“Your choice of a fraternity at Sewanee is important to you if only for one reason: there aren’t any women up here. This is unhappy, but inescapable, and it means that almost your entire social life for the next four years will be, fortunately or unfortunately, tied up in some way with other men, most probably your fraternity brothers.”
These are the words from a 1961 Kappa Sigma pamphlet that was handed out to potential new members during the autumn rush season, found within the University Archive’s folder on the fraternity. While humorous, the statement itself helps explain why fraternity life at Sewanee was so big during the early-to-mid-twentieth century. To put it quite simply, the absence of women directly correlated to more young men being funneled into joining fraternities.
One such fraternity was, of course, Kappa Sigma. Having survived their troubles in the late nineteenth century, by the 1960s the fraternity had become well established and was consistently one of the largest fraternities throughout the years.
When Professor Thomas “Tam” Carlson (C’63) arrived at Sewanee in 1959, he found that his options for social interaction were quite limited. “When I came to Sewanee, the only social life, it was an all men’s school then, was fraternity life and athletics,” he remembered. “The athletes formed their own organization, the Organization of Independent Men, so they could compete with fraternities and beat the hell out of us in intramural sports.” Carlson would eventually join Kappa Sigma, becoming its president in 1962.
The early experiences of Carlson’s life at Sewanee mirrors a theme still on campus today: study hard on the weekdays and party hard on the weekends. “It wasn’t ideal, and weekends were pretty rough because there was nothing to do during the week, nothing, except study or be an ass,” he said. “But most people would study, and then on weekends, we’d let loose and the girls would come up from, you know, a long way away in buses, and that was life as we lived it. Our closest friends were not only fraternity brothers but also faculty members; we all did things together and actually went to parties together. It was remarkable the way it worked.”
As was the case with many fraternities at the time, new Kappa Sig members, Carlson said, were subjected to various forms of hazing throughout the pledging process. “It wasn’t particularly serious,” he said. “I was hazed by being driven around in a car with a blindfold on to try and get me completely lost and taken way out on Jumpoff Road with a friend. And we had to find our way back home. We were both long distance runners, so we ran in the wrong direction and wound up in South Pittsburgh. The police flagged down an 18-wheeler and told him, ‘Take these boys right back up to Sewanee.’ That’s the way life was back then.“
Another Kappa Sig alum, Jerry Adams (C’65), recalled the reasons he joined the fraternity in 1961. “I joined Kappa Sig primarily because I liked the people that were rushing me, and I don’t know if I had other choices; I don’t know if I had other bids,” he said. “It really turned out to be an eclectic group of people that were not homogenized; they didn’t all come from the same prepschool or even the same geography. They were really good people.” Adams would later become the chapter president in 1964.
While the fraternity was long a powerful force academically, socially, and athletically, perhaps one of the lasting legacies of the Kappa Sigs were the crazy hijinks they committed during their time on the Mountain. Adams recalled a time where they painted in giant letters “SEE ROCK CITY” atop the Lambda Chi house as an homage to the barns and buildings across the interstate with the same message. Carlson remembered, “There were large animals hoisted up on top of buildings and left there for perplexed people to find. It was boring. It was an all men’s school, and what the hell. It was fun.”
Other stories, however, have achieved legendary status. Over the years, however, these stories have morphed into myths and have had countless bits and pieces added on or negated by whomever is the one telling the story. With the demise of Kappa Sigma in 1970, the role of these myths changed from just storytelling to become explanations as to the fraternity’s sudden end.
One such story is the tale of Kappa Sigma rerouting a military convoy. This is the most often circulated story about not only Kappa Sigma in general, but also is a widely believed reason for Kappa Sigs demise. As the legend goes, sometime in the 1950s, a military convoy was making its way through Sewanee as a recruitment tool for the ongoing Korean War. Allegedly, a group of Kappa Sigmas somehow managed to reroute the entire convoy to go down Green’s View Road. One way or another, the convoy ended up getting stuck, and as part of the aftermath the Kappa Sigs were handed down a 100-year ban.
Now, the glaring inconsistency here is that Kappa Sig lasted until 1970, so the idea that they were banned in the ‘50s is simply impossible. But that’s not to say that the rest of the story isn’t true. By all accounts, the main idea of the story is true and actually happened. Carlson himself stated the story was true but wasn’t able to specify a specific year that it took place. With all of this being said, it is quite difficult to find documentation that the rerouting of the convoy actually occurred. Apparently there is an old article from the Purple floating around that talked more in depth about the story, but after scouring all available editions from 1950 – 1970, I was unable to find it. There’s also rumors that the story was printed in a Thanksgiving 2007 edition of the Purple, but that specific article is missing in the online database for the University Archives. So, with that in mind, take this story with a grain of salt until more information surfaces.
The second story that’s frequently passed around is the story of the Kappa Sigs hoisting a pledge on a cross and marching him down University Avenue. This story, just like the military convoy story, also is used when discussing the alleged 100-year ban. This story, however, unlike the military convoy story, is less true. When asked about it, Carlson replied, “Yeah. That was two brothers. That happened the year after I graduated. Nobody was hoisted on a cross. One brother was in the front yard pretending to be on a cross, and the other was in his underwear on the roof, and Willie Cock turned them in, because Willie’s house was right there. Sometime around two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, he was looking out the window making sure of what was happening over here and turned us in. There is some truth to the story, but it wasn’t sacrilegious.”
While perhaps disappointing to many readers, the truth behind Kappa Sigma’s demise is totally underwhelming in comparison to the multitude of stories that have attempted to explain it. In reality, Kappa Sigma was never thrown off campus, and they never were handed down a 100-year ban; they simply decided to disband. There are a multitude of reasons for this decision, but Carlson provided the three most relevant ones: Debt, small pledge classes, and an advisor who had lost enthusiasm for keeping the chapter afloat.
“We had a debt, it wasn’t a huge debt, it was probably about $10,000 or less,” Carlson said. “The reason we had debt was because we had very small pledge classes for three years. But, not smaller than any other fraternity. Not all fraternities owned their own houses, so they were getting financial support from the University. We were not like that.”
With a debt that high, smaller pledge classes would have led to less money being generated through fraternity dues, so paying off a $10,000 debt with a shrinking income would have been no more than a Herculean task.
It should not be surprising that Greek membership took a nosedive during the late 1960s and 1970s. With the Vietnam war raging on and the battle for Civil Rights reaching a crescendo in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., new students entering Sewanee simply had other priorities than joining a fraternity. “It just wasn’t cool to be in a fraternity,” Carlson explained. “It was cool to march against the war and do what my brother did, to live on a farm below Sewanee. My brother lived in a van on a farm for four years and got away with it. He was never on the meal plan, and he had a beard down to his stomach. That was cool. Being a Kappa Sig wasn’t particularly cool.”
With a growing debt and shrinking membership numbers, the Kappa Sigs were in between a rock and a hard place. The faculty advisor for the Kappa Sigs, Gilbert “Gil” Gilchrist, eventually decided that the fraternity’s position was no longer tenable. “We had an advisor, Gilbert, who finally just got tired of us, tired of the whole thing, he just said, ‘I’ll pay the whole thing, and I’ll buy your house,’” Carlson said. “So he advised us to disband.”
By the time 1970 rolled around the survival of the fraternity seemed hopeless. In the March 2007 edition of The Sewanee Purple, writer Whitney Lehr Ray was able to interview Wallace Baumann, the District Grand Master of Kappa Sigma in East Tennessee. Along with other schools in the area, the Sewanee Kappa Sigs were under Baumann’s jurisdiction at the time of the troubles. When interviewed, Baumann identified specific steps taken by the Sewanee Kappa Sigs that eventually led to their demise.
Ray wrote, “In 1970, Kappa Sigma, like many fraternities at the time, was rapidly losing members and needed help developing new ways to increase their size. So they delayed rush and planned to meet with officers, rush commissioners, the national president, and past presidents in July, with hopes of developing new ideas. The group Kappa Sigma met with, including Baumann, assured them that the national headquarters would send a letter asking for recommendations. Also, a rush team would be provided from the University of Chattanooga, a strong Kappa Sigma chapter, to help them with rush in October. Unfortunately, this plan was never necessary.”
Indeed, the Sewanee Kappa Sigs ended up falling apart before their plan could take hold. Baumann explained that in mid-October 1970, the chapter decided to have a meeting regarding their future on campus, with seventeen brothers showing up in attendance. It was in this meeting that a majority of those present voted to sever their ties with the Kappa Sigma national organization and instead become a local organization. Fourteen members in total voted to become local, and they were promptly expelled from the fraternity.
With three remaining members left in the fraternity, it’s no surprise that the fraternity completely collapsed at that point. Gilchrist stepped in and paid off the remainder of the chapter’s debt, turning the old Kappa Sig house into his own residence, and ended up raising four children within its walls. The house would later be bought by Carlson and another Sewanee Kappa Sig, Bill Laurie, and eventually was converted into an archive before being handed over to the University.
Gilchrist’s role in the end of Kappa Sigma is something that Carlson said should not be criticized too heavily. “Gilbert was one of the best teachers at Sewanee, if not the best,” he said. “I’m not criticizing him except I think he could have given them better advice if he had really, himself, been really enthusiastic about the fraternity. But he was not.”
To alumni of Sewanee’s Kappa Sig, the news of their chapter’s demise was quite surprising. Jerry Adams said in my interview with him, “Someone like me, I thought I left a healthy fraternity in 1965, and then five years later they went out of business. I’m thinking, ‘Well, what the hell did I do wrong?’” For Carlson, the news did not phase him. At the time of the collapse of Kappa Sigma, he had returned to his alma mater to begin teaching. “I could have brought it back, but I didn’t want to,” he said. “I thought we had enough fraternities here. I had my fun with the fraternity, but we needed an archive. But the national [fraternity], which is in Virginia, put a lot of pressure on me to open it back up again, but I thought ‘Nah.’”
What is important, even if the stories may be untrue, are that the legends and myths continue to be passed down, albeit with the mindset that they are just that: myths and legends. In Carlson’s view, “The stories that go along with the demise of Kappa Sigma are really, really good stories. And some of them are true. It’s just that that’s not what the fraternity did. History is not interesting, myth is interesting. It tells a kind of truth that history cannot. Emily Dickinson says, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ We don’t want the legends to die.”