The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity on Hillsdale College’s campus disbanded mysteriously in December 1995, but rumors concerning why the TKE National Chapter chose to shut down the Iota Nu Chapter, and the increasing impatience of the administration with its members still puzzle students nearly a quarter of a century later.
Some say the TKEs tarred and feathered the eagle statue on the corner of College and Hillsdale streets. Others suppose their downfall came from excessive hazing and drinking, while still other rumors say the TKEs burned down their own fraternity house in protest of the college’s actions.
While the TKEs did tar and feather the eagle statue, according to Dean of Men Aaron Petersen, it was said to be the “final straw” after their numerous violations of college policy, according to Teacher of Art and TKE alumnus Bryan Springer, ’94. The TKEs were known for their crazy parties, and, at times, suspicious hazing rituals, as documented in several Collegian issues from the 1980s and 1990s.
No, they didn’t burn down their house, once located at 328 N. West St. According to Petersen and TKE alumni, the fraternity house had many infrastructural issues, including a flood-prone basement due to a burst pipe during the winter.
A Sept. 12, 1996 edition of The Collegian reported, “After inspecting the property for possible use as offices, the college decided that the potential cost of renovation outweighed the projected usage, and had the building destroyed.”
The fraternity’s alumni association decided to have the house torn down, selling the house and land to the college, according to the ’96 Collegian piece. The loss of the fraternity saddened alumni, especially those who graduated only a few years prior to its disbandment, and who cultivated the best memories of their college experience in the house and with the ritual of TKE.
“I felt very sad to hear the news, because here was this organization that had a history that went back to ’63 on campus, and then it was gone,” Springer said. “And, I don’t know why, and most people still don’t. Only those people who were there and probably will never step on this campus again will ever know.”
Although the TKE story and legacy ended on a sour note, the fraternity alumni don’t want their house to be remembered in a negative light. The members of the fraternity before its dissolution continue to treasure the times when TKE, unique from other fraternities on campus, made Hillsdale home.
“The late ’80s, early ’90s was a totally different TKE house,” TKE Jeff Chandler ’81 said.
Just like rumors, notorious stories have spread across campus over the years. One particular story even pertains to a former president.
“The legends are true: Ronald Reagan did come into the TKE house, and he was a TKE, which is how we got him to come. He hadn’t even declared his run for presidency yet,” Chandler said. “He gladly came over, spoke to us during our active chapter, was incredible, and then he took a picture with us. He was in a coat and tie, looking dapper as always.”
Chandler said times were different. Security, although important, was not a primary concern for prestigious guests like Reagan when visiting Hillsdale.
“It was just us. Nobody from the school was there,” he said. “Just Reagan and one of his associates.”
But the legends don’t end here. Often compared to the 1978 “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” TKEs were known for their rambunctious social gatherings — dare, say it — parties, that were almost too wild to be true.
“Every Greek house had its own niche in regards to social gatherings. We liked to bring in live music and bands,” Springer said. “I heard stories about driving motorcycles down the stairs. It was crazy fun.”
One Kappa Kappa Gamma alumna said she recalled a dance called the “TKE Shuffle,” where all the TKEs would gather whenever a specific song came on during a party.
“Everyone was welcome at the TKE house,” the Kappa alumna said.
The TKE’s tolerance for more than mere shenanigans transpired across the Greek pages of The Collegian back in the day.
The Sept. 3, 1981 “Party Line” beat article of The Collegian said, “The Tau Kappa Epsilon’s tried to drink Broadstreet dry Saturday night with an enormous beer party…”
One story from a Homecoming weekend encapsulates the TKE’s celebratory culture and influence on the nature of the social scene in the ’80s.
“Chuck Berry played at the Tent Party at Homecoming with buckets of beer,” the Kappa alumna said. “They would give you pails filled with beer, and we called it ‘Camp Happy Dale.’”
Chandler continued the Kappa’s story, saying, “B.J., one of our TKE brothers who passed away tragically last year, made up ‘Happy Dale’ stickers. The deans were not happy about it.”
But these stickers were the least of the deans’ worries during the TKE’s reign. The TKEs were infamous pranksters, and their mischievous bent eventually contributed to the end of their dominance on campus.
“They took the spindles off of the stairway of Central Hall,” the Kappa alumna said. “It was a prank that really wasn’t destructive — unless the building is over one hundred years old, and then you have to replace it. But it wasn’t anything bad or malicious.”
But in the end, in spite of the violations that eventually caused the TKEs to be kicked off campus, TKE allowed young men to gather, be creative, exercise their senses of humor, and ultimately become “better men for a better world,” in good TKE fashion.
“The guys I went to school with were some of the most passionate, creative guys I had known here,” Springer said. “They were deep.”
The legends and memories of TKE live on through alumni storytelling and even with those who would gather at the TKE house for a little shuffle on a Saturday night.
“The legends are all true, all of the good and the bad,” Springer said. “It was an exciting fraternity to be a part of.”