Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest Post: Cornell and Alpha Delta Phi, 1978

Thank heaven I left Cornell before the 1980 publication of The Official Preppy Handbook, in which the authors primly pronounced our university to be "out of the league." Evidently the place was too diverse to cultivate the homogeneity required of an "authentic" preppy campus.

And it’s true, in addition to friends from Exeter and Lawrenceville, I was forced to fraternize with graduates of Pomfret, Hill, and even a few kids from day schools in Maryland and New Jersey. My best friend and I both had a crush on a beauty from Baldwin, a notoriously artsy school outside Philadelphia. But her friendship with a tall, Byronic figure in our American Lit class who affected black turtleneck sweaters was as predictable as it was heartbreaking. Most un-prep.

Chapter House

I was a member of Alpha Delta Phi, a national but relatively small fraternity founded in 1832 at Hamilton College. At Cornell, fraternities did not exist for the sole purpose of drinking beer and trashing your 1931 John Russell Pope-designed mansion, as portrayed in Animal House (which was by coincidence written by an Alpha Delt from Dartmouth). At a university where your chances of getting on-campus housing following freshman year were one in six, fraternities were one of the chief housing options (there were 48 of them).

Of course it was 1978 and my group sported the garb with which the readers of this blog are well acquainted. You trudged up Libe Slope to morning classes in a light snow, to an overheated classroom in McGraw Hall, to a drafty Uris Library carrel, and back to West Campus in freezing rain. Turtleneck under oxford shirt under crewneck sweater under down vest was a style born of necessity, not affectation. Likewise, the affinity with L. L. Bean was as much practical as it was aesthetic.

We may have been the only fraternity on campus to dress for dinner. Most of us wore navy blazers and the rest wore charcoal herringbone tweeds; blue jeans, jean corduroys, or khakis on the bottom; and a rep stripe, foulard, or club tie. The first Wednesday of the month was date night, when we for sure dropped the jeans for khakis and replaced Top-Siders with penny or tasseled loafers.

I'm sure more than a few parents were curious when their 19-year-old Alpha Delts came home during winter break asking to buy a tuxedo. Twice a year we hosted Victory Club, a black tie, invitation-only gambling party in support of literacy that Playboy once called "the classiest party in the Ivy League." The event originated in 1918 to encourage the sale of Victory Bonds during the First World War. It was forced to go underground during Prohibition, and we of course encouraged its murky reputation.

Brothers

 We also wore black tie for our annual dinner honoring new initiates, and in the spring affected piece parts of black tie for Arts Quad Croquet, when we took our dates, who traditionally wore white dresses, to drink champagne and strawberries and play drunken croquet on the Arts Quad lawn.

Arts Quad Croquet


Through the eyes of memory, football Saturdays were always tweed jacket weather: cool, crisp, and sunny. We owned a 1930s fire truck and would all ride together up to Schoellkopf Field. We'd fill gallon jugs with apple cider fresh from the spigot at Cornell Orchards, top them up with rum, and take 'em into the games.

The Firetruck


Tailgating from his Volvo wagon outside the stadium, the stereotypical alum was a stout man in a wool sports jacket with the sort of large plaid that only J. Press seems interested in today, something just short of a horse blanket, an amiable fellow who clapped you on the back and lost no time pressing a drink into your hand. I miss that custom – the rapid and immediate proffering of the cocktail – which seems largely to have disappeared with this Puritan century.

It’s a funny thing about me and my cronies. For us, college was about growing into manhood; sophomoric antics notwithstanding, we aspired to be grown-ups. Our models, sartorial and otherwise, were our fathers and our friends’ fathers, those stout fellows, which sounds hopelessly square but speaks volumes about who we were. "There is the presence of a father…a force of counsel and support that would have carried one, well-equipped, into manhood," John Cheever wrote in his journal. "One does not invest the image with brilliance or wealth; it is simply a man in a salt and pepper tweed, sometimes loving, sometimes irascible, and sometimes drunk but always responsible to his son."

Forgive me if I tend to romanticize the past. Like many of my age, I am bewildered by what it means to be an adult in a culture dominated by the values of children. How are children to be shown the way out of childhood by parents who want to be children themselves?

The Author, "Sartre," in 1978

20 comments:

linda said...

well written, so true...
-linda,ny

ThePreppyTimes said...

I very much enjoyed this post. Thanks for the wonderful read.

Main Line Sportsman said...

Well done,well written..and brings back memories. At Lehigh, every Friday afternoon at 4...Intra Fraternity Council cocktail parties at 3 houses...coat and tie for all men attending(circa 1981-1985)...won't see that today anywhere....

Birddog said...

Main Line Sportsman, it exists. Please come visit us at Ole Miss or Alabama next football season!

Barbara said...

Many years ago at a small college in the South a Zeta Tau Alpha girl couldn't be seen chewing gum, walking with a cigarette, (although you were taught the proper etiquette for smoking)or on campus without silk stockings and never in trousers or shorts.

Lovely post, beautifully written!

Anonymous said...

My husband was an ADPhi at McGill (Canada) in the 60's and was very touched by this post. Thank you for posting this. Given that I broke the rudder off the white hull today, this has put him in a better mood. Well, this post and a drink. Susannah Dobbie

Sartre said...

Thanks for the kind comments, folks. By coincidence, The Trad mentions ADPhi in his post today, in relation to the Dartmouth-Chris Miller-Animal House connection.

Chenners said...

I used to love black turtlenecks and Byron is still one of my favorites.

I'll have to get one for next winter.

Sartre said...

@Chenners -- what I didn't mention was that his sweaters had the big thick rolled necks -- almost like a cowl neck. In fact, my friend and I called him "Mr. Cowl Neck," the bastard.

Main Line Sportsman said...

Bird dog...glad to hear that...I actually have always wanted to tailgate in the Grove...

Pete said...

Very well written. This brings back memories of my fraternity days, blazer and tie for cocktails on Fridays in the fall and winter. The description of dressing to meet the temperatures of an overheated classroom and a library that had thermostat stuck on 53 year-round was spot on.

myfwbs said...

I love this post. Very well written.

truetraditional said...

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this. It evokes such vivid imagery of a time that is, unfortunately, no longer in existence. As an almost-30 year old woman, I fear that what you have so eloquently described is long gone, and that I will never see anything like it despite my yearning for it. Thank you for a wonderfully written story.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post on Cornell - what a wonderful writer he is! I loved the part about fathers and growing up today.

Karen said...

I graduated from Cornell in 1996, an can tell you that at least for the first half of the 1990s, a lot of the spirit of what you describe was still in tact. Perhaps a combination of Ithaca weather and Cornell's spirit inspires both a ruggedness and a sense of refinement.

I had friends in Alpha Delt (one good friend who turned me on to this site, one friend who passed away quite young), and loved spending time in that grand structure. The Cornell campus and Alpha Delt have a storybook feel, made all the more special for being real.

Thank you for the vivid descriptions of misty mornings, drafty carrels, and crisp fall days. It's a special place, and you captured it beautifully in this piece.

Bumby Scott said...

Sartre, Great Post!
I felt as if I was there on campus with you.

David Aaron Hahn said...

As others have commented, your post was very well written. It triggered a lot of fond memories, and has gone viral among your fellow Alpha Delts on Facebook. We'd love to reconnect with you!

David Durfee said...

My second favorite thing you have written. The first was your recap, as fraternity secretary, of a Victory Club party and its aftermath, patterned on T.S. Elliot's Wasteland.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. My dad was at Cornell (and a member of a fraternity, though it wasn't Alpha Delta Phi) at the same time as you, and has told me many similar stories over the years. Part of me wonders if you might have met each other.

Paul Connors said...

I am a bit late to this gathering, but I feel the need to add my comments here, re-stating what others did before, that your commentary was well written. Perhaps more noteworthy is that you had the maturity to look back fondly and perhaps a bit whimsically, to your days at Cornell and to now be able to put all of the disparate pieces together to be able to realize the true value of that time.

Bravo and in appreciation.