cover_story (2006-50)

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam

State Senator Tim Burchett

It’s 10:30 a.m., and the Sigma Chi house is trashed.

A stroll through the carnage reveals upturned furniture, crumpled Natty Light cans, random articles of clothing, cookie platters that appear to have been used as Frisbees, and evidence of a layer-cake explosion. Syrupy beams of December sunlight stream in through the windows, illuminating a bright red poinsettia inexplicably placed in the middle of the floor. That it managed to survive last night’s mayhem is baffling.

Others, it seems, weren’t so lucky.

Someone beats on a bedroom door down the hall. “John!” Thump, thump, thump . “Anybody in there?” Thump .

I wander over to the living room’s wall-length trophy case, filled to capacity with tall, gilded statues. Their bases are engraved with athletic accomplishments, and several of them are decades old. On other walls, there are framed yearbook-style portraits of the fraternity’s current members. In the photographs, they look freshly scrubbed, confident and handsome—in a preppy, Lacoste kind of way.

“John!”

Eventually the door-beater walks back into the living room, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. “He’s not answering his phone, either,” he explains. “I’m sorry. Yesterday was the last day of classes.”

Which means today is the first of two “study days”—code for “party days”—that precede finals. As a result, everyone who lives in the Sigma Chi house might as well be dead this morning with the exception of Chad Fuson, who has been trying to raise the one named John on my behalf. John as in Chapter President John Rader, with whom I had, perhaps naively, arranged a pre-noon interview.

Appraising the disheveled living room with a look of disgust, Fuson offers to let me wait for Rader in his room. “It’s clean, and there’s a couch and a TV,” he says. Considering the circumstances, Fuson seems surprisingly bright-eyed and polite. He’s dressed nicely, wearing khakis and a hunter green fraternity t-shirt, and he doesn’t even smell like beer.

Settling into the cushions, I ask Fuson about himself. He says he’s a senior in finance and that, like most seniors, he’s a little apprehensive about post-graduation life. He’s been feeling around for jobs in Atlanta, working some connections he has there. “But you never know,” he laughs. “A month after graduation, I may be flipping burgers.”

He is, of course, jesting. A Sigma Chi working in the fast-food industry? Implausible. Sigma Chis grow up to be politicians, doctors, CEOs and real-estate developers. The alumni roster of UT’s chapter, Beta Sigma, reads like a who’s-who of notable Tennesseans—people you couldn’t imagine in a toga if you tried: U.S. Senator-Elect Bob Corker, state Senator Tim Burchett, former state Representative Van Hilleary, President/CEO of Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership Mike Edwards, CEO of HolRob Development Robert Talbott, Sevier County Bank President R.B. Summitt, former football icons Tommy Bronson and Johnny Majors.

And that’s only the short list. Several other Beta Sigma alums have gone on to make a name for themselves outside the state, like South Carolina Senator Scott Richardson and Louisiana Senator Francis Lauricella. Here in town, alumni include lawyers, judges, physicians, and media personalities whose names you’d recognize even if you’ve never met them. Even the guy that writes my paycheck, Metro Pulse publisher Brian Conley, as well as the paper’s associate publisher, John Wright, are former Beta Sigs.

(On an Animal House -esque side note, Conley recalls that when he was in the fraternity, the house received a visit from the Dean of Students after being placed on probation a couple of times for alcohol-related incidences. “Phil Shurer came and spoke to the entire fraternity and told us—and I quote, verbatim—‘None of you will ever amount to anything,’” he says.)  

It’s safe to say that Shurer’s curse never came to fruition.

“It’s exciting to have some connection with them,” Fuson says of the fraternity’s five-star alumni roll call, “but if you try to measure up to our alumni, you might have a real disappointing life. Not everybody’s a Bob Corker, or a Haslam.”

For the Haslam family, Sigma Chi is a tradition beginning with Jim Haslam, who was a Sigma Chi at UT, handed down to Jimmy Haslam, president of Pilot Oil Corp., and current Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who was a Sigma Chi at Emory. Today, the Haslams are among Sigma Chi’s most generous financial donors. “They’ve been really good to us,” Fuson confirms.

Fuson recalls a recent exchange with the mayor at a financial association luncheon. After giving a talk, Haslam was mingling with those in attendance. “I don’t know him from Adam,” Fuson says, “but I said something to him and gave him ‘the handshake,’ and that was cool, because he’s a really big deal.”

By handshake, Fuson is referring to what Sigma Chis-in-the-know call “the grip,” a secret gesture that signals fraternal brotherhood even between complete strangers. But it’s only an outward manifestation of the more important inner qualities members possess, Fuson explains. “There are certain things we stand for, ideas we have, and to get in you have to meet different standards that we think are important,” he says.

Those criteria—among them “good character,” “ambitious purposes,” “a congenial disposition,” and “a high sense of honor”—are outlined in the fraternity’s so-called Jordan Standard, named after Sigma Chi’s co-founder Isaac M. Jordan.

Fuson says Beta Sigma’s members are also primarily from Tennessee: “Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville—mainly Knoxville,” he says, adding that he’s from Brentwood. They tend to be involved in student government and other leadership organizations, and the chapter has been awarded the Dean’s Cup for the last two years for maintaining the highest overall GPA, an average of 3.1, on campus. He says the members are predominantly Christian, as per the white cross that is the fraternity’s symbol, but that Christianity is not a criterion. They members also tend to lean Republican, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t have Democrats,” Fuson says.

Still, walking through Fraternity Row, where the Sigma Chi’s large, antebellum-style brick house is located, it’s hard to ignore the predominance of “W” bumper stickers and stray Corker campaign signs still lingering in bedroom windows. Whether by nature or nurture, conservatism still has a stronghold on the fraternity’s political leanings.

In the fall 2006 issue of The Magazine of Sigma Chi , a quarterly alumni publication, there was a picture of John Rader and two of his fraternity brothers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Corker after a speech he’d made on campus last April. They’re all smiling at the camera; it’s clearly a proud moment.

Fuson explains that having Corker as an alum makes Sigma Chi a bigger draw for prospective members. “During rush, everybody gives information about their fraternities and throws out some alumni names,” he says. “We threw out the name Bob Corker this year, and that’s really attractive to people. They want to be in the same fraternity as he was.”

Sigma Chi’s motto is “In Hoc Signo Vinces,” which translates to “In This Sign You Will Conquer.” And while mere membership doesn’t guarantee political or financial success, some might argue that, from a historical perspective, it certainly can’t hurt.

Sigma Chi is among the largest and oldest all-male college social fraternities. It was founded in 1855 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, following a squabble over who would be named Poet Laureate of the college’s literary society. It’s a stretch to imagine such a dispute brewing in the football-and-beer drenched fraternity quarters of today, but here’s a recap of what Sigma Chi lore claims happened 150 years ago.

Several members of Miami’s 12-person Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity were in the literary society, whose responsibility it was to select the Poet Laureate, and one of them wanted the position. Five of his brothers agreed that the title was fitting; six others argued that the candidate lacked poetic talent. The conflict divided the fraternity neatly down the middle, and after the position was awarded to another candidate, the six dissenters were officially excommunicated from Delta Kappa Epsilon by the parent chapter at Yale University. In response, they organized a new fraternity: Sigma Chi.

Since then, Sigma Chi has expanded to include 217 undergraduate and 145 alumni chapters internationally. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville chapter was founded in 1921. Today, it boasts 93 active members, which, compared to the school’s average chapter size of 64 members, makes it one of the largest of the 24 fraternities on campus.

Ruth Sutton, a Kappa Delta sorority member in the late ’30s, recalls the early days of Greek life at UT. The fraternity houses were fewer and smaller, mostly located in Circle Park, up the hill from what is now known as Fraternity Row. Sigma Chi’s house was located where the Student Services building stands today. “They were in lovely old residences,” Sutton recalls. “None of them were built for fraternities. They were big old houses that somebody had sold them, and there were still a lot of families living on Circle Park in old homes.”

Sutton says she shudders to think how many fraternity houses there are now. “I’m just appalled at how it’s grown. And they’ve got a lot of money sunk into them, too,” she says.

The sororities, on the other hand, didn’t have residential houses; the women either lived in dormitories or at home (Sutton notes with a chuckle that 70 years later, sorority houses are finally being built). They met in a three-story house on the north side of Cumberland Avenue, and each chapter had a room.

Sutton says the setup was pretty shabby and cramped. “We kept trying to get out of there,” she recalls. At some point, she says, the sororities started a rumor that the place was a firetrap, and when the fire department investigated, they were ordered to move out the very next day. Unfortunately, they had nowhere to go. “We cut off our noses to spite our faces,” Sutton laughs.

She says she has fond memories, though, of visiting Circle Park for fraternity events—especially the Sigma Chi tradition of Derby Day. The first time the event was held, on Nov. 1, 1935, over 1,000 people turned out to participate in the competition, which pitted sorority pledge classes against one another in track-and-field events. (A handful of other contests, however, were somewhat less respectable. In one, for instance, women competed for the best figure by aligning their bodies with a rather buxom cardboard cutout of what the fraternities agreed was a womanly ideal.) Sutton says she remembers all the women showing up to the Derby in their gym shorts, a.k.a. puffy pleated bloomers. “These shorts were weird. It looked like you were wearing an orange balloon,” she says, laughing.

Sutton says she never dated a Sigma Chi but remembers the fraternity well. “Some fraternities had more social boys,” she says, “and Sigma Chi was in that bracket—boys with more money and more social position. But really, nobody had any money back then, just coming off the Depression.”

Over the next two decades, Sigma Chi continued gaining momentum. By the time O. Henry Porter, a Beta Sigma alum who now lives in Chattanooga, joined the fraternity in 1958, it was going full-steam ahead—and the brothers were living it up. “I was an extreme social animal back then. I may be the one with the worst reputation,” Porter says. “We had a good time. Some things we did I can’t tell you. They can’t go in a newspaper.” He hints that they had something to do with Knoxville’s prohibition law, passed in 1907 and still intact throughout ’50s, which prohibited the sale of wine and liquor (beer was still considered legal).

Porter recalls that a popular fraternity activity of the time was hosting dances in Gatlinburg, then a small tourist town, and renting two hotels—“one for the girls and one for the boys.” He also harbors memories of Derby Day, which still included competitions “you couldn’t get away with on campus now,” as well as more innocent contests.

“All the pledges used to have to wear little black derbies, and the sorority class that stole the most derbies won a prize,” he says. That’s how Porter met his wife, a Pi Phi who was a year younger than he. “My first memory of her was of her trying to steal a hat from one of my roommates, who was a pledge at the time. I think she drug him across the hood of a car, trying to steal his hat.”

Porter says that at the time, the fraternity was a good mix of young men from various regions and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their academic interests were mixed, and some of them even grew up to be Democrats—a feat that occurs with less frequency today. There’s Jim E. Hall, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board under the Clinton administration, and Franklin L. Haney, Sr., a Chattanooga real-estate developer who, in 1998, was indicted and later cleared on 42 counts of making $100,000 worth of illegal campaign contributions to politicians, including Gore and Clinton. Haney’s since recovered, though, last year making a bid on the Washington Nationals baseball team and buying the Dulles Toll Road in Washington.

Porter seems more concerned with his fraternity brothers’ political leanings than with their political trespasses. “They’re cut from a different cloth than I am politically,” Porter says. “They’re lefters. I’m a righter.”

I finally catch up with the 2006 Beta Sigma president, John Rader, a couple days after our originally scheduled interview. This time around, by 10:30 a.m., he’s already spent an hour or two running around campus, turning in end-of-semester paperwork. When Rader returns to the Sigma Chi house, his tired eyes and rumpled hair convey the impression that he’s been burning the candle at both ends. “I don’t know how he manages to do it all,” I recall his fraternity brother Fuson saying earlier that week, “but I guess that’s what he signed up for.”

This morning, Rader’s room is a disaster area of books and papers—academics are clearly one of the activities he appears to be juggling. Carving out a spot for myself on the couch, I find myself accepting his profuse apologies for our missed appointment. He got hit from several directions at once, he says, and whether those punches were thrown by keg parties, followed by hangovers, or by all-night study sessions, followed by morning meetings, now seems irrelevant. In reality, it was probably a combination of both—which, in the context of Sigma Chi, seems to be the strategy of choice. After all, the brothers are fostering relationships that are meant to last a lifetime.

“They call it a brotherhood, but this is what it’s all about—meeting people you can see being friends with for the next 40 years or for however long you’re fortunate enough to live,” Rader explains.

As for claims that Beta Sigma is UT’s watered-down equivalent of Yale’s Scull and Bones society, whose alumni include U.S. presidents and prominent leaders, Rader argues that any success Sigma Chi’s alumni have enjoyed has more to do with the people in the fraternity than with the fraternity itself. “Some people laugh and call the fraternity a breeding ground for, you know, these successful politicians and entrepreneurs,” he says. “But I just think that the members say it all—who they are says everything about this place. In reality, it’s just walls. It’s just walls, but it’s the people who are within those walls who determine what the Beta Sigma chapter really stands for.”

Rader has his own theory about why Sigma Chi alumni seem to be predisposed for success. The first component has to do with what each of the members brings to the table in the first place: “I think for the most part the members that make up this chapter are just really good people with really sound heads on their shoulders and a vision of what they’d like to see in their future. I guess they’re driven.” 

The second component involves bringing those qualities into an already established environment where they will be nurtured and developed. “Sigma Chi has definitely established itself on campus as one of the top chapters. We have a good reputation,” Rader says, noting that one primary reason he chose to pledge Sigma Chi was that his father is an alum from Vanderbilt. “I think that people definitely meet other people while they’re here, while they’re in Sigma Chi, and we benefit from those relationships in different ways.” 

If those relationships are maintained, of course, their benefits can come in handy later in life.

Consider, for example, Jimmy Haslam’s $23,100 Pilot Corp. soft-money contribution to his former college roommate Bob Corker’s Senate campaign this year. Another Beta Sigma alum, Kevin Clayton, president and CEO of Clayton Homes who graduated about a decade later, donated $18,350. (Insert your favorite “The Sweetheart Deals of Sigma Chi” joke here.)

“You hear old stories about [Corker and Haslam] running around together all the time,” Rader says. “I don’t know any legendary stories about him, but I’m sure a good time was had by all. All I’ve heard is he was a standup guy. He really enjoyed Sigma Chi and enjoyed his time at UT.”

Rader recalls the months leading up to the Senate election as a “really energetic time—we just thoroughly enjoyed the campaign experience.” Nine of the brothers worked on or volunteered for Corker’s campaign, and even those who didn’t still got into the action from the sidelines. “Everybody knew what was going on. Everybody knew exactly what the polls were saying. We made an extra effort to help him out whenever we could, and we were always in tune with what was going on and where he was and what kind of help he needed. We congratulate him on his win, and hopefully he’ll enjoy Washington.”

When asked whether Rader has thought about a career in politics for himself—after all, he’s already got the dignitary handshake and the “I sincerely care about you’re saying” nod down pat—he says that although he’s got his eye on law school for now, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility.

For now, he’s in the College Scholars program, studying U.S. foreign policy, and this January he’ll start campaigning for student body president—a hotly contested position that would make him the voice of more than 26,000 students, a larger population even than that of his hometown, Cookeville.

Talking about the upcoming SGA election, Rader’s voice takes on the articulately enthusiastic, if somewhat haggard, tone of a politician on the final stretch of his campaign trail. “I think I would do a really good job,” he says. “I know my heart is in it. I know I’ll do the very best I can, conveying the best interest of the students.”

As he goes on, weaving his way through the intricacies of what the position might entail and why he’s qualified, it’s hard not to wonder if I’m having a conversation with someone for whom, give it a decade or two or three, I may consider voting. His affinity for a certain Republican senator aside, Rader seems like a good kid, and smart. Mayor? Senator? President?

Statistically speaking, I wouldn’t rule it out.