Growing Up…Hopefully, Before We Die

Every December, I coordinate a gathering of my fraternity brothers from Emory. It’s always a roll of the dice as to who comes. I put my organizational skills on PAUSE as I simply send out an invitation to a list that has grown through the years. No pressure. Just an open invite, accompanied by a timid urging to pass it along to those not on my email list. And then, I wait to see who shows up. I take comfort in my friend, Harrison Owen’s zen wisdom: “Whoever shows up are the right people.”

It began as a simple gathering of the Atlanta Sigma Chis for drinks in December. We then imagined how much fun it would be to have other “characters” from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana that would bring some additional “color” to the gig. When I describe them later, you’ll see what I mean.

We then decided, especially for those brothers who were coming from long distances, that we might add a night to include spouses. And I, being a broad-minded Episcopalian who many doubt my kosher Christian theology, insisted on including “partners” for our brothers who were gay. All of my homosexual brothers “came out” after graduation. I have often thought of how hard it must have been for them, living in our house, hearing our jokes and derisive references to gays. But they did.

One particular brother who had “come out” attended our gathering and made a point to announce this revelation to each person individually. I appreciated his sincere efforts as he literally went around the room during drinks, informing the brother that he was gay. It was not exactly “breaking news” to anyone in that room, but I loved the fact that my brother found a new freedom in that moment, something that he did not have before. Some have not been able to make that same brave journey of self-disclosure, perhaps justly writing the group off, mired in the sedimentation of the past. But, many have told me that they don’t want to “go there”. I regret that, but honor it, inviting them each year to join us.

Our format has evolved. We now begin with a gathering on Friday evening at Manuel’s Tavern, which is in the Virginia-Highland area, next door to the Carter Presidential Center, and near Emory University. It was a major watering hole for me in my undergraduate days as it hosted a number of political players and journalists, including Reg Murphy, the editor of the Journal-Constitution. But more important for me was that it was the home of Manuel, himself. Manuel Maloof was my “adjunct professor” of political science, sitting in a booth, late in the evening, early in the morning, reviewing political writings on FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. JFK’s portrait still commands a central place behind the main bar, along with Manuel’s ashes. It’s one of Dave’s Faves.

For me, it is home. It’s where I went to celebrate when I decided to get married. It’s where I went when I decided to take the plunge into the Episcopal ethos; where I went before leaving my hometown of Atlanta for a parish in Texas; where I went to celebrate my return; and where I went to lick my wounds with some of my precious friends who showed up again this year for our December gathering. This is 50 years of me coming to the bar, and it gathers the collective feel of the sweep of all these years: the good, the bad, and the ugly… but most powerfully, the loyal.

That’s what I’m talking about. In this group of boys who grew into men, a group of 18-year-olds that pledged to a fraternity that we barely knew, had no clue as to their history, their conflicts, their divisions, and their commitments and values. We had gone through a compact time known as Rush week, going to each fraternity house on the row to get a sense of the group, have some conversation, put forward our best “self” for approval, hoping to get a “bid”, that is, an offer, an opportunity to join this particular group of humans for our four-year sled ride through our college experience.

I had absolutely no idea as to how important this decision would be for me, the power and consequence of the decision. It would form the context of a critical, formative period in my life, and yet, I had little clue as to what I was signing onto, what ports of call this ship was headed for, what dangers awaited, what sirens might call from dangerous rocks, what delights particular harbors promised. The song “Brandy” suddenly sounds in my memory.

At the conclusion of Rush week, there came a time for commitment, referred to as Walking the Row. All those Emory freshmen and transfers would gather at the beginning of a loop known as Fraternity Row and then proceed to walk down the street, making a fateful and fatal turn to the house where you would “pledge” your loyalty for the next four years. While we gather in December a group of folks from five years either side of my class, the class of ’76, it’s those persons from my pledge class that prove most profound in my memory.

My friend, Kevin, who was from the suburb of Chicago, Western Springs, lived across the hall from me in my dorm freshman year. We met the first day of orientation and walked that night to Everybody’s down in the Emory village for my first legal beer. Kevin and I have been friends ever since, living in the fraternity house together for two years, going to sail in the Caribbean, being in each other’s weddings, sailing on Lanier after grad school, him coming to my ordination and celebrations of new ministry. And we had a sacred moment the other night at Manuel’s, where we paused to weigh the value of our friendship through time. Tears flowed.

And there is the other part of the trio, Mark Hastings, who made the critical mistake of moving into my freshman dorm room, midyear, sacrificing his grade point, carousing with Getz and me. Later, all three of us lived on the infamous third floor of the fraternity house. Later, Mark would graciously provide a room in the house he was renting near Agnes Scott as I returned for grad school. Our friendship has been a constant, something I could count on. Even though he did not want to expose himself to the tirade of some of our more conservative MAGA members, he showed up for me….which defines loyalty in my book.

And one more special companion was introduced to me by Hastings, Mark Jones. Mark is an interloper as he was not part of that group that walked the row in ’72, but became a social affiliate, or as he introduces himself, a “social affliction”. Jones was the drummer in our jazz trio, with Tom Greenbaum on keys and me on bass and BS. Jones is one of the funniest human beings I have ever known. He and I once took out a pair of twins, a story best untold, thanking God for no smartphones with cameras. Jones was the son of a prominent Methodist minister in the area who became a bishop, and he carries that burden well. He famously would take out his father’s business card, shake it in the air with a proper rumble, proclaiming that he was “on the lay-away plan” for salvation. He provides me a powerful image of what friendship looks like. I was able to trade on that friendship by getting him to surprise the gathering, showing up in his Santa outfit. He was the HIT of this year’s gathering.

Other members of that 1972 Pledge Class showed up as well. Gary Phillips, from Baton Rouge, is one of my favorite people on the planet. He was the Pledge Trainer when I served as president, and he and I tried to up the level of commitment beyond a legal demand to”show up” for work parties by inspiring a sense of engagement. In our last quarter in college, Gary, a group of girls, and I decided to “paint the SAE lion” one last time. Gary got caught and had half of his head shaved…the SAE’s sense of justice. He had an interview with a prominent accounting firm the next day. Obviously, the accountants were impressed with his double dose of courage, offering him a job. Funny how things work out.

Gary is natively conservative and I am one of those left-leaning liberals that your parents warned you about. From college on, Gary and I have continued to have meaningful conversations about issues that have faced us personally and within the larger social context. He is a brother that I value and count on.

Peeler Lacey came to Emory from Kosciusko, Mississippi. To say it was a bit of a cultural shock is a vast understatement. Fortunately, Peeler was smarter than the average bear, having attended a private prep school here in Georgia. He also seemed to have an eidetic memory like Sheldon Cooper, but that’s where the comparison stops.

I remember one particular night going with Peeler to the infamous Claremont Lounge. I’m imagining that the gyrating dancers would have had trouble envisioning us as a future physician and priest in those fraternity jackets. Another night, Peeler and I were commanding a foosball table, beating endless pairs of Georgia Tech students at Denny McClain’s bar in the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel. After becoming “tired of winning”, Peeler offered a particular opinion as to the lack of manliness of Tech men. One of our defeated opponents chose to challenge Peeler to a fight. Being from Kosciusko, Peeler was incapable to say “no” to such offers, so he proceeded to take off the aforementioned jacket, and when his arms were bound back in that process, the Tech guy cold-cocked him, setting off a full-scale bar fight. Fortunately for Peeler, he was with a non-violent priest-to-be who got him the hell out of Dodge. Eye wounds tend to bleed profusely. Ask me how I know this.

Jeff Doussan was from New Orleans, and brought that Mardi Gras spirit to my pledge class. Jeff was one of the original wild ones in our fraternity house. He had one of the few single rooms in the house, and schooled me in the value of a large aquarium and the romantic ambiance it provides. His was a 55-gallon tank with beautiful, exotic cichlids providing an aquatic ballet, while I had a 5-gallon tank with goldfish. Like Forrest Gump, that’s all I am going to say about that. Jeff was one of the first of my tribe to “streak”, notably on the Agnes Scott campus, an all-girls college. I remember specific conversations I had with him in our shared bathroom/showers. Nothing like locker room talk with a guy from NOLA. I always smile when I hear his accent say “Dave”, “Galloway”, or “Rev”.

Fred Runner was one of the first folks there at Manuel’s this year. I remember Fred specifically from the day we walked the Row together. He had a fresh face that rivaled my own baby face. We both had a lot to learn and Fred seemed to relish that fact. Fred was a part of a trio a little different from mine. His was comprised of Howard Kempsell and his roommate, Larry Lutchen. Howard was from New Jersey and offered a rather proper, careful way of speaking, He transferred his junior year, and later became an Episcopal priest. He and I have stayed in touch, as we moved through the labyrinth of the Episcopal structure and explored various forms of spirituality. Larry was from New York and became an ObGyn, practicing at Georgia Baptist Hospital, the place I was born. He later found his passion, becoming a high school teacher, and enjoying his work with kids. All three have been back for our December gathering, adding to the spirit of camaraderie.

What struck me the other night as we gathered some fifty years after we walked the Row, having chosen to be together for these precious and precarious college years, was what a good choice we made. I dare say that such a sentiment would be the opinion of most who made that decision. But, without reservation, I make that declaration for my own soul.

This group of diverse guys has stayed connected despite the separation of many miles. We have been through the deaths of some of those friends who wore the White Cross of Sigma Chi, and who made the walk that fateful day. We have handled incredible victories, tough situations, and reversals. We have embraced the recognition of some of our number “coming out” to their true sexual identity. And, we have all grown to a deeper acceptance of our differences. One brother in particular has made a transformational change in terms of his bigoted views on race, moving beyond the deep prejudice in which he was raised. Each one of us has done some of the hard work of jettisoning shards of our cultural residue, as well as coming to own and claim parts of our heritage

In spite of all of our significant and different political, economic, and religious perspectives, we have found a way to honor the deeper value of our brotherhood and the worth of each person. Our commitment, when initiated into the Sigma Chi fraternity, was to use this intentional grouping of individuals as a crucible in which to build our character and to learn the tough lessons of true friendship. That was and is a worthy goal. Surprisingly, it was where I learned some of my best lessons in leadership and what it means to be a person in this world.

You may be snickering, or maybe even experiencing a hearty chortle or guffaw as you hear me wax poetic about this motley group gathered in a pub on a night in December, remembering scandalous stories about strip clubs, bar fights, drinking, and carousing. Writing these words down caused me a few belly laughs as my memory flowed, particularly when I realize that I am the “motliest”, a word that I made up for the occasion! But superseding my laughter is a deep smile of satisfaction, that I indeed made good on my commitment to seek true friendship among this group of men, for I have surely found it here among my brothers. On this dreary day in December, I am feeling grateful, blessed, and ready for more..

6 thoughts on “Growing Up…Hopefully, Before We Die

  1. Bless you (again), David. . .
    Reading about your fraternal experiences, I found myself contrasting yours with mine. I lost touch with my Kappa Alpha brothers at Roanoke College shortly after graduation and have not had any meaningful contact with them since then. I am envious. . .
    But you have moved me to go back in my mind and search for moments that WERE meaningful from those days.
    The most challenging ‘wall’ for me to overcome on the search is proving to be the embedded racism present in our ‘Southern’ fraternity. I didn’t realize it at the time – would never have joined if I had twigged to it – but when I ‘rushed’ a fantastic Freshman my senior year (who happened to be Jewish), the National Order commended us to drop him as a candidate. I never got over that one. . .
    You never fail to get me thinking, man. . . And feeling. . .
    I look forward to heading South of God with you every week.

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    1. Thanks, John. I almost quit when one of my Rush candidates, a local stellar black student, was black-balled by one member. An alumnus, who also introduced me to the Episcopal church by taking me to his Cathedral, talked me out or resigning. He convinced me to change from within, encouraging me to run for president. I did. Seems like sage wisdom, I have given it to other at times. I sometimes wonder as to the long term wisdom.
      Thanks for reading and the connection.

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  2. David, for one or other reason your beautiful documentary of your December meeting @ Manuel’s. – Forgive me and I cannot even explain why it popped up in my mind – besides making me envious made me thinking of a song that you surely know “The Pilgrim – Chapter 33” of Kris Kristofferson… I admire the Force you have to keep that group united year after year. You’re a pilmgren and a preacher … the only difference with this song is that you’ve certainly found the right direction to your way home, the way to your Original Self. And even more true, you’re committed to walk that road, that surely has ‘ups and downs’. You stick to the process that helps us ‘live Richly with Dark Realities’. Your blog is, once again, a living proof of that (and I have to admit I have a CI colored mindset). Keep on doing what CI directs (or pushes ?!?) you to do!

    Creatively,
    Your FFF (Friend from Flanders)

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    1. Thanks, Johan. Friendship means a great deal to me, and groupness (team) has been a motivational factor in my life. Balancing my freedom with connectedness with team is an art not taught in schools but something I intend to develop. I am glad to claim you as friend, colleague and part of one of my more interesting teams, CI. Thank you for your thoughts and feelings. Kris is a hero, and part of my superteam, The Highwaymen. What a quaternity.
      Thank you.

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  3. David, this was fantastic. You captured the tone of the times then and now. My fraternity experience at Emory was so enjoyable and life-changing. The reunions at Manuel’s bring it back to life. I’m still learning from these wonderful friends. I loved all of the guys when we were there and I like them even better now. What a wonderful group of elderly men we have become! Thanks and Merry Christmas, from your often wrong but never in doubt, natively conservative, brother.

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    1. Thanks, Gary. Your presence is one of the reason I keep trying to keep this happening. It is selfish as it is a gift to me. I can’t imagine a better group at a better time than we had at Emory. Thank you for making the extra effort to come each year. I am grateful. Love you.

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