Following most weeks’ columns, I do field a few emails from readers who take the time to react to my scribbles. In some columns, I’m telling someone else’s story while in others, I’m directing the high beams on some element, be it past or present, of our shared human existence. And, then there are those other times when I’ll opine a bit on a more serious topic, personalizing it if I can, as columnists often do.
Last month I did write about one of those more serious topics, one that has sadly surfaced with far too much regularity on college campuses that have the Greek system. In that system, fraternities have often allowed such an escalation of what once might qualify merely as shenanigans to reach potentially deadly initiative practices for young men wishing to join the organization. One such case took the life of 20-year-old Stone Foltz last March in Bowling Green during a Pi Kappa Alpha ritual.
Thanks to what was once unthinkable for those who wrote for the newspaper long ago, archival stories and columns preserved on the internet, even a month later, I’m still getting reader reactions on this whole hazing business.
A Michele from St. Augustine, Florida, wrote the shortest and most inarguable reaction, one I’m thinking, was preceded by a side-to-side shaking of her head when she read the column. I’m guessing from the female perspective, she may have thought of all the foolish posturing by males she saw over time when the definition of what constitutes a real man became so wildly skewed.
Michele’s entire email read, “What a waste of a life. So damn sad.”
From Weston, Ohio, a town just 10 miles west of BGSU, a reader named Paul recalled both his own BG frat initiation and commented on one of the aftermath elements of the Foltz incident.
He remembered the grain-alcohol sours during his initiation held in Conklin Hall and the wastebasket that was the receptacle for much of what he consumed. Paul went on to say that, while he felt bad about Foltz, the bottom line was that it was his choice to drink and the lawsuits filed by his parents were inappropriate. He said that had his own grain-alcohol moments 50 years ago resulted in his death, he just couldn’t have imagined his parents “suing the pants off whoever they could.”
From Bucyrus, a John recalled his own experiences back in the 1960s at Capital University when pledging a local chapter of Sigma Tau Omega. He was fed what he called all sorts of “delicious delicacies,” including one he still remember with loathing, a concoction comprised off raw eggs, oysters, chewing tobacco and Worcestershire Sauce,” and one he, of course, couldn’t keep down.
Jim from Van Wert assessed my pledging experiences I included in the column and opined that I seemed to be “a stereotypical frat guy at Miami.” He also made reference to the query upon which the column was consructed (“How did we get from there to here?”) by calling it “the ultimate question.” I kind of got the idea that Jim may have been thinking of so many other things that have changed so radically over the decades that have passed.
Larry from Lima likened the drastic and sometimes deadly progression of fraternity initiations to what he’s seen change in collegiate basketball and football. He feels what once were recreational pursuits that were a part but not the whole of the college experience has over time morphed into big business and big money. He ended his email in surely glass-half-empty fashion. He said that man, if given enough time and opportunity, eventually will ruin everything he touches.
No doubt, the lengthiest and most thought-provoking reaction came from David, in Carmel, Indiana. He began by thanking me for providing what voice I could in opposition to all types of hazing. He said that my own recollected Sig Ep experiences at Miami, if I gave it enough thought, should have answered my question as to how we’ve gotten to this point.
Hazing, David continued, requires normalization, where certain things are done that aren’t usually done and become accepted over time by a group. He said even seemingly innocuous activities such as the ones in which I was expected to participate back in 1970 established a pattern accepted as a norm, which so often leads to an escalation of what will then be expected from a group’s neophytes.
David identified himself as a former CEO of Theta Chi fraternity and current consultant who has investigated close to 250 hazing incidents, with many of those leading to fraternities losing their charters. Even the harmless initiations, David’s experience tells him, sets the stage for more dangerous rituals that often follow down the road.
David concluded his letter thusly: “We did not get to hazing deaths, usually involving alcohol, by accident. It has been a predictable path. Can we find our way back to where we should be? Only time will tell.”
I suppose, as David suggests, what we permit, we tacitly promote, and that thought might be a good starting point to listen carefully to the tragic lessons that Stone Foltz in perpetuity will try to teach to those who will listen.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.