Psi Chapter History - 1985-2005
The winter of 1985-86 brought the greatest changes to the old portion of the building since 1964. Under order from the city building and fire inspectors, the open stairway connecting the first and second floors of the old house, and two other separate stairways connecting the basement and first floor, and second and third floors, were removed, and replaced by one enclosed stairwell, with a side fire exit, that ran from basement to third floor. The president’s penthouse (a finished portion of the attic connected by private stairway to a third floor room) was sealed off as fire unsafe. Some bedrooms were subdivided into two, others were combined into one. Walls were knocked down and repositioned to make the hallways run straight from the back to the front. The bathrooms were refinished, bedroom doors replaced, and new carpeting and light fixtures added. When the reconstruction was completed, the interior of the old house looked completely different from the past.
The 1990s were a painful time for the fraternity. A national decline in fraternity membership overall, reflected in the closing of several houses at the University of Wisconsin, wore away at the active membership of Psi Chapter. Apathy by the members to live in the house, or participate in chapter activities, resulted in ever-growing revenue losses and debt for Rattle Building Corp., and pitifully inadequate rushing results by the few members willing to make the effort. The chapter let go its cook, tried catered meals a while, and then abandoned house meals altogether, further weakening the bonds between members. Psi Chapter’s reputation among the remainder of the Greek system plummeted. Even in retrospect, the decline was as inexplicable as it was devastating.
Rattle Building, for the most part, was kept in the dark about the decline until it learned only days before the 1995-96 school year began that only about a dozen people would be living in the house (which has a capacity of 38), meaning a $20,000 loss of rental revenue.1 By January 1996, the chapter discontinued its weekly meetings and virtually any campus activity. The Theta Chi Executive Office sent its expansion coordinator, Sam Passer (Gamma Tau ‘95), that same month, as a one-man attempt at reviving the chapter during second-semester rush. Only three actives were interested in continuing the fraternity, and for all Sam’s efforts over several weeks, not one pledge bid was returned. The chapter had become effectively dead.
Rattle, which had already conducted three annual fundraising efforts from its alumni with diminishing sympathy each time, knew its options were limited. The sale of the property and dissolution of the building corporation were for the first time seriously considered. Yet two decisions made in the summer of 1996 offered hope. First, Rattle president Michael Gerner (‘74) brought in an experienced property management firm to operate 210 Langdon St. as a student rooming house until the chapter could get back on its feet.
Second, Sam Passer and fellow expansion coordinator Jon M. Smith (Epsilon Kappa ‘94) recommended at a board meeting on August 23 that Psi Chapter be recreated as a substance-free fraternity, a first for the University of Wisconsin. Exhausted of any other ideas, intrigued by the counter-intuitive appeal of it as an example of niche marketing, and not out of any particular moral crusade, the board agreed to try it.
The novelty of the idea, on one of the nation’s heaviest drinking campuses, drew immediate attention by local and regional media as the 1996-97 school year began. The University, which had been promoting substance-free student activities for years, embraced the chapter and offered both advice and material aid to attract new members.
And at this point the history of Psi Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity remains unfinished, being written not by myself but those actives and pledges who believe in Theta Chi’s ideals and are willing to work for its success. Best of luck.
1 The author of this history had succeeded Dale Jennerjohn as Secretary-Treasurer of Rattle Building Corp. in 1994.