Four short years ago (although it seems like yesterday), I was a junior in college and a recently elected officer of my fraternity. We were near the end of our new member's education period, and soon we would be preparing those members for initiation. Our chapter was on a tremendous upswing -- we had transitioned to alcohol-free housing, improved in recruitment, and began the long climb to improve our academics. Things were looking up, and finally calming down (outside of the hubbub from homecoming, at least).
You never could have prepared me for what the next few weeks would bring to my 20-year-old life. Two days after we had our initiation, almost 24 hours after we introduced several of our new members to our Alumni Corporation Board, and in the midst of several brothers helping our chapter advisor move his family to a new home, one of our newly initiated members was tragically killed in a car accident on a Sunday morning when he was thrown from the vehicle. He hadn't been wearing a seat belt.
I'll never forget coming home from helping our chapter advisor move in, with scant details of the accident. Nearly 60, wide-eyed 'men' had been reduced to what seemed like children in disbelief. How could he have died? We had just welcomed him to our brotherhood. He was family. He lived down the hall. But, there we were: 60 men on the grand staircase of our chapter house, listening to our chapter president and some senior leaders inform us of the news: after having been flown from the accident, he had passed away.
The outpouring of support to the chapter from the university was second to none. The Vice President for Student Life descended on the chapter to provide unprecedented support, and with him several members of the Office of Student Life and University Counseling Center were on hand to help. Wednesday of that week, alumni members of the chapter joined us for our formal dinner and chapter meeting, which was longer than normal -- it was our time to reflect on our fallen brother, and most of our new members' first chapter meeting. A notable part of the meeting? An empty chair where he would have joined us. At every chapter meeting, a gavel is passed around the room for all to make any announcement -- while many people shared stories of our brother, or took the time to process or offer support, I will always remember what happened when the gavel reached the chair. I'm not sure anyone had thought about that moment, and what might occur, but the room went silent. And the tears started to flow.
The funeral happened on a Thursday, and our chapter members drove two and a half hours to be at the service -- the family had reserved half of the church for us. In his obituary, his family shared that "he decided he wanted to join a fraternity, so he researched which group fit him best... he felt a kinship with the other members. It went on with his father saying "He always wanted to be part of something like that." And in the area where survivors were listed, among his parents, brothers and sister, they listed "his new fraternity brothers." A week after his funeral, the chapter invited his family to a ceremony special to our brotherhood -- an open and public ritual to honor a fallen brother. We invited them to participate and remember him, and the bond we shared. These are vivid memories that have great meaning to my life.
I share this because I've worked with Greek life before, and I have a special place in my heart for Fraternity and Sorority life. When I hear that a new member has to be hazed in order to be a 'real brother,' or new members aren't part of the fraternity yet, I remember this story. And, when I read about hazing like what happened with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, or any countless, sad stories in Fraternity Life, I'm called to remember what Fraternity means to me.
I'm called to remember the feelings my brothers had when they came upon his accident as the first people who stopped at the accident -- and they saw their brother, his injuries, and were watching this tragedy unfold. I'm reminded of the number of weddings that I've attended in the last year (four of them for brothers), and will attend this year (one more in November) to celebrate my brothers' commitment to their spouses. I'm reminded of the comfort I felt when my brothers attended my grandfather's funeral this past August. Or, when I needed to move in June, and five young fraternity brothers that I had never lived with nor did I know well took it upon themselves to help me, without my asking. Or the story of a new member in my chapter last fall, who lost both his mother to cancer, and father to a heart attack, and the number of men who drove five and a half hours to support their new brother in his time of loss. These stories are stark reminders of what it has meant to me to have brothers, and to be a brother of my fraternity. And frankly fraternity, regardless which chapter it is, relates to values based living. Fraternity is about living with purpose, and convincing the world of the sincerity of your purpose. And frankly if a fraternity isn't doing that, then they are not a fraternity.
If a fraternity is not about mutual respect, then they are not a fraternity. If a chapter doesn't honor cognitive dissonance, they're just another student group on campus, and likely one of the student groups you shouldn't want to associate with. But, when fraternity is done correctly, it builds life long friendship, and in my chapter's case, a bond and commitment that extends past our time as collegians and our time on earth. And, frankly, when you refer to 'frat,' you do not refer to my experience, or anyone else with similar experience. 'Frat' is a myth -- because 'frat' refers to something that isn't fraternity -- and those who represent themselves as fraternity when they are 'frat,' haven't convinced anyone of their purpose, and don't find value in culture, harmony in brotherhood, or friendship for a lifetime.
And for my sake, live the values you pledged to uphold. For my fallen brother's sake, please buckle up.