Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

sigma-nu-maine 3 retouched

Sometime this summer the University of Maine will demolish the Sigma Nu fraternity house, a structure that has been a part of its campus for nearly a century. The fraternity chapter’s 99-year lease expires next year and the house is in need of serious repairs.

The university, in its ever-generous magnanimity, had offered to extend the lease by “seven or eight” years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. Costs for such renovation have been estimated at $1 million.

The fraternity, which owns the house but not the land on which the structure sits, will instead give the building, built during World War I, to the university, which will then raze it in order to create a parking lot.

I spent three years living in what we referred to as the “Great White Castle of Sigma Nu overlooking the placid Stillwater River in beautiful Orono, Maine.” (The structure was white and great, and the river placid, but I’m not sure how beautiful Orono, Maine, was – then or now.)

The chapter has been on the ropes of late: It was suspended for five years in 2012 for alcohol violations, and the house has been leased to another fraternity for the past couple of years.

And while there’s no question that the house is in need of renovation, it also offers the university a convenient excuse to do away with another vestige of the Greek system.

University officials around the nation and not a few in the mainstream media have had fraternities in their sights for some time, accusing them of elitism, classism and sexism, among other “isms.”

While there is no question that some fraternity chapters have committed serious improprieties over the years, lumping all fraternity members into the category of alcohol-abusing date-raping Neanderthals is simplistic and grossly inaccurate.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house, likely taken in 1940s.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house at University of Maine, likely taken in 1940s.

As a pledge, the worst hazing I was subject to was being “forced” to drink beer – lots of beer. (Yeah, it was hell.) There was no paddling, no humiliation and no weirdness.

My time at Sigma Nu was spent with a pretty good group of guys. Unlike the stereotype, none were rich – in fact, as far as I know, all were middle class, ranging from a small number of upper middle class to a small number of lower middle class. Most were somewhere in the middle.

Some were more into school than others, but most of us graduated. Some went on to become doctors and lawyers, others firemen and salesmen. In other words, pretty much like students from any college dorm.

And I don’t recall the police arresting anyone for a felony (not that there weren’t some very stupid misdemeanors committed).

A handful of things I recall about the house:

  • The third-story floor had thousands of tiny marks from fraternity members, in training for service in World War I, trying on their hobnail boots;
  • The time an aging fraternity member stopped by to visit and told of a fellow brother who, during World War II, while flying a B-17 bomber on a training mission from the air base at nearby Bangor, put his plane into a full screaming plunge at the house before pulling up at the last moment, than waggling the plane’s wings before heading back to the base;
  • The rats that lived in the basement. They had moved into the house through pipes in the mid-1950s when a neighboring fraternity house burned;
  • The awful paint schemes that existed throughout the house. It costs a lot of money to paint the interior of a 13,000-square-foot structure, so we were always looking for a bargain on paint, and stores don’t put their top-selling brands or colors on special. We must have got one heck of a deal on lemon yellow; and
  • The aging piano that sat in the living room. It was at least 40 years old in the late 1980s, and probably had had a thousand gallons of beer spilled on it over the decades, but it still worked. There was always someone with enough musical ability to play an intro to a rock song on it. One of my pledge brothers, for example, could knock out the start to “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue.

Of course I’m disappointed that the university will knock down a structure that’s been around for two-thirds of the history of the 151-year-old school. But I also realize that given the environment we live in today, the days of fraternities in general are likely numbered.

It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen my old fraternity house and nearly as long since I’ve seen any of my fraternity brothers. When you live 1,200 miles from your alma mater – and the general area where most of your college buddies still reside – it’s tough to drop in for a visit.

But “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” will always be connected by our experiences in the grand old house of Sigma Nu, whether it’s standing or exists only in our memories.

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21 thoughts on “Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

  1. Unfortunately mention of the fraternities in the British press only arises when associated with drink, drugs,sex, etc….which makes one think that they are ideal breeding grounds for future politicians.

    Could you suggest anything I could read to explain the ‘Greek’ system to me?

    You may not have seen the place for years, but you clearly enjoyed yourself there…

    We were in halls of residence for our first and third years….and let loose on London to find a flat for our second which was the only experience we had of choosing our own company.

    Our flat was situated in East London, in an area run by disorganised crime (not that we saw any of it) and rejoiced in the name of ‘The Flattleship Potemkin’…long demolished, but mention of it brings back the dark stairway and the rugger shirts and tights draped all over the bathroom…

    • In some respects I think the Greek system has to be experienced to be understood. Too many who didn’t experience it have a predilection to think the worst. It has its bad apples, like any other organization, but it also possesses the camaraderie of a military unit. Mostly, it’s a place for students to get together, live in the same place and, every so often, blow off steam. I don’t fully understand sororities, to be honest. The ones in the South, from what I’ve seen, can be extremely expensive to be a part of, but I’d imagine there’s the same sense of belonging. Ultimately, the Greek system is an early networking system.

      As for something to read, I’m afraid you either get one side or the other, but both are rather biased. Personally, I’ve seen the movie “Animal House” at least 100 times and I could watch it another 100. Sadly, it’s my kind of entertainment.

  2. Aw. I recently learned that my college dorm was razed and in a way it was kind of devastating. Not nearly as much history wrapped up in it as your fraternity house, but lots of memories all the same.

    • Dorm or fraternity, it is difficult because the college years are so formative. You often make friendships that last a lifetime and it’s within those walls that the course of your life is often charted. I can understand your sadness.

  3. Very interesting building and story. I pledged Theta Chi in the spring of 1968 my freshman year and can relate to everything you said, although, we were hazed, big-time, for six hellacious weeks. But times were changing in ’68 it became so hard the next year to get pledges that my pledge class and the one that followed banned hazing when we became officeholders. The alums went postal. Traditions die hard. But I made contact just this year online with a “brother” who had hazed me unmercifully when I was a pledge but become a “brother” when hell week ended. We’ve reconnected after lo these many decades as if we truly are brothers.

    • It’s nice to hear that others have the same bond, even one that’s been untapped for decades. I think that for the most part, hazing, at least as far as could tell, took on more of a psychological variety than a physical sort through the ’70s and ’80s. There was the unaffiliated fraternity on my campus that had a number of football players, however, that was notorious for such foolishness as making pledges eat an entire raw onion and paddling them until they bled. This, according to a friend who was a member. No thanks.

  4. I think my view echoes Helen’s.

    Sounds like some exclusive classist rubbish. Seriously.

    But UK universities did not have that. What on earth were you all looking for? I have read American novels about this and it freaks me out. Whacky beyond belief.

    • There’s an old saying in America, “I was young and stupid.” Maybe we were even “classist.” Acknowledging that, at what point in UK history did your youth in the UK get cured of “exclusive classist” ways and “young and stupid” behavior. I mean, seriously???

      • We didn’t have your sorority fraternity whatever it is. I think that’s a good start. I’m not kappa something or omega whatever. I got a degree from a university. No more, no less. Apologies. Two degrees. From two universities.

      • For what it’s worth, most people don’t know I was in a fraternity. It’s not a badge of honor I wear, but it was enjoyable and I wouldn’t trade it. The more important part of college was the education and degree, of course.

    • We weren’t necessarily looking for anything other than friends to hang out with and a place to live. It’s in many ways no different than living in the dorms, except you largely get to choose who you live with, and you’re living a much more independent lifestyle.

      Fraternities aren’t for everyone, just as dorm life isn’t for everyone. Most people, whether they choose to admit it or not, can likely fit nicely into most fraternities or sororities, and into most dorms. There’s always outliers that give all others a bad name. Those are the ones that tend to get written about. The fraternity where the guys go to classes, get decent grades and graduate, and along the way have play sports,drink beer and make friends doesn’t merit much of a story because it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

  5. It’s always sad to lose a landmark. Those kinds of decisions are hard to make if there is a strong historical society reigning over the city. It sounds like you had lots of fun there, but it isn’t something affecting your daily life. For a history buff, like yourself, it has to be even more difficult to see it go than it would be for many. 🙂 Thanks for continuing with my new blog, Cotton. You are a gem. 🙂

  6. Seems a shame to demolish such a handsome building and replace it with a parking lot. Of course, if I had my way, the country would be littered with old buildings of all sorts, old farms and pastures, old growth forests, etc.

    • The building isn’t as nearly handsome as it was in its early days as it definitely needs some refurbishing, but it’s a whole lot better than another parking lot.

      I have no problem with progress, but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of history. A nation that doesn’t know its past has no roadmap for its future.

      I’m like you: I love me some old farms, pastures, old homes, etc. Upkeep, though, isn’t always cheap.

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