEps chapters around the country since the early 1990s.
Chef Steve Flanagan said he was willing to forgo his pay because he was impressed with how hard the remaining members worked to keep the place running and to take the house in a new direction.
"I think that's pretty courageous," Flanagan said. "I think it's where the whole Greek system will go in the future."
The remaining members changed recruiting practices. Instead of relying on summer parties, they started a scholarship program, which this year offered six scholarships ranging from $200 to $1,000. Although scholarship winners don't have to join, SigEps sift through all the applications for potential recruits.
That's how they found freshman Lars Bouge, 19, who said he hadn't considered joining a fraternity until SigEps members came to visit him.
"I had a couple of friends in fraternities. I saw what they were doing and it didn't appeal to me at all," Bouge said. "But when these guys came out and met me in Spokane and met my parents, I was very surprised and impressed."
Also impressed was Cherie Tucker, who gave the etiquette class. She said the students are serious about learning all the skills to be successful throughout their lives.
"They were solicitous, polite and attentive," she said. "When I left, they gave me a gorgeous bouquet."
SigEps still faces big challenges. Recruits pay about $700 a month for food and board — similar to the cost in the dorms — but the fraternity as a whole needs 50 members to break even. And there's always the possibility that future members might switch direction again.
"They're kids," Tucker said. "It's their first time away from parental oversight and it's a time of growing pains."
But for now, Jones said he's happy to live somewhere he can bring his mom. These days, she visits on organized parents nights.
And she doesn't cry anymore when she sees how her son's living.
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
(The Associated Press) Fuel rules get support A Consumer Federation of America survey conducted in April found that a large majority of Americans R...
Post a comment