Though the girls at this fraternity party came
naked except for labels from champagne bottles
pasted to their vital parts, they did not violate the
rules prohibiting girls who don't belong to sororities
from attending this frat's parties.

Where "frat rats" prowled,
you find Nobel laureates


of TheColumnists.com



Can you think of a time more emblematic of non-intellectual, careless college life than the 1950’s? Neither can I. Well, maybe the 20’s, if it really happened the way writers said it did -- boola-boola, hip flasks, raccoon coats and all that sort of thing.

But if they weren’t in first place, the 50‘s ran a pretty close second in the "let’s party," girls, girls, girls, drunk-by-noon sweepstakes. Even imagining it conjures up certain images, does it not? Blondes, sports cars, keg parties?

Especially if said careless life was conducted at a palm-studded seaside campus and you were a member of a fraternity.

I was. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), one of the biggest and most resplendent fraternities on the sunny University of California at Santa Barbara campus, rolled its eyes and accepted me as a member.

It is impossible to overstate the gulf that existed then between we “Greeks” and the “Independents” -- those poor social outcasts who lived in the residence halls on campus. Why, they were practically hippies before hippies had been invented. We suave men of the world lived in a fraternity house, or apartments.

We only dated sorority girls. What’s more, there was a rigid hierarchy of sororities, based on how good-looking the girls were.

Fraternities used to gather en mass outside sorority houses on some evenings and serenade the girls with time-tested songs, none of which I remember. But we only serenaded sororities that were judged to be our peers in the unwritten pecking order.

As a member of a large, active fraternity that alternated with another large fraternity for the presidency of the student body, one could date a girl from a lesser sorority without too many eyebrows being raised, One had to be polite, after all. But one did not date a non-sorority girl. Simply wasn’t done.

There was one major exception/ One of us dated and later married a lovely, warm girl who was not in a sorority. In fact, half the damn campus had a crush on her. They’ve now been married 50-plus years, by the way.

It all began to end not long after we all left college, but in the late 50’s, women, whether they were sorority girls or not, were severely restricted in what they could do with their lives. There were certainly exceptions, but if you were female, it was probably teaching, nursing, being a librarian, or getting married and learning about the PTA. You want to become a physicist, young woman? Forget it. I’m pretty sure
that some, I hope many, of the beautiful and bright girls I lusted after managed to break their bonds and live up to their potential.

We thought we were big drinkers, which seems laughable today, when grownups are worried about campus binge drinking. The joke about one guy was that if you needed to see him early about anything important -- maybe a homework assignment -- you had to get to him before 10 o’clock in the morning so he could still recognize you.

Fraternity hazing of pledges was occasionally brutal. One pledge was thrown off
the end of Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf. He drowned.

To a superficial observer of those 35 or so SAE frat boys in the late 50’s, it might have seemed impossible that any of them would ever amount to anything -- the common misperception when thinking of the young. In fact, one frat boy became an internationally renowned musician, another earned a Ph. D. and M.D. and became a big-league psychiatrist in Florida. At least two became wealthy insurance executives. Another became highly successful in the publishing business, moved to Arizona
and plays golf nearly every day.

One became the mayor of Huntington Beach, California. Two -- at least two -- became college professors, another a lobbyist and then head of a major state department, and at least three became teachers. Not ordinary teachers, you understand, but high-end teachers, much sought after by administrators for their expertise. One of the frat boys became a colonel in the Army and served two tours in Vietnam before he, too, became a college professor. Oh, and one became a yacht broker.

It may have been there all along, and I was too callow to recognize it, but somewhere along the line, seriousness took over.

There were some 2,300 students at UC Santa Barbara when I was there. Of that total, maybe 400 belonged to sororities or fraternities -- a distinct minority. For a brief time, however, it was my whole world.

In his magisterial multi-volume history of California, Kevin Starr refers to UC Santa Barbara, probably accurately, as a laid-back, relatively unimportant part of the University of California galaxy when the frat boys and the sorority girls of the 50’s were there. Now UC Santa Barbara has five Nobel laureates on its faculty and is one of the world’s top research universities.

It’s silly, of course, to look back at a bunch of 20-year-olds swigging beer at a frat party and be surprised that so many of them became successful in all kinds of endeavors. I mean, c’mon, that’s life.

But it’s fun, and revealing, to look at the yearbook photos and travel back through the shadowy corridor of time to remember what we were then, and what we are now-- in our 70’s, with our careers mostly behind us, and most of us sobersided grandfathers.

And those pretty, pretty girls -- grandmothers now. Impossible. I hope some of them are also physicists.

©2011 by Charles M. McFadden. The McFadden caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The illustration is an enhanced version of an internet photo. This column first posted Oct. 17 2011.