The Kappa Sigma Saga, Part Three: Loose Ends and Further Reflections

Mitch Shakespeare    

Opinions Editor 

When I first began working on the Kappa Sigma Saga earlier this semester, I naively believed that I would be able to fit the entire story of the fraternity within two articles. When I finished the second edition of the story, however, I realized that I was only able to provide a fairly comprehensive, if not cursory, account of the fraternity’s long history and mythos. I presumed that there was much more to the story than what I was privy to, but without many contacts among the Kappa Sigs I would be unable to confirm this. 

This all changed when one of the men I interviewed in my first article, Jerry Adams (C’65), put me in contact with Chris Kirchen (C’64), the de facto connector between the remaining Sewanee Kappa Sigs. 

Through conversations with Kirchen, I was granted an invitation to the Kappa Sigma reunion over homecoming weekend. I eagerly accepted, and on the evening of November 4 I found myself conversing with a multitude of the brothers that had once made up the fraternity. 

From these conversations, the idea of a third article on the story of Kappa Sigma was born, the purpose being to tie up any loose ends from my previous articles and to share the stories collected from a series of interviews with the men I met at the reunion. What follows are their stories and reflections on their lives as Sewanee students and Kappa Sigs.

One of the largest questions I had was how, as well as why, the remaining Kappa Sigs had kept in contact over the years. Since Kirchen seemed to be the one responsible for communication between the brothers, I asked how the position of “de facto coordinator” became part of his life. 

“I’m hopelessly curious about why people make decisions,” Kirchen replied, “Whether it’s in business  and whatever, and particularly with my fraternity brothers, we all came from similar paths. You know, we all went to the same college and most of us were from the south. I’ve always been interested in why people choose different careers. Some became college professors, some became doctors, and some became lawyers. Joe Winkelman became an artist living in Oxford. So I’ve always wondered about the paths not taken, and by talking to these guys, I can see what life would have been like had I made different decisions.”

Kirchen continued, “I think a second thing is that there was a study done at Harvard from guys that graduated in the 20’s and 30’s, where they sent out questionnaires to various people that they knew. They asked them what made their life enjoyable. And it’s not about how much money they made, or how smart they were, or even where they lived. It was all about connections and the guys that stayed connected. They had the happiest lives.”

“I have a natural instinct to stay connected,” Kirchen elaborated, “So about 10 years ago, I started looking at the Kappa Sig brothers with whom I overlapped between 1961 and 1967, and I developed a questionnaire and sent it out. People responded, and I put it together as a PDF and sent it to everyone. When it came time for our 50th reunion, Joe Winkelman asked if I could do a similar thing with our class, so I sent out another questionnaire and put together a memory book for everyone that attended the 50th reunion.” 

The Sewanee Kappa Sigs all came from different walks of life; a mixture of southerners and Yankees all brought together under one roof. One such Yankee was William Diggs (C’69), who left his home in New Jersey to attend Sewanee. While this seems normal by today’s standards, any student that hailed from outside the South was seemingly considered to be a “diversity student” in the 60’s. African Americans and other minority groups were still underrepresented at the college, and women wouldn’t come until Diggs’ last year.

“I’m probably going to get this number wrong, but I’d say in the 60’s that about 40 percent of the people at Sewanee came from Tennessee,” Diggs recalled. “Then the rest of them were generally from Virginia to Texas. Coming out of high school, I did well on my SATs but I didn’t really have good grades. John Ransom worked for admissions, and he told me that if I retook my English SATs and scored higher that they would accept me. Part of this, however, was that they needed people from outside the south, so although I wasn’t the greatest student, I got in because of diversity, and John Ransom was the guy to get me in.” 

“We did have students from other countries,” Diggs remembered. “When I showed up, my roommate was from Mexico City. His father was the supplicate bishop of Mexico for the Episcopal Church. He also pledged to be a Kappa Sigma. And who did the school decide should be his roommate? Well, me, the diversity student from New Jersey.” 

“I briefly was on the football team,” Diggs said. “Shirley Majors was the coach, and about 70 people showed up for football practice. It was 10 days before the school started and by the time it finished, there were only around 30 to 35 guys left; the other guys decided to cut themselves. I was one of the guys that left early. I had a pretty strong New Jersey accent, and I didn’t really know anyone else on the team. I’d be sitting on the sidelines and I’d hear one of the southern guys say in faux-Jersey accent, ‘hike the ball.’”

One of the common denominators amongst the stories of the Kappa Sigs were their experiences with Professor Abbot Martin, for whom Abbo’s Alley is named after. “He was a renowned English professor,” Adams recalled, “He had never gotten his Ph.D. He taught Victorian and Romantic literature [at Sewanee], and he had this southern gait to him. He got a little senile after a while, and he hated Germans and Yankees, especially Yankees with German heritage. He would be in class and say, ‘Adams, you have no future academically, but you’ll do well in the parlor with old women.’”

Joe Winkelman (C’64) had the misfortune of being not only a Yankee from Iowa, but also of Germanic descent. “Mr. Martin always had a big, round nose and sported a mustache,” Winkelman said, “And he’d always look over the top of his glasses when I answered a question, and he’d say, ‘I expected you to say that kind of thing.’ I remember him once telling me, ‘Vinklemon, my fore bearers were having tea in Virginia when yours were still running along the Baltic painting themselves blue.’”

Another story occurred on a winter night while Winkelman was at the Kappa Sigma house.  After a night of heavy drinking, he and several of his brothers began to wrestle. “I happened to tear a brother’s shirt open so a couple of our lettermen in the sport set upon me. As I countered, our garments began to go a piece at a time. Soon I was absolutely starkers. In the freezing cold I had nothing left to wear so I set off to my dorm post haste.”

Leaving the Kappa Sigma house, Winkelman heard the noise of a pedestrian making their way towards him along Alabama Avenue. Out of fear of being caught in his undergarments, Winkelman quickly scrambled up a tree. Up there, in the freezing cold, he realized that the pedestrian was none other than Abbot Martin. Winkelman quickly hid his face so as not to be identified, but it was no use. “[Abbo] paused, leaning on his cane,” Winkelman remembered. “He looked up, uttering, ‘Vinkelmon, I know that’s you! You’re disgusting but that’s not surprising!’ It took me a term to redeem myself but I got an A in his course nonetheless.” 

 “Well, I had Abbo for freshman English,” Kirchen recalled, “I think he was everybody’s favorite professor. And one of the things he would do is give pop quizzes, and he’d have someone write down the questions as he gave them. So he asked me to write down the questions one time, and I guess he asked me a question, which I responded with a stupid answer because I hadn’t prepared for it. So, he stated, ‘Mr. Kirchen, you boys from Memphis make up with charm what you lack in intelligence.’”

  • Parties and campus shenanigans all also created some pretty unique and interesting stories. Bob Gaines (C’60), often found himself thrust into the role of mediator between Kappa Sigma and the Dean of Students, Dean Webb, when some tomfoolery had occurred.

“One time he called me into his office,” Gaines said, “and he said, ‘I understand your pledges stole the front door of the Beta (Beta Theta Pi) house. We know they were your boys.’ I replied, ‘I don’t know anything but I will find out what happened and get back to you.’ Well, the pledges owned up that the reason they went over and stole the front door of the Beta house was because they had stolen our gate, which was like 7 or 8 feet tall. So, in retaliation our boys stole their front door, and it was November, so it was very cold.”

Gaines continued, “So I said, ‘Okay, we have to resolve this. So what exactly did you all do with the door?’ And they just said, ‘Bob, it was heavy! So we just tucked it under their front porch!’ So I went back to Dean Webb, and I told him that we would return their front door if they returned our gate. Dean Webb thought that sounded reasonable enough, and eventually our gate was returned.” 

David Wilson (C’62) told me a little about how some students would find ways to get cheap alcohol on the Mountain. “Every dormitory had a custodian, if you will,” said Wilson, “and ours was a guy named Tuckaway Joe. If you gave Joe a dollar, he would disappear into the woods and pretty soon he’d come back with a gallon jug of some clear liquid. There were moonshine distilleries all over the place.”

Another story Wilson shared was his experiences with the Jack Daniels distillery. “We went down to Jack Daniel’s and they gave away the [empty] barrels; they didn’t even sell them or anything. We got a barrel and brought it back, and our chemistry guy knew how much water to put in, since there’s always some Jack Daniels left at the bottom of the barrel. You’d put [the water] in and pound on the sides and let it sit for three weeks, and then you would pour it out and strain in through a loaf of bread to get all the impurities out, because you also would’ve put some grain alcohol in there too. So we would have free Jack Daniels for like a whole semester.” 

Another popular story that has seemingly been forgotten with newer generations is the story of the mule on the Kappa Sig staircase. Winkelman was able to recount the story when I interviewed him. “Well, I was there, and it was probably the springtime of ‘64. And it was really getting a bit wild, and we were sort of getting rebellious. We started breaking the rules and we’d get loaded and turn the music up high and just start raving.”

“Well, one day I heard that Hamper [McBee] was coming,” Winkelman explained. “So he came up to the front walkway with his mule. And I said, ‘Come on in, Hamper!’ I thought he would dismount and come in, but instead he just ducked his head and rode his mule into the big room. He attempted to bring his mule up the staircase; there’s two big bends in our staircase. There’s a sharp left bend in the middle, and obviously the mule couldn’t get all the way up and it panicked. Instead, he took a U-turn and off he rode. He nearly took his head off going out the door. In hindsight, I can certainly see how irresponsible it was, but at the time it seemed fun; we were just so immature in a way.” 

One interesting detail that has been lost to our historical memory of Kappa Sig was their involvement with the music scene. “Irma Thomas came in my junior year for one of the big parties we had, and everyone’s doing stupid stuff,” Diggs commented. “You know, drinking and spilling stuff all over the place. The downstairs was completely filled up, and when it had ended, [one of my brothers] overheard her say, ‘This is the last college fraternity party we’ll ever do.’ In 1992 or ‘93, I went down to New Orleans to attend an event, and none other than Irma Thomas was there performing. Small world” 

Gaines was the treasurer of Kappa Sig during his time on the Mountain, leaving him responsible for the funding of parties and the like. He recalled, “One year, one of the brothers came to me and said, ‘Bob, I’ve got this great band that we can get! It’s a little above budget.’ And I’m saying, ‘No, that’s not going to work.’ Anyway, they twisted my arm and the band showed up and there was Jerry Lee Lewis. Obviously it was before he was famous, and now it’s a wow. And he was good. Pounding on the piano with his foot and such.”

He recalled further, “On Saturdays we’d have a big ball in Gailor Dining Hall. And on one of those occasions, we had Louis Armstrong. But this was before these performers were famous, you know, back in the ‘50s.” 

Winkelman recalled another musician that visited Sewanee during his time here. “John Lee Hooker came once. I was chairman of the [Jazz] Society then and he came. He had slammed his hand in a car door and couldn’t play,  but he ended up patching it up; winding up bandages around his hand and he played anyway.” Other notable musical acts at Sewanee from the time were Dave Brubeck and Little Richard. Pete Seeger also requested to come play at Sewanee, but he was promptly turned down by Vice Chancellor McCrady. 

Several Kappa Sigs from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were members of the Sewanee Jazz Society, and their work on the Mountain proved quite helpful for not only the music scene, but also for Sewanee student’s fight for Civil Rights. Winkelman said in an email, “My efforts in support of the Civil Rights movement as it was gaining traction in the South was largely through the Jazz Society. As a music buff I loved Modern Jazz, Folk and Rock & Roll, so during all four undergraduate years we in the Jazz Society promoted concerts of major groups renowned in the ‘60s internationally. Naturally I was opposed to the racially discriminatory structures in place on campus dictated by Vice Chancellor McCrady who ruled as if an aristocrat. Kappa Sigma was a  fraternity who welcomed the Modern Jazz Quartet to campus with a cocktail party when others refused.”

“The problem was that there wasn’t a hotel where the Modern Jazz Quartet could stay,” remembered Wilson, who was also a member of the Sewanee Jazz Society. “This was in 1960 or 1961, and there was a definite line between white and black. So the faculty had them stay at their houses. It was an honor to have them.”

A number of the Kappa Sigs, aside from their work at the Sewanee Jazz Society, also were engaged with organizations such as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Highlander Folk School was a hotbed for civil rights education and leadership in East Tennessee , hosting such individuals as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Pete Seegar. 

Norman Spencer (C’65) remembered what would happen when he wore his SNCC pins openly around campus during parties: “My last year, the year where I couldn’t live in a dormitory, we used to wear those neck pins. Everytime we wore those during party weekends, we were in fights! I mean physical fights! One time my former wife was there with me and a friend, and technically I was a member of the Wellingtons and we were headed [to where they were meeting], and there was a small group, about three guys, and we really slugged it out. This was outside the Phi Delta Theta house. My wife was hit, too. Yeah, so that’s the way it was when we decided to go as groups.” 

Spencer briefly mentions that he was not allowed to live in dormitories. He had been expelled for a year, and when he eventually returned to Sewanee, it was under an odd set of circumstances that he would be allowed back in. In an email, Spencer said, “ I was allowed to return to Sewanee to complete my senior year on the condition I not live in an undergraduate student dormitory, because – according to the information given to my father— parents had complained about my political views, my views on race, and consequently I was considered a ‘bad influence.’”

All these stories really show how much Sewanee has changed in the decades that have passed from the closing of Kappa Sigma to now. With this, the Kappa Sigma Saga is finally concluded (for now), and I would like to thank the men I interviewed for their hospitality and openness with an outsider. Hopefully these stories will continue to be passed down throughout the years at Sewanee. We must keep the myths, legends, and stories alive.

4 comments

  1. Well done. The Kappa Sig chapter died after my freshman year.
    Agree: these stories ought to be preserved as you have done here. -Josiah Daniel (class of 1969)

  2. One more Abbo story-
    My Kappa Sig brother Dan Work lived in Atlanta and had Abbo as a teacher.
    One day in class g Abbo asked him “Mr. Work- where were you born?”
    Dan replied “California.”
    Abbo replied-“California!!, Did you know that all of the people not good enough to live in England moved to Virginia. Then all of the people not good enough to live in Virginia moved to Tennessee. Do you know where all of the people not good enough to live in Tennessee moved?”
    Dan replied “No.”
    Abbo said “California!”

Leave a Comment Below