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.
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.