George Rockwood, Phil Russell, Calvin Kendall, and writer, 1954 on Emily Morgan, Stonington, CT, and 1985 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland—All Alpha Delt Brothers (Bowdoin)
Reading “A Frat Boy and A Gentleman” by Alexandra Robbins, an article in the Sunday January 27thN.Y. Times, inspired me to write about my own experiences on fraternity life at Bowdoin College—albeit 67 years ago in 1952-56.
My father was a Bowdoin graduate and a member of Theta Delta Chi Fraternity. I’d heard about his fraternity days growing up and looked forward to checking out Theta Delta in Rush Week. During our first week at college, all fraternities would “rush” to sign up incoming freshmen. Most incoming students pledged to fraternities this first week; only a few remained independents.
My roommate, BK Connor, was one of my Cape Cod friends. I didn’t know him well but heard he was going to Bowdoin and asked him to room with me. He seemed like a serious, studious guy. BK’s father was a Bowdoin grad and Theta Delta; BK pledged TD on his first day.
I told BK my dad had been a TD, and he told me, “You’re a legacy—let’s go over to the TD house; I’ll remind them of this”.
I was quite reserved at age 18 ½ and apparently made a poor impression on the Theta Delts. They didn’t give me the time of day—so much for my legacy status.
BK grew up in a strict household. His father was principal at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod. BK became an avid fraternity guy but went wild with his college freedom. He drank a lot and wound up flunking out his freshman year. He and I had a complicated relationship. Although I definitely drank at Bowdoin, my consumption was minor compared with BK. I recently received a wonderful letter from him saying albeit he felt badly about his time at college, he’d subsequently become a major in the U. S. Marine Corps and was proud of his military career. Unfortunately, he later developed a serious illness and has since died
I’d graduated from Tabor Academy that June and two Tabor friends, Warren Slesinger and Dave Sewall, were in my Bowdoin class (1956). I ran into them on campus and talked about fraternities. They both pledged Alpha Delta Phi and urged me to visit that house, which I did. I suspect Warren and Dave put in a good word for me, as the Alpha Delt Brothers were very friendly and offered me a bid-to-pledge immediately after my first visit. I was impressed with other classmates who pledged AD and thought it would be good to stay close to my Tabor friends. I accepted the AD offer and never regretted my choice. In addition to AD having the best food of all Bowdoin fraternities (no one could beat Emma Marstaller in the kitchen), Alpha Delta Phi allowed me to meet and become friends with some fascinating men.
Warren Slesinger was, and still is, a good friend. He and I roomed together part of our sophomore year at my grandfather’s house at 72 Federal Street. Warren majored in English and went into the publishing business after graduation. He has written poems and published a few books, many of which he has shared with me. “Sles,” his nickname at Tabor and Bowdoin, met his lifelong love, Betty, in his sophomore year. Betty had been a waitress at Sles’s father’s inn on Cape Cod, the Belmont, where my twin-sister, Mercy also worked. Betty went to the University of New Hampshire, and Sles invited the beautiful blonde for a Bowdoin date. Warren and Betty made a handsome and smart couple and now live close to Pat and me, in Beaufort, SC. They were great supporters of our theatre.
Dave Sewall was a friendly shy guy from Bath, Maine with a good, quirky, Maine sense of humor. His father, Sumner Sewall, was a celebrated ace in World War I and had a distinguished political career, serving as Governor of Maine from 1941 to 1945. Dave’s mother was reputed to be a ‘Russian Countess,” although we never found out if that was actually true. Dave was more interested in antique cars than Bowdoin studies and dropped out of college after his freshman year. I remember visiting him in Bath, where he showed me the Model T Ford he was refinishing. I met Dave’s very impressive father and mother, and Dave took me down to Small Point, Maine to give me a gun lesson with a model 22 rifle. Dave and his brother, Nick, became quite successful in the Maine lobster business, and I heard they were some of the first lobstermen to ship their catch out of state. Unfortunately, Dave took his own life in 2004 at age 72. I don’t know the circumstances but suspect he might have felt he never measured up to his celebrated family.
Another one of my classmates who’d pledged AD was Calvin Benjamin Kendall. Cal grew up in Connecticut and graduated from Noroton High School. Six feet six inches tall with red hair and a pleasant personality, Cal and I became close friends and roomed together in the Alpha Delta Phi house in our junior and senior years. Cal was an English major who went on to earn his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. He became the Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Minnesota (now retired), where he taught for thirty-eight years. Cal has helped me immeasurably in my writing and edited most of my books. He and his terrific wife, Ellie (a high school classmate of his) have been friends of mine for decades, and we visit each other in Minneapolis, Vermont, and Maine almost every year. I taught Cal how to ski and he’s teaching me how to write. We’ve skied together in Minnesota and Lenzerheide in Switzerland. Pat and I attended our 50thBowdoin Reunion with Cal and Ellie.
One of the features of Bowdoin fraternities, and fraternities in general at that time, was hazing. Hazing occurred at the beginning of our freshman year and lasted about six weeks. Although difficult at times, this was also a time for our future fraternity brothers to get to know each one of the pledges. We began eating together immediately upon pledging and would individually stand up on tables at mealtime answering questions about fraternity history, reciting poems, singing Bowdoin songs, and preparing to be harassed.
Each one of the pledges was assigned a Big Brother to guide us in the hazing process and help us get acquainted with fraternity and college life. My Big Brother was a Boston-bred (Waltham) rugged matter-of-fact guy and Bowdoin football star named John Paul McGovern. After one or two meetings with John Paul, he told me, “Look Haskell, you might as well know I selected you because I don’t like you. I want to get to know you better in the next six weeks, but I have the power to blackball you from joining this fraternity.”
I honestly didn’t know what to say to him except to tell him I knew what he was saying and hoped I would measure up. At the end of the hazing period, John Paul called me to his dorm room and said, “Haskell, I like you after all and will definitely vote to welcome you into Alpha Delta Phi.” I told him I appreciated his confidence in me, and we became AD Brothers.
I wrote a book about the long-time owner of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, W. Stewart Woodfill. I worked at the Grand the summer before entering Bowdoin and got to know Mr. Woodfill. WSW was a classmate and Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother with my father at Bowdoin. WSW had visited Bowdoin and other New England colleges in 1948, searching for a school for his nephew, Dan. He told me he was “horrified” at what he saw at Bowdoin and most of the other colleges they visited. He wrote:
My nephew was interested in Bowdoin, and I was interested in having him consider it because I attended that college and have always felt it was one of the most conservative and soundest of small colleges in the country. However, I was disappointed in what I found there. The same conditions existed, no worse and no better at Williams, Amherst, and Dartmouth.
While working at the Grand, Mr. Woodfill and I talked at length about his college days at Bowdoin, and he encouraged me to try to set an example there “and stay off the booze.” He was particularly concerned with the drinking and other activities in fraternities at the colleges they visited, plus he’d observed many national fraternity conventions at his hotel. Notwithstanding his uncle’s observations, Woodfill’s nephew, Dan Musser, graduated from Dartmouth, where he, too, was a member of Alpha Delta Phi. I visited Dan there and witnessed even more drinking than I’d experienced at my fraternity.
Based on my experience, I believe fraternities once served a useful purpose. Students lived and ate all meals in fraternity houses and got to know fellow classmates. A sense of community was formed. There was a lot of drinking, for sure, and the fact Bowdoin was all male contributed to that. I believe fraternity life and silly antics in hazing dominated too much of our time and, looking back, was of questionable value. I also agree we became too attached to our particular fraternity and didn’t get to know other students as well as we might have. The sense of community should have been with the entire college, which only had about 900 students at the time.
Bowdoin has always been a college known for innovative policies. In the early 1970s, Bowdoin admitted six women, who roomed in the house at 72 Federal Street, by then donated to Bowdoin by my father. Many other colleges became coeducational at this time, and I applauded this move. I know drinking and other behavior I’d participated in at my fraternity would have been different if women were there every day, rather than just on ‘special weekends.’ Today, I understand Bowdoin is more than 50% women. Bowdoin was also one of the first New England schools to eliminate the necessity of submitting SAT scores in admission applications, and in 1997, under the direction of President Edwards, the college ultimately shut down all the fraternities at Bowdoin.
Twenty -two years later, Harvard University is attempting a similar feat. A Harvard committee haspointed to Bowdoinas a model for eradicating final clubs, fraternities, and sororities from campus social life.
My brother-in-law, Bancroft Wheeler graduated from both Harvard and Harvard Law School. He recently sent me this e-mail on the Harvard fraternity/club issue.
Hi Hank There has been a great deal of back AND FORTH BETWEEN THE DEAN OF STUDENTS who has taken the position that the clubs are elitist and gender exclusive and those who feel that they have a place at the university. The dean would prevent anyone who joins a club from accepting a scholarship ( Rhodes, Oxford/Cambridge) or being a captain of an athletic team.Harvard has been sued by a group that claims it discriminates against Asians in its admissions policy so nothing has been decided on the club issue as of now.
Harvard faces the same decision Bowdoin made 22 years ago. As a Harvard Business School graduate, I will be interested to watch this process unfold.
Although Bowdoin’s decision to close fraternities was probably a good one, I do have fond memories of my four years at Alpha Delta Phi.
My photos above show four Bowdoin Fraternity Brothers having fun