Bill Dennis ‘83- From The Archives

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Dr. William Dennis, Associate Professor of History at Dension University is our newest and certainly most learned member. Bill has served as the chapter's academic advisor for many years, during which he proved to be an invaluable friend. As a result of this relationship and the strong desire on the part of both Bill and the active chapter, we are now happy to report that he holds bond No. 1315. 

Bill earned his B.A. at Earlham in 1963 and in 1971 received his Doctorate from Yale. He has taught at Dension since 1968, during which time he has been the leader of many Dension Challenge Expeditions to Texas and the Grand Tetons. His most distinguished adventure was as part of the all-Dension climbing team which completed the first successful climb of Mt. Dension (named for the school) in Alaska during the summer of 1978. His other hobby, besides mountaineering, is conservative political theory.  

The following is the text of the speech Bill delivered at the initiation dinner. It is reprinted here so that those of you not present, and those of you that were, may enjoy the interesting reflections of our newest (and oldest president) active member.

The Education of a Fraternity Man


To begin with, I am more than a little surprised to find myself here today. I certainly wasn't brought up to be a Beta. I am a Quaker, and historically we Quakers have looked askance at fraternities, secret societies, Masonic Lodges, and ritualistic religions--all seem to be undemocratic, based on illusion and false distinctions, founded through invidious processes of selection, and characterized by frivolous distractions from the more important concerns of life. My undergraduate college was Dension's sister Great Lakes school, Earlham College in Indiana--founded and run by the society of Friends--not only non-fraternity but anti-fraternity in outlook. So I wasn't a fraternity man as an undergraduate and I had no desire to be one. But even if I had had such a desire--suppose I had come to Dension instead of Earlham as freshman--I can't believe I would have ended up a Beta. I would have never gone through rush, let alone step over the portals of this house--and you surely wouldn't have wanted me as a brother anyway. I was shy, un-athletic, and, to say the least, unsocial. 

But, I've learned a few things over the years that have taught me some of the values of fraternity life. And interestingly I think some of these lessons come from my days back at Earlham. 

Toward the end of my freshman year, two upperclassmen of a scholarly-athletic sort asked my roommate and me to join their hall for sophomore year. I was flattered by the invitation and surprised for while they were part of the group I most admired in school I didn't think they would ever be interested in me living with them. But, nevertheless, I was pleased to join. I stayed on that hall for the next three years and helped choose new members for the hall from then on. We were Second South Bundy and we took pride in our academic, athletic and leadership achievements and before long we were calling ourselves Sigma Sigma Beta, winning most of the intramurals and a fair share of the campus offices. I even found myself playing defensive lineman on an undefeated intramural football team. So here was lesson one--in an anti-fraternity atmosphere, a group had been formed by some sort of natural process by a few men who started as acquaintances and ended as friends; a group which found pride in its self-identification and exclusiveness and helped its members to new and unexpected achievements and self-confidence. A sort of invisible hand of group association had led us to make an end run around the prohibition of Quaker theory to form a body that looked very much like fraternity in its ideal state should look.  

Lesson number two (and I have five lesson for you today) also comes out of Second South Bundy. There can by unity in diversity. Fraternities can be exclusive without being conformist, and can even cultivate individuality. We had on that hall, a couple of brains and a couple of brains and a couple of jocks, both social wall flowers and social butterflies, the campus student-body president and the editor of the student newspaper, one black, several Jews, a bunch of Quakers, and a share of atheists; a national founder of the Students for a Democratic Society and me, a founder and sometimes it seemed sole proprietor of the Earlham College Conservative Club. About all we had in common was the Hall itself and the pride we took in its activities. So the lesson I learned here was that once against the Quakers could be wrong--the brotherhood they preach was actually best promoted by some sort of group association that didn't necessarily let everyone in. 

Out of my work with the Earlham College Conservative Club came a third lesson in the education of a fraternity man. In the other men's dorm there was a hall of boisterous, some would say rowdy, football-player-types probably the closest thing Earlham had to what the Dension campus image of the Betas are. But when it came to campus politics I found these guys were my cultural allies. Doug Williams, a good halfback, became a co-leader, with me, of the college conservative group. And I spent many hours with him and his quarterback roommate talking over this and that and the affairs of the world. It was in those days that Senator Goldwater made headlines by saying that fraternities were America's greatest bulwark against Communism. Goldwater no doubt exaggerated and it would be an error to say that football players and fraternity men are necessarily political conservatives. But Doug and I talked about this point even then and concluded that one thing conservatives and fraternities had in common was the heartfelt feeling, if not belief, that there was more to life than the political struggle--and to paraphrase a great British Conservative--that family, friends, sports, religion--the indefeasible resources of Liberty--were far more important than social activism and that we all resented having other set for us the agenda for the day.

For my last two lessons I want to move on to Yale where I went in the fall of 1963, as a lonely and rather frightened, mid-western and unsophisticated graduate student. That first year I took a course on Theories of the American Character from George Wilson Pierson, a tall, silver-haired New Englander of gracious manners and elegant, even aristocratic bearing. Now, Professor Pierson was America's leading scholar on Alexis de Tocqueville and one of the country's most prominent intellectuals, a man who as chairman of the Department of History in the 1950's had turned the Yale department away from just being a pleasant major for young gentlemen into one of the most rigorous and intellectually exciting departments of history in the entire United States. Furthermore, Professor Pierson's great, great something or other, Abraham Pierson had been the first rector or president of Yale, and Pierson's had been at Yale ever since. So here was a true blue Yale aristocrat-intellectual, born and bred. Yet Professor Pierson rhetorically asked me once: Do you know why Yale has been such a great school? Because, he said, we have been a singing school and a football school. Now practically nobody would have given such an answer except Professor Pierson, so whatever did he mean? Well, I think he meant that Yalies knew enough to work hard, but also to play hard; to be students for sure, but also to cultivate friendships, loyalties, and those social natures which helped make men more than just scholars and served to suit them for leadership in the world of business and public affair—and above all else not to take themselves too damn seriously. Years ago when John Sloan and Ted Fritsch invited me down to the house for the first time and I went away with Beta songs singing in my ears. I thought that here was a source of singing and football that should help make Dension a sane and happy home, and should be cared for and cultivated.        

Finally, one more story from Yale days. Early on without knowing quite what I was getting into I joined a group that called itself the Party of the Right. At first it appeared to be just one of the five parties of the Yale Political Union, a sort of campus parliamentary-debating society. But the POR was party with a difference. To all functions the Chairman of the Party wore a dark blue suit and a bow tie and around his neck on a velvet ribbon a gold medallion of Charles I. A standard bearer with a medieval-looking shield accompanied him wherever he went; and when the Party adjourned each evening to Mory's, the first toast of the night began with the chairman reciting the scaffold speech of King Charles, delivered immediately before his execution in 1649, and the second toast was by the Secretary Treasurer paying tribute to all past chairmen by reciting their names in order: Charles Plan Garland, John Edward Todd, etc.—I can hear their names ringing still. And the Party sang songs—they sang, and they sang, outrageous songs, obscene songs, political songs, drunken songs, and they drank immense quantities of liquor and smoked cigars. The rest of Yale College thought the POR was a group of fascists, monarchists, reactionaries, and assorted lunatics and one of the great charms of the POR was that it did nothing to dispel this belief. While we were really a collection of Republicans and libertarians and had only a normal proportion of nuts it suited our purpose to let the rest of the campus think what it wished. They knew we were sharp and united, and difficult to beat, and a few outrageous rumors added to our mystery and our effectiveness and helped attract each year just the type of person we wanted to fill our ranks. The lesson here for Beta Theta Pi should be obvious—Do your best, be proud, don't worry too much about image as long as you are confident in your substance.     

Well, then the lessons I have learned on the road to becoming a fraternity man suggest that brotherhood, fellowship, drink and song ritual, mystery and rambunctiousness, sports and leadership, a bit of exclusivity, the ability to work hard and be serious without taking oneself too seriously—these make a healthy man and form a good basis for fraternity life at college. At Dension, the Alpha Eta Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, at its best, does follow this model.       

So now you know something of why I have enjoyed my associated with all of you over the years, even though I was rather unsuited to be a Beta—and you must know it is with great pleasure and honor that I am able to join with you in the mystic bonds of the fraternal order