The role of fraternities on the University’s campus has changed immensely with the times; this history indisputably includes Beta, which began over 60 years ago and has been a staple on the University’s campus for years.
Then again, parties have always existed, even in 1945.
“The first house party we had, we spent $500 wholesale for liquor, and the tuition was $700 a semester,” said David Knapp ’49. “Can you imagine how much liquor that bought in 1945?”
David Knapp was Beta’s Chapter Advisor in the 90s as well as a member of the Alumni Committee.
At the time, older members assigned “freshmen quests” to the younger brothers, who went to extraordinary lengths to complete certain tasks. These tasks included measuring the George Washington Bridge with a toothpick and going to Boston to get a photo taken with a stripper. Knapp recalled that his own quest involved going to the then all-female Connecticut College and proposing to a student there. He also was assigned the task of obtaining 200 student signatures and taking five different women out on a date all at the same time.
“I told my mother I was getting a liberal arts education not only academically, but socially,” Knapp said. “There was a lot of drinking and partying and sex and everything else.”
In 1945, 90 percent of the student body belonged to one of many fraternities—those who did not join chose not to be one. Now Beta is one of only a handful of fraternities on campus. The fraternity has 60 members, but most do not live in Beta’s Tudor-style house on the corner of High Street and Church Street. The Beta brothers still uphold traditions like eating meals together, but not in the same, organized way that they did in the 1940s.
“That of course made fraternity life very, very different,” Knapp said, “Basically [not eating meals together] diminishes the camaraderie and tradition to some extent.”
During the 1940s, the brothers ate every meal together, since a live-in cook provided all the meals for the house. Over meals, the students would join in group activities like singing fraternity and college songs, solidifying the relationships they had between one another. 40 years later, Oliver Bennett ’89 recalls a similar experience.
“Working and living in a house and having dinner together every night, basically you come to be very close to each other,” Bennett said.
Bennett joined the fraternity in 1985. At the time, the small fraternity worked as a team to organize lectures, debates, and parties at Beta. Bennett was Vice President as well as the Social Chairman.
“It gave me some leadership experience and allowed me to learn,” Bennett said.
Bennett added that Beta’s reputation as a sanctuary for privileged, party-happy, athletic young men, is not new to the University.
“I guess fraternities at the time back then, many of them at Wesleyan were misunderstood,” Bennett said. “There were some people that played that mystique [of being a ‘bastion of authority’] up and I don’t think it was valid at Beta.”
In the 1970s, as fraternity life was going out of style and co-education was instituted, Beta shut down. When Bennett joined in 1985, it was just beginning to develop into a fraternity again. According to Bennet, Beta attracted a group of members who reflected the diversity of the whole campus.
“I certainly didn’t view us as being an exclusive group of white, Anglo-Saxon men,” Bennett said. “We were an easy target to be criticized and bashed. For the politically- correct attitudes [of] the time, we were an easy target to blame for the stereotypes that people wanted to use to basically support whatever kind of argument that they were making. I would say that there was very little truth and very little evidence to that argument.”
Since its rebirth in 1980s, the fraternity has grown to 60 members. According to Colin Campbell ’10, in recent years it has also attracted a more diverse group of students from the University community.
“The people that we’ve been attracting has broadened,” Campbell said. “We are getting a very different group of people that want to be a part of this [fraternity].”
Campbell explained that this trend is helping to overturn the stereotypes that have plagued Beta over the years. This trend has spread as brothers from various social groups on campus introduce their friends to the Beta community.
“There is definitely a reputation, but that reputation is starting to get better,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to be a stereotype. I think people who view us in that way should come by and hang out.”
Beta brothers admit that they attract Varsity lacrosse players, but believe that continuing to include a diverse group of students in the fraternity is important for the fraternity’s development. The alums hope for Beta to grow, while maintaining its traditions.
“I think it will [grow] as long as it continues to find ways to provide value,” Bennett said. “The value of the fraternity needs to be evident to the community and the students at large in order to continue to exist and thrive.”