In April of 2018, I traveled over to Missouri on a personal invitation from Mizzou Law school Professor Ben Trachtenberg to speak to brothers of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Trachtenberg is the son of one of the most notable academics in American history, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, longtime President of George Washington University in our nation’s capital. In 2007, George Washington named their public policy and public administration school the Trachtenberg School.
I was anxious to travel to Missouri. I have never traveled that far west before and I always wondered what it would be like if I did. The furthest south I’ve ever been was Florida when my father took my siblings and me to Disney World. The furthest east I’ve ever been is now New Hampshire after speaking to over 1,300 students at the state’s flagship public research institution.
Trachtenberg invited me to campus after reading Caitlin Flanagan’s article in The Atlantic regarding Penn State’s vicious history of hazing. We spoke over the phone a little often and eventually settled on a time and a place that would work for Mizzou’s Sigma Chi chapter, although the event was open to the public and anyone and everyone was welcome to come with their questions in hand.
The first night I was in Missouri, Trachtenberg and I had dinner with some Sigma Chi undergraduates and alumni in Columbia. Upon getting served, I was taken aback at how bland the cuisine in the Midwest is. No spices and not much flavor. What would a state with such a food culture be like?
At dinner, Trachtenberg told a story of when his wife was working at a law firm in Newark, New Jersey. The law firm was adamant in the fact that no lawyer employed with the firm was allowed to utilize the train system, as the train station drops you off in the “worst part of the city.” Trachtenberg’s colleagues would make fun of him and his wife for choosing to live in such a “ghetto” neighborhood.
“My child goes to an elite private school and has two parents that went to very elite schools. I think they’ll be fine.” Indeed, the grandchild of George Washington’s longtime President most likely won’t grow up to join a chain gang. Ben himself was educated at Yale for his undergrad and Columbia for his JD.
The next afternoon I was lucky enough to sit down with some Mizzou alumni at lunch to discuss my program coming up in just a few hours. The average age of these gentlemen was well over seventy.
“When I read that Penn State Grand Jury Presentment, I knew this wasn’t something going anywhere anytime soon,” one of the alumni explained.
The wisdom these gentlemen had was wisdom I hoped to be able to transfer and save for a later date.
One of the alums was ecstatic when I stated that I am from Reading, Pennsylvania. The look on his face read “this all makes sense now.”
“Reading? I’ve done business in Reading! I’m quite familiar with the Slippery Rock area.”
Slippery Rock is on the complete opposite side of Pennsylvania from Reading, being on the west side near Pittsburgh and Reading being tucked away in Berks County hidden from the world, yet aware of its influences.
This alumni, in particular, wrote a letter mailed to me in New Jersey voicing his belief that it is important I continue doing work with Hazing Prevention.
After lunch with these Watchers, I went on to speak with Trachtenberg and sexual assault prevention expert Tina Bloom. Trachtenberg dissected the Centre County Grand Jury Presentment, I shook my head yes and no, and Tina Bloom lectured on methods to prevent sexual assaults on college and university campuses. Why would Hazing Prevention and Sexual Assault Prevention be discussed within the same program? All too often, the two are intermixed, and these issues are two of the biggest facing colleges and universities today.
Directly after the program, while we were all still in the lecture hall, a woman came up to me and described her own personal interaction with dangerous hazing.
“When I was in Law school, I had no money, I couldn’t even afford to pay rent. So, I knocked on the doors of all the fraternity houses on campus, pleading to be their advisor in return for free housing. Finally, a fraternity chapter nudged, and I was able to become their advisor. The partying in the house was often out of control and not to my liking. One night, a pledge was lying on the floor unconscious with alcohol poisoning. I told members of the executive board that we had to call 911 right away. A brother became so angry with me that he grabbed a 2 by 4 and started bashing my face in.”
I stumbled looking for a reply, but there was not much that I could think of to say. A hug is what this woman needed, but a guest speaker is not supposed to be the person initiating such contact.
“Some of these young men who haze are going to have to end up in jail. It’s sad, but actions have consequences,” she said.
I wondered how many more hidden stories there were of “hazing gone wrong,” leading to an advisor having their face bashed in, or simply a pledge barely surviving. It is only the stories of a pledge dying that the media heavily exposes, and it is only the stories of a pledge dying that the public heavily cares about. The near-death experiences and dangerous falls within fraternities such as mine are merely hushed down by the mainstream as being “victim mentality.” Lest not forget that the night a pledge dies often begins with “simply” hanging up the fraternity house flag or walking the fraternity house dog in the morning.
One of the most underlying issues of hazing is something that white-collar workers often flat out ignore and deflect, alcoholism and alcohol dependency, according to Dr. Drew and Dr. Oz. Hard drugs are starting to take a huge toll on college students’ lives as well, with Penn State recently being found to have given a haven to students who participated in a multi-million dollar drug ring.
When I was taking a tour of Mizzou’s campus, I was introduced to a fraternity House Mother as a guest speaker giving a Hazing Prevention lecture. She immediately took this as an opportunity to tell a story of something that had recently occurred in her life.
“I was at a wedding only a couple of weeks ago, when somebody ended up lying on the dance floor with a heroin overdose. At a wedding of all places. This ruined a couple’s most important night of their lives. An ambulance had to come and save this man’s life in the middle of a wedding.”
Yet another heartbreaking story. This one at least had the fortunate ending of a life being saved and an ambulance arriving at the scene.
“You have to do whatever it takes to get these kids to realize this insanity must come to an end. Whatever it takes.”
There I stood with two stories from two different women regarding Hazing Prevention and alcohol/drug abuse and awareness. I couldn’t know that speaking to fifty students and alumni at Mizzou and hearing these two stories would lead to me speaking to thousands of college students as part of National Hazing Prevention Week 2019.
After the No Hazing event, a group of fraternity brothers and sorority sisters who did not have a chance to attend the lecture wanted me to share with them what happened within the walls of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi.
“He had to drink 18 drinks in 82 minutes. Beer was poured on his face. He had a keg thrown at him. His body was drug across the floor. His face was slapped in attempts to wake him up…”
“Stop talking!” a fraternity brother shouted. “Stop talking. I can’t hear another word.”
“Why? What happens next?” a sorority sister asked.
I stood silent, realizing for the first time that what I have seen and told too many times to remember hits hard on somebody the first time they are forced to deal and cope with this tragedy.
“He’s dead. They killed him. He’s fucking dead,” the fraternity brother said.
Those last two words, however vulgar they may be, are eerily similar to a text message recovered by Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. “The pledge looked fucking dead,” a defendant texted his friend.
The group of friends walked back into the house, but the one fraternity brother who was vividly touched by all of this stayed outside for a few more seconds.
“Thank you for sharing this with me. I don’t know why, but I needed to hear this,” he said before he followed his friends into the house.
I stood outside glazing at the lights of Columbia, Missouri asking myself how this would go on to become the city where it all begins. “There are a lot of people around here with a strong belief that Jesus will one day return to Missouri and make this his new land.” The list of believers, of course, includes Mitt Romney, who recently moved his family to the Midwest for a good cause. This student was speaking these words over and over again, probably believing them himself. The powers and dimensions were so strong, I couldn’t help but wonder if this statement were indeed correct.
Later that night I spoke with the chapter house advisor of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Mizzou.
I was introduced to him by a fraternity brother who was eager to show to me the blueprints for the fraternity house renovation.
When the advisor heard my name, he said, “I’ve heard of you. I’ve read about you.”
“What did you read?” I asked.
“The long version.”
“The Grand Jury Presentment?”
“The long version.”
The long version. He had certainly read the Grand Jury Presentment, a legal document ranging past eighty pages long. At the moment I was in awe as to why he continued to refer to it as “the long version” rather than simply state which document he had read.
The long version. This was the long, cold-blooded truth pill Greek life affiliates were forced to swallow when they became aware that fraternities truly are a system in need of a rampant and extensive transformation.
He walked over to me with his cane and started to tell me a bit about the land that I was stepping on.
“Here in Missouri, just about every lawyer knows each other. A very tight-knit community. We all went to the same schools. And we all sue each other. We don’t do it because we hate each other–we do it because we’re friends. It’s how we play.”
Before I left the state, I was fortunate enough to get a tour of Sam Walton’s Beta Theta Pi chapter at Mizzou. Mizzou’s Sigma Chi chapter was itself once home to Brad Pitt, and his pictures are still hung up on the fraternity house walls. “I’m not sure why he was such a lady’s man in college,” a brother said to me. Agreed, Brad Pitt is a testament that one can look better as they age.
One of the most striking aspects of Mizzou’s Beta Theta Pi chapter is a large auditorium with microphones at every seat, reminiscent of a United Nations meeting. It was the tour of this house in particular that made me realize how fraternity alumni could be molded into CEOs, billionaires, and Presidents. Could Mizzou’s Beta Theta Pi chapter truly be holding onto the values of cultivation of the intellect, responsible conduct, mutual assistance, and trust?
On the plane ride from St. Louis to Newark, I sat directly in the emergency exit row. I sat in this seat on the flight to St. Louis as well, so I wasn’t exactly shocked by the little emergency exit spiel that they force you to sit through when you sit in these seats. The flight attendant, however, was adamant that we thoroughly read through the emergency evacuation manual because we were so close to the turbine.
“If the plane crashes, the turbine could catch on fire. It happened just a couple of weeks ago,” the flight attendant said to me and the couple sitting next to me.
The man started to read the manual, then he stopped after a short while, looked at the attendant and hollered, “which flight! You’re making this up!”
The attendant smiled and said she wasn’t sure which plane it was or even where it was going, but that she was sure it did occur, and these types of events pop up often. The man then proceeded to open back up the emergency pamphlet and read it to completion.
The entire rest of the flight, the attendant looked on with a sort of smile that stated she knew something that we didn’t. “What was your drink again, Coke?” she asked me right before continuing in her Southwest Airlines gaze.
Ten days after this flight, a Southwest Airlines plane flying from New York to Dallas made an emergency stop in Philadelphia when the plane turbine burst into flames. When I read the news, I wasn’t necessarily shocked but intrigued at how a Southwest flight attendant had just warned me that this could happen on the very plane that I was on.
The busted turbine would, unfortunately, lead to the death of a woman. Flight attendants fought to save this woman’s life, pulling her body into the plane and thrusting their own backs into the plane’s opening so that the woman would not get sucked out yet again. The plane was shaking, thrusting, turning and passengers thought this would become their last day. Southwest executives would later go on to call this a sad day, with their dearest sympathies going out to the family.
Throughout all the flight attendants’ attempts and resilience to save the woman’s life, they were unable to defeat the strong laws of nature. Nobody would go on to call those who attempted to save the woman’s life a murderer, nobody would go on to tell bystanders who spoke to the media that they cannot share their stories. Instead, the family was able to rest assured that there were people that cared enough for her in her last minutes to attempt to save her life. For some, peace everlasting is able to be found when they realize love was in the vicinity of tragedy the entire time.