c/o www.playle.com

In recent years, there has been considerable controversy surrounding the presence of Greek life on campus, but the debate over the role of fraternities at the University has a rich history. Several decades ago, the issue came to the forefront when, in spite of the increasingly liberal atmosphere on campus, Phi Gamma, the Wesleyan chapter of Alpha Chi Rho, was forced to retain its traditional Christian ideology. The conflict with the fraternity’s national organization came to a head in 1958, and Esse Quam Videri (EQV), an independent local fraternity devoted to diversity and individualism, was born.

Alpha Chi Rho was founded in 1895 as a religious fraternity. Initially, the values of the Phi Gamma chapter, established at Wesleyan in 1911, were in accord with those of the national organization. Later on, the social climate at Wesleyan became more secular and progressive, and the campus chapter felt a dissonance between the two outlooks.

At a national convention in 1954, Phi Gamma demanded that the organization remove the phrase “membership from among Christians only” from its list of guiding principles. Though the passage was changed to require only that members considered Jesus of Nazareth their moral exemplar, the national organization retained a secret policy that not only restricted membership to Christians, but also excluded African Americans.

“It was a very 1950s script: keeping things looking ‘nice’ on the surface, and do your unsavory work behind closed doors,” reads a history of EQV written by Gus Napier ’60 and Jan Van Meter ’63 in honor of the fraternity’s reunion in 2005.

Despite the national organization’s strictness during the ’50s, its supervision of Phi Gamma was limited. The executive director visited the fraternity house a number of times, but Alpha Chi Rho did not investigate the chapter’s adherence to the official requirements or the secret agenda. Phi Gamma took advantage of the national organization’s disengagement. It omitted all religious phrasing from the initiation ritual and admitted a number of Jewish members. In 1955, it pledged African-American students for the first time.

On campus, Phi Gamma was recognized for its progressive attitude. Napier, who grew up in Georgia during a period of intense racism, pledged as a freshman in the fall of 1956. He was drawn to the fraternity’s liberal values—a contrast to those of his hometown—and its spirited environment.

“Certainly this was a very bold, lively, gutsy group of men, and so I was attracted to their vitality and their enjoyment of having a good time and of just being intellectually adventurous,” he said.

In 1957, the national organization began to monitor Phi Gamma more carefully, and the officers were dissatisfied with the chapter’s deviation from its ideology. A story popular among Phi Gamma members of this era is that the National Secretary found two Phi Gamma members using the fraternity’s sacred cross and crook as swords in a play-fight during his visit to the house and became livid. The tale might be fictitious, but it is nonetheless indicative of the growing tension between the local chapter and the institution.

That June, some members of Phi Gamma attended a meeting in Newark with the officers of Alpha Chi Rho’s national organization. The officers demanded that the chapter expel its African-American and Jewish members and ordered it to reinstitute the Christian initiations and rituals. If the chapter did not abide by the national agenda, it would be evicted from its house.

“It was a kind of inquisition, with accusations and threats,” said Ted Wieseman ’58, Phi Gamma President at the time of the meeting, as quoted in the EQV history. “…They said that the National owned the house with the implied threat to kick us out if we didn’t comply. It was a truly awful experience.”

Back at Wesleyan, Wieseman and Bill Olson ’58, the Ritual Ffficer, met with Dean Don Eldridge ’31, who encouraged them to protest against the national organization. In June of 1958, Phi Gamma held its annual meeting, during which, with support from its alumni, it modified the Alpha Chi Rho ritual manual to contain secular, inclusive language.

In the fall of 1958, all members of Phi Gamma were suspended from the national organization for their failure to comply with the Alpha Chi Rho ritual codes. The members of the chapter voted to rename the fraternity the Black Walnut Club after its eating club. In November, the club members received individual letters from Alpha Chi Rho officially stating their suspension and demanding that they attend a hearing in New York City. “Failure to appear will constitute acknowledgement of guilt,” the letter read. No members of the Black Walnut Club attended.

For a brief period, the club tried to reclaim its position as a chapter of Alpha Chi Rho, and students and faculty members generally respected the decision. But throughout its suspension, the group faced one major adversary: Robert Moore, class of 1915, who had been a member of Phi Gamma. In 1959, Moore wrote an open letter to all Alpha Chi Rho alumni that stated, “There are those who have no fight in them. But already there is a body of well over two hundred Graduates of Phi Gamma who stand by Alpha Chi Rho’s moral right to be an autonomous Christian Fraternity without compromise or equivocation—as it has been from the beginning.”

Though the national organization lifted the Black Walnut Club’s suspension soon after Moore’s letter was issued, Moore and his
“Committee to Preserve Phi Gamma of Alpha Chi Rho” had a major influence on the organization. Ultimately, Alpha Chi Rho changed its mind and reinstated the chapter’s suspension. (Tellingly, EQV later adopted a tradition of chanting, “Bob Moore: fuck him” before meals.)

The suspension was reinstated in September 1959, when the group had its first chapter meeting after its initial suspension. There, then-president Jay Levy ’60 reported the national organization’s decision to reverse its decision and continue the chapter’s suspension. In response, the chapter voted unanimously to leave Alpha Chi Rho and start a new, inclusive fraternity. Levy, having studied Latin, proposed the name Esse Quam Videri (“To be, rather than to seem”) to represent not only the fraternity’s agenda of sincerity but also its break from the tradition of Greek life.

“We came up with Esse Quam Videri, which we thought, to some extent, was what our argument was all about,” said Robert Patricelli ’61, who was Corresponding Secretary at the time of EQV’s formation. “To be rather than to seem, that we’re not going to fake it. We’re transparently non-discriminatory.”

EQV’s new rebellious reputation attracted students, leading freshmen and sophomores who had not previously pledged Phi Gamma to join. No rushing was involved in the EQV initiation process. Instead, pledging members simply took a secular oath. Additionally, the group became more known and respected on campus, in part because of its subversive history.

“I think the campus was quite proud of us for taking this stand,” Napier said. “I know they were because we were on the forefront at that time of challenging discrimination. I think that registered with the campus. I think also some of the faculty admired our process, that we worked hard to try to change the national fraternity.”

Of course, the other major contributor to the popularity of EQV, which was known as “the singing fraternity,” was its resident folk music group first known as the Clansmen and later as the Highwaymen. The group, which was awarded a gold record in 1960, performed frequently at the dinner table.

In general, music was a crucial part of EQV’s culture. Patrick Lawler ’69, who was treasurer, recalled that Uranus and the Five Moons, a popular Wesleyan rock band at the time, used to have concerts at the EQV house, attracting students from other college campuses.

Throughout the fraternity’s run, the brothers frequently sang, mainly after dinner around the piano. Song choices varied widely and included spirituals like “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore,” popular songs like “The Gypsy,” and the Wesleyan Fight Song. Once, the fraternity even had the opportunity to sing with the folk singer Mimi Baez Fariña, the younger sister of Joan Baez.

The atmosphere at EQV was lively, bordering on rambunctious. The brothers were notorious for rappelling down the side of their house from the third floor window and for their brief affair with a bullwhip, which ended after Patricelli accidentally used it to yank out the radio antenna of a passing car.

The fraternity gave frequent parties, too, where a punch called “Hairy Buffalos” or “Jew Boys’ Revenge” was often served. Mostly, EQV members looked forward to parties because students from women’s colleges attended them. The women were known to linger in the house on weekends.

“There were no women on campus, and this was not healthy in many respects, but it meant that house party weekends were crazy all over campus,” Lawler said. “Sometimes the behavior, as I look back on it, was unrestrained, shall I say.”

Still, courting women was not on every EQV member’s agenda. According to Bruce Corwin ’62, there was an unspoken but substantial gay subculture at EQV. Though no members openly acknowledged their homosexuality, the fraternity served as a place of refuge for gay students at a time when homophobia was pervasive even at Wesleyan.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had a huge gay population in the house, which I realized almost after graduating,” said Corwin. “It was very quiet. It was not talked about. I was straight, so I wasn’t aware of it. But I became aware after graduation that EQV was kind of a safe place for gay members of the Wesleyan population. Like a third of the house was gay. I didn’t know it, but it was true.”

Acceptance and diversity were major parts of the fraternity’s agenda. The brothers frequently discussed civil rights around the table, and many participated in protests. In 1960, a number of members traveled south to partake in the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. Later, many became involved in organizing protests locally. The discussions of tolerance and social justice affected many EQV members’ political views and career choices later in life.

“Certainly the discourse made me more sensitive to different points of view and better able to understand and appreciate a wider range of opinions,” Lawler said.

In 1963, representatives of Alpha Chi Rho’s national organization visited the EQV house and proposed that EQV merge with Alpha Chi Rho. The organization affirmed that it had made significant changes to its ritual to make the fraternity more inclusive. The list of guiding principles, for example, was amended to read, “Membership in Alpha Chi Rho is not denied by reason of race, color, or religion, but the Fraternity requires that its members look up to Jesus of Nazareth as their moral exemplar.”

EQV members, naturally, were skeptical that any real change would be palpable in the revised Alpha Chi Rho. In December of 1963, they voted unanimously to reject Alpha Chi Rho’s offer. The national organization was persistent, and throughout 1964 it continually requested that the University allow it to return to campus and reclaim the house that EQV now occupied.

In 1965, EQV was forced out of its house because of Alpha Chi Rho’s potential return. Members temporarily moved into dorms on Lawn Avenue and ate meals at the Alpha Delta Phi house with separate seating apart from members of the host fraternity. In 1966, EQV was relocated to the Weeks House (now home of Full House and Writing House) on High Street, though the fraternity was not the sole occupant of the 40-room house.

Though EQV now had a more permanent-feeling location with its own eating facilities, membership dwindled, as it did with all fraternities at the University starting in the mid-’60s. The campus’ attitude toward fraternities had shifted dramatically as the social climate began to place more emphasis on individualism and tolerance. According to an Argus poll taken in 1965, 60 percent of Wesleyan students believed fraternities did not play an important role at Wesleyan. Thirty-five percent expressed a desire for fraternities to be eliminated altogether.

Generally, EQV was in a state of disarray at this point. Deeply influenced by hippie culture and a San Francisco lifestyle, it lacked internal organization and funding. Additionally, the fraternity became something of a hub of drug use. Marijuana and LSD were commonplace, and Lawler even remembers some members receiving peyote by mail.

On December 4, 1967, the second floor of EQV was destroyed by a fire as a result of what the fire marshals called “careless disposal of smoking materials.” The fire rendered the house unlivable, and EQV was moved back to the dorms on Lawn Avenue. Though no EQV members recalled formally agreeing to disband after the disaster, the fire marked the end of the fraternity. EQV did not rush in 1968.

“It wasn’t the Alpha Chi Rho thing that did EQV in,” said Van Meter. “It was the declining strength that fraternities had at a place like Wesleyan, which had a great effect on how many people join, the fact that they didn’t have an alumni body who could help them and help them through bad financial times, and also the impact of drugs, which was very strong.”

In 1971, Alpha Chi Rho altered its guiding principles to be more inclusive, but fraternities had long fallen out of favor at Wesleyan. In 1973, the University purchased the Alpha Chi Rho house and converted it into the headquarters of the Romance Languages Department, which it remains now.

Of course, the demise of EQV was saddening to former members, but most had seen it coming considering the state of chaos the fraternity had fallen into by the late ’60s. Still, former EQV members look back fondly on their time in the house.

“I came to Wesleyan wanting a different kind of life, and that’s why I was attracted to this fraternity,” Corwin said. “This was a group of very special, very diverse, very alive, very bold men. This was a terrific group of people. I think it was just good luck that these people found each other, and I somehow stumbled in the midst of it.”

Though the fraternity is long gone, it continues to have an impact on student life at Wesleyan. At a meeting at the first ever EQV reunion in 2005, Steve Olesky ’64 proposed the idea of sponsoring summer internships for Wesleyan students for 10 years. After the decade ended, the interns funded by EQV would take over the internship program. The members present agreed to help execute the idea, and the fraternity has been supporting summer internships since 2006.

  • DavidL

    “at a time when homophobia was pervasive even at Wesleyan.”

    I guess maybe sorta kinda. You had to be there, which I was.

    Mostly the issue didn’t come up. There was no gay bashing, but the closet was well populated. Nobody looked for homosexuals to harass, but they weren’t campus heros either No one seemed to want to come out. Or at least they did not come out to the community at large. There were students who were assumed to be homosexual (“gay” we would not have understood). Certainly there were more who were covert. Overall sex was a more private issue and pursuit. It did not have the political edge it has today.

    EQV was an interesting place, but it was not the only fraternity to question and eventually disaffiliate from its national organization. For example Sigma Chi became Commons Club in 1961 over race covenants in the national charter.

    Wesleyan’s commitment to fairness and tolerance is not a recent invention. The students may have looked conventional, but they were not. From my distant perch, there seems to be much more pressure for conformity at Wesleyan now than there was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Today’s Wesleyan seems to have quite a few trend followers posing as nonconformists. And believing their own poses.