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Jewish World Review March 1, 2001 / 6 Adar, 5761

Cristina Rouvalis

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Consumer Reports

Partying without beer at fraternities? -- WASHINGTON, Pa. -- It's Friday night, and Keith Gruber is mellowing out on one of Phi Delta Theta's new black leather couches, a plush piece that hasn't been battered by wild parties or baptized with beer.

What kind of fraternity has nice furniture? The kind that has high grades, does a lot of volunteer work and has a tight brotherhood that isn't beer-induced.

Gruber is president of a Washington & Jefferson College fraternity that's now dry, and he's happy with the changes, from floors that no longer stick to air that no longer reeks on Saturday mornings.

"I definitely think we have one of the best-smelling fraternities," he quips.

Even so, clean living has a downside. It can be hard to attract new freshman recruits, let alone women, to a fraternity house without a keg, he says.

"Women tend to go to the most happening places," Gruber says. "That's usually a beer party."

As fraternities nationwide turn off the taps to lower insurance costs and improve their image, some may find that old stereotypes die hard.

The Phi Delts are one of three fraternities at Washington and Jefferson that went dry this school year because the national organizations, not the school, ordered it.

Recent rush functions at Phi Delta Theta, a small fraternity with 17 members, only attracted a handful of freshmen prospects this winter.

"It's a hard sell," Gruber says with a shrug. "People have the stereotype that fraternities are all about drinking. And people who are on campus who don't drink - they don't go to fraternity parties."

A non-drinking skateboarder who wears a crocheted cap over his longish brown hair or twists it into dreadlocks, Gruber, 21, doesn't look or sound like a frat boy in John Belushi's image.

He believes in the camaraderie of a fraternity and the value of volunteer work, such as a clothes drive for a city mission. He and his brothers have to work hard to convince people that there is a point to a fraternity without beer.

So the frat house has sponsored dry mixers and dances, including a winter formal.

Getting people to loosen up on the dance floor without a beer can be challenging at first, says Ken Jacobson, 20, a sophomore political science major.

On another weekend night, the frat house was sharing sandwiches and soft drinks with Kappa Alpha Theta sorority as music played in the background. The party lasted a few hours and spilled outside as the night wore on. With 40 people milling around, it had a nice energy. But then again, only five freshmen showed up.

"That was a little disappointing," Gruber says. "But five freshmen are better than no freshmen."

Typical was Jake Toth, who was strumming his guitar outside. Toth, 18, wasn't sure whether he wanted to join a fraternity at all, but he liked the Phi Delts and was happy to spend his Friday night at a dry mixer.

"People get to know each other better," the freshman says. "A lot of people just get to know each other as drunk people."

But the next week, the Phi Delts learned that all those parties and mixers were for naught.

The Phi Delts didn't get a single freshman pledge this winter, a big disappointment. Some of the prospects deferred their decision, so the brothers are holding out hope that these freshman might join the fraternity later. The one bright spot is the four pledges they got in the fall.

"It's a bit of a stinger," Gruber says. "We have the highest GPA - 3.13 - (of fraternities) on campus, and we are probably do the most philanthropy. It seems like we are doing everything right. But we are not getting pledges."

But other dry fraternities fared better. In fact, the national office of Phi Delta Theta says during the last three years, the dry chapters recruited two more men per chapter than the ones with alcohol, says Tom Balzer, project coordinator for alcohol-free housing. The smaller chapters seem to struggle the most.

Another dry fraternity at Washington and, Phi Gamma Delta, got a whopping 27 new pledges, some of them football players. "They have a couple of guys who live off campus," says Jerry Stebbins, assistant dean for student affairs. "My guess is that they socialize off campus."

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS