News of the tragic suicide of Marquise Braham and the resulting lawsuit against Penn State Altoona and Phi Sigma Kappa brought to the surface some very painful memories. Earlier in my career I spent several years as the Executive Director of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a midsize International fraternity founded at Yale in 1844. Five or six US Presidents have been members(FDR was a member of the Harvard Chapter which was thrown out for not paying dues). Deke, as it is known, was international in that it had a few Canadian chapters.
Our Chapter at the University of Washington had been disbanded in the Sixties due to hazing. It was brought back in the late Nineties. The alumni from the Sixties had a sort of last bottle club, in that they invested the proceeds from the sale of their house to TKE and had an annual banquet at one of the private clubs in downtown Seattle. I started attending these banquets and encouraging them to consider recolonizing at the UW campus.
Finally they were convinced it was time, primarily due to the urgings of a very active "Sparkplug" alumnus from the University of Vancouver Chapter. My chapter advisor at the time was a Canadian from Vancouver, and I sent him out to see what could be accomplished. He was successful in colonizing a small group.
We rented a sorority annex, and an alumni advisor from the Vancouver Chapter was hired by the local alumni to supervise the expansion. Vancouver is only a couple of hours North of Seattle, and there was a lot of socialization between the two chapters. The Americans in the first class who had been initiated in a relatively tame initiation under our supervision began to hear stories of the more intense Vancouver initiation, and some wanted to "fix" their initiation to be more like that.
The ATO house came up for sale. Our alumni purchased it, and we were up and running.
The alumni advisor, working with the Sparkplug Vancouver alumni president who was also a lawyer and former International Board member, proceeded to lay out a very intense initiation. This included bringing undergraduate and alumni members of the Vancouver chapter to help supervise and inviting the Albertans to participate as well.
The result was an absolute horror show, complete with shaved heads, sleep deprivation, eating strange objects, allegations of abuse, vomit, confined spaces, and almost everything that is specifically outlawed by the various inter-fraternal groups was a part of this disaster. A subsequent investigation revealed that most of the Chapter alumni, who were more than 30 years older than the undergraduates, were totally unaware of what was going on.
As Susan Kelleher wrote in the Seattle Times in July 2000 after the initiation of January 1998 came to light: "Fourteen college freshmen, bodies and psyches drained, watch bleary-eyed as an older man dramatically feeds an electric blender the final ingredient of the rancid concoction that will be dinner: Live goldfish. After five days of humiliation, interrupted sleep and slavish obedience to the whims of the taunting men who encircle them, the students know better than to protest. So they down the mysterious mix, chase it with salty, boiled beer - and vomit. And vomit some more. By the time the heaves subside, it seems things can hardly get worse. But there is more - 24 hours more, virtually all of it against the law, against University of Washington policies and against the fraternity's own zero-tolerance policy on hazing. In two days, one of the freshmen will hang himself."
John Laduca, a nineteen year old student had committed suicide within a few hours of completing the Deke initiation. This resulted in a lawsuit that nearly, and perhaps should have, killed the International Fraternity.
The worst part of this for me was that I attended the banquet following the initiation and had no idea what had happened. As Executive Director, I flew up for the welcoming banquet which took place the evening after all was cleaned up.
The first thing I noticed was the shaved heads. A local alumnus who was on the International Board told me this was a team work thing that the pledges had decided to do. I told him that there was no way, and there obviously had been some hazing involved. Nothing of consequence happened, the banquet was a success, the two Vancouver Alumni who had engineered the entire thing were congratulated, and I caught the Red Eye back to Detroit.
When I got home, it was Sunday of Martin Luther King Day weekend. I got an urgent call from a good friend, a senior alumni advisor to the Chapter, who was a Deke from the University of Alabama. He was at the DKE House. John Laduca, one of the pledges had hanged himself, and EMS was on the way. The story he told me was that the kid had so loved DKE, despite family troubles, that he wanted to be initiated before he killed himself. This turned out to be far from the truth.
My friend told me that they were unable to contact anyone at the University of Washington as its switchboard was on a recording to "have a nice holiday." I knew that the President of the University was a Deke from Rutgers, so I looked him up in our directory, called him, and reported the incident. After the funeral, there was an absolute wall of silence to us at the International from the chapter and the alumni about this initiation and anything that might have led to the suicide of this young man.
John's parents waited until the summer of 2000 to file a wrongful death suit naming the chapter, the fraternity and the school. It hit the Seattle papers on a Sunday morning with front page coverage. I was at the annual Fraternity Executives Association conference in California and received an instant visit from our insurance broker. The school got out of the lawsuit on some sort of sovereign immunity claim. We stayed in. What it cost: The lawsuit was eventually settled for an amount, which including attorneys fees, was in the 7 figures after depositions revealed what had actually happened.
Sparkplug was not named in the suit, but often joked that he was afraid to cross the border for fear of being sued. He died recently and his "accomplishments" were lauded on the fraternity webpage. He entered DKE history as a saint for his leadership of the Canadian Chapters and role in Fraternity governance. However, our liability premium shot up from $40,000 to over $400,000, if we could get it, in three years. The rest of my career at DKE was devoted to raising enough money to pay the insurance which now became 75% of an annual budget that depended on voluntary annual dues from 20,000 alumni and initiation fees from 700 new initiates!
Thanks largely to a do-nothing oblivious board, I had to negotiate loans from the foundation, ended up lending the Fraternity money myself and went without pay on a more or less regular basis during this period. Despite this incredible cost and near total destruction of an organization that is now 170 years old, hazing continues rampant. The lesson of John Laduca has never been learned. The accolades lavished on Sparkplug reinforce that.
I spent the remainder of my career there doing what I could to stop hazing, and the end of my career came as I was advocating getting rid of the link between the US and Canada.
Hazing must stop. Fraternity initiations commence again before Labor Day. Young men will return to the chapters following the summer break and commit horrible acts on their "Brothers." May the recent suicide of Marquise, and the death of John have some meaning in discouraging this hideous and unbelievably un-necessary practice.
David K. Easlick, Jr., is a Hazing and Risk Management Specialist and a member of the State Bar of Michigan for over 30 years. Mr. Easlick was the Executive Director of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity for over 20 years. In such role, he became familiar with just about all outrageous conduct by undergraduate young men on the college campus. He spent years combating it, and attempting to correct and eliminate it. His experience includes Hazing, Binge Consumption, Sexual Misconduct, or other Risk Management Violations.
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