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1980s: Club Bacchus emerges as actual frats falter

April 7, 2000

From its birth in 1983, Club Bacchus made clear that it was not a fraternity. It was “a social organization of athletically-oriented male students who enjoy getting together to socialize, to support Williams athletics, and to sponsor very successful all-campus parties,” as two members put it in a 1987 Record op-ed. It was, members insisted, about cheering on sports teams and throwing parties.

Paul Meeks ’85, a founding member of Club Bacchus and the one to give it its name, recently emphasized to the Record that the founders spoke to the deans early on about how to avoid the appearance of being a fraternity. Quoted in the Record in March 1983, Assistant Dean of Students Cris Roosenraad said, “I can’t imagine calling them a fraternity. A fraternity would include such things as residential pattern, exclusivity, where the members pick future members themselves, and a national tie-in.”

But with its all-male membership, reliance on dues, and party culture, Club Bacchus was in some respects fraternity-esque. In Record op-eds from the late 1980s, some female students criticized the club for what they described as a sexist atmosphere.

Meeks, who graduated a few years before these op-eds, recently told the Record that the club had no rules against admitting women; it ended up being all men because women chose not to join. “The guys flocked to it, athletic and otherwise,” he said. “The ladies, not so much.”

The men wore a uniform of white button-downs, dark ties, and blue jeans to club parties. Meeks said that the only entrance requirements were to chug one beer, sing a song of choice, and pay a fee.

Of the 18 men who appeared in issues of the Record from the 1980s as members of Club Bacchus, all but one were on the football, lacrosse, or ice hockey teams (and many were on a combination of the three). “We supported the teams — it was part of our M.O.,” Meeks said. “I think more of it was because we were supporting our friends and it was started by people on those teams. But there was no formal engagement with the football, lacrosse, or hockey team.”

Over the years, Club Bacchus acquired a reputation for troublemaking. College Council admonished the club in 1984 after some members threw tennis balls and beer cans on the ice at a Williams–Amherst ice hockey game. In fall 1986, Williamstown police responded to a Club Bacchus–sponsored party after a brawl broke out; the club’s president was charged with serving alcohol to minors, according to a Record article from the time. But after 1989, Club Bacchus disappeared from the pages of the Record.

A curious footnote to the Club Bacchus years emerged from the Record’s conversation with Meeks. Meeks said that he was not involved in the club after he graduated and that he does not know what happened to it. But he recalled that when he returned to campus for the retirement party of longtime head lacrosse coach Renzie Lamb, some undergraduates who said they were in Club Bacchus approached him, wanting to meet the man who gave the club its name.

“They heard it was me, and they wanted to come over and speak to me, I guess,” Meeks said.

Lamb’s retirement was in 2003, over a decade after the seeming demise of Club Bacchus.

At the same time that Club Bacchus was making Record headlines in the 1980s as a quasi-fraternity, some actual fraternities were winding down. The underground KA chapter came to an end in 1983, according to the national fraternity’s website. According to The Spirit of Kappa Alpha, “the recruiting difficulties of such a tenuous, unpublicized existence far from the mainstream of campus life began to hurt the chapter, and it closed quietly when the last of its undergraduate members graduated in the early 1980s.”

TDX managed to last a few more years than KA, though not without its own difficulties. It faced a crackdown from the deans in 1983, according to an April 1985 letter from Boine Johnson ’53, one of the alums most involved in supporting the underground chapter, to other TDX alums. Johnson claimed that the deans had threatened that “no fraternity men would receive their diplomas,” leading to “a wholesale resignation from Theta Delta Chi.”

As a result, the chapter faltered, even giving its charter up to the national fraternity. But Johnson expressed hope that the chapter would soon get its charter back. He declared his commitment to keeping the chapter alive — especially because Lawrence Woodard (Class of 1913), the last man standing between TDX and the Partridge money, had died the month before.

All the fraternity needed to do to get the money was to hang on for 20 more years.

In 1986, according to a memo from Johnson to TDX alums, Johnson met with then-Dean of the College (and current Professor of English) Stephen Fix to discuss TDX’s plans to reestablish itself. Per the memo, Fix told Johnson that in order to comply with College rules, an organization could not have a Greek-letter name and could not be secret or exclusive.

By 1987, correspondence in the national TDX archives shows, a group of undergraduates had established the Partridge Society — which pointedly did not carry a Greek-letter name. The Society had a membership of 10 in October 1987; it is unclear if it was secret and exclusive. Although at first not officially recognized by the fraternity, the students got the national organization of TDX to return the chapter’s charter.

“Last spring several members were threatened with expulsion if they did not resign their membership. We know of no current undergraduate members.” — The 1990 minutes of the national TDX organization

But in 1990, TDX’s national organization formally revoked the Williams chapter’s charter.

“No initiates or payments for 2-3 years,” read the minutes of the national organization’s meeting from that year. “Last spring several members were threatened with expulsion if they did not resign their membership. We know of no current undergraduate members.”

The chapter was 15 years away from realizing the money in the Partridge trust.

One fraternity that did not flounder in the 1980s was St. Anthony Hall. Although St. Anthony Hall has left much less of a public record than TDX or even KA, tax records obtained by the Record show that the fraternity’s graduate organization told the IRS in 1983 that it would “provide financial support for a college literary Society and may at a future time support an undergraduate fraternity chapter.”

Throughout the late 1980s, the Dean’s Office continued to hear reports from students of underground fraternity activity. 

“We never proved anything,” Fix said. “We never caught anybody red-handed singing fraternity songs or wearing funny Greek letters.”

Still, he brought his concerns to the Board of Trustees. In 1989, the board reaffirmed its 1976 statement against fraternities and declared its “full support for the officers of the College in their efforts, disciplinary and otherwise, to insure that it is understood and adhered to in the Williams community.”

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