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Steve Lang: 50 years of fractured fraternal memories

“I think you’ll be glad later you weren’t here now.” – Robert Hoover (James Widdoes) in “Animal House”

“Remember, you may have to grow old, but you don’t have to mature.” – Red Green (a.k.a. Steve Smith)

All I truly know – or suspect – about college fraternities may be summed up in two hours of hilarity via Harold Ramis’ hit film “Animal House.” One general secret to success seems to be surviving one’s youth – with or without fraternity membership.

I once belonged to a now-dormant fraternity that will observe the fiftieth anniversary of its founding in October.

At a much younger age I tested the conductivity of various materials ranging from rubber hoses to metal kettle covers by placing them on “hot” electric fencing. In each case, once was enough, but both experiences lent credence to the observations that A) education is wasted on the young; and B) lifelong learning may not be long enough.

Chronologically, a half-century has passed since the Phi Mu Delta Gamma Epsilon chapter was chartered at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I have learned in my encounters with higher education, though, that chronological and maturity levels are not interchangeable. Regarding fraternities, a mathematical formula may be required to compute a maturity level/age.

Multiplying the number of brothers (say 32) by the average chronological age (for this example, 20), equals 640, portion one of the equation. Next, multiplying the number of brothers (32) by the average number of parties per semester (to be conservative, four), equals 128. Finally, dividing 640 by 128 equals five, a.k.a. the maturity level/age.

In short, “maturity” and “fraternity” generally did not belong in the same sentence, unless a fraternity brother cashed in a Savings Bond that had reached maturity to buy a keg.

Like Delta Tau Chi of “Animal House,” Phi Mu Delta ascribed to the three “S’s,” service, scholarship and social, with emphasis on social. “Service,” I suspect, is as cosmetic and blase’ as the facetious goal of pageant contestants:

“I want to set up discos in poor neighborhoods and help people.”

Amazingly, most of us survived fraternity life. Many PMD brothers even grew up and a number thrived. As I paged through the nearly 50-year-old photos, I found five PhDs/EdDs, four Distinguished Alumni Award recipients, captains of business, industry and education, two career military officers, a young Mick Jagger look-alike and me.

I am not sure if my PMD brothers’ achievements were based on networking, individual initiative or both, but I salute them. As for me, when my ship comes in, I fear I will be stranded at an inland bus depot.

To this day, I cannot remember why I pledged a fraternity, save for the fact the PMD house seemed a more appealing place to visit than class. I probably joined because I was flattered to be asked, and more significantly, because my parents advised against it.

My initial college years were largely consumed with my quest for maturity, best defined by a fake ID and the quest to grow facial hair. These days, I strive to resist aging and to control facial hair, particularly in the nose and ears.

Location-wise, my frat choice proved advantageous. The PMD House on East Fifth Street rested mere blocks from the legendary “Cougar Cage,” a pub in the basement of the Merchants Hotel on Sixth Street and Atlantic Avenue.

The Cougar Cage offered all the necessary ingredients for a young man like me who waited for inspiration directing me toward my career path to arrive in the mail or a Cracker Jacks box. The Cage provided cold beer, sometimes-fresh popcorn and a jukebox in a musty, semi-dark ambience. I listened to ever-growing sentiments about the Vietnam War, civil rights and social issues that defined the 1960s and truly came to appreciate the slogan, “draft beer, not students.”

The UMM Alumni website posted photos of the PMD brotherhood that include a casual outdoor group shot (circa 1968) of a largely-distracted fellowship. I located myself, standing next to adviser Dr. Bert Ahern and sharing a laugh – probably in reference to my grade on his last history exam.

A year later, I left UMM, believing as Mark Twain did, that school was interfering with my education. I did not stay long enough to test A. Lawrence Lowell’s observation that “the freshmen bring a little knowledge in and the seniors take none out, so it accumulates through the years.”

Years later, maturity began its gradual, but persistent intrusion on my psyche and I realized, like Einstein noted, “the difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” So did advancement in one’s chosen field without a degree.

I re-enrolled at UMM, but Phi Mu Delta, and the brotherhood had long since departed. I opted for attending class, completing assignments, hanging out in the library to conduct research and discovered I had more available free time than abstinence from the aforementioned offered 20 years earlier.

I even enrolled in more of Dr. Ahern’s classes, and we again shared smiles and laughter, both at improved grades and my references to once-unheard-of political views in the footnotes of my exams.

Although maturity still waits outside the door, I savor the wisdom of Muhammad Ali, who said, “a man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

But enough is enough. I credit Phi Mu Delta with providing an outlet for expression that I trust did not cause prolonged harm. I do not know if I will return to UMM to celebrate the PMD reunion, but I will retain the words of C. S. Lewis: “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Steve Lang says RIP, Harold Ramis, and all the best to the Flounders everywhere. Lang was editor of the Morris Sun Tribune from 1974 to 1979 and currently lives in Alpine, Texas, where he works as the director of News and Publications of Sul Ross State University.