The 1960s: Defying the Era’s Stereotypes

Omicron Oracle
October 31, 1998

Editor’s note: In 1999, our chapter house at 125 Edgemoor Lane will be 100 years old; we have occupied the building since 1920. To help celebrate the anniversary, The Omicron Oracle is asking certain alumni to recall life at 125 Edgemoor Lane over the various decades that it has housed our fraternity. This issue’s article is by Henry McNulty and David Shannon, both ’69.

The 1960s? You know the images: peace and freedom marches, love beads, draft-card burnings, marijuana and LSD, and campus protests.

Not, however, at Omicron. These clichés may have applied elsewhere during that turbulent decade, but for the most part, our fraternity— like many others at Cornell— was not a hotbed of unrest during the 1960s.

In terms of interests and personalities, the brotherhood in those years was quite diverse. At a time when fraternities were often given labels like “Jock House,” “Animal House,” “Preppie House,” and “Nerd House,” no such tag could apply to Omicron. As George Gavrell ’66 recalls: “I think we represented a good cross-section of the campus. We had aggies, preppies, rich guys, poor guys, playboys, country boys, and even some whackos.”

But as was usual in Cornell fraternities at the time, Omicron was not diverse racially or ethnically, especially when compared with today. White Christian was the rule, although there were a small number of Asian American and Jewish brothers. Although black students were rushed late in the decade, none chose to join, and it would be the 1970s before an African American was initiated at 125 Edgemoor.

The ’60s saw the end of several house traditions. It was the last decade in which brothers were required to wear jackets and ties to dinner and to the Monday night house meeting. It was the last decade of strict parietal rules at Cornell and of the requirement that brothers vacate the house on major party weekends so dates could sleep over. It was the last decade the house was heated by coal. It was the last decade Omicron had a full-time houseman— the redoubtable William Henry Johnson.

The main leisure-time activity wasn’t protesting. It was contract bridge and, later, hearts; several games could be found at the house almost anytime, and during finals they were often all-nighters. Even in the ’60s, the house had cable TV. Saturday-night parties were designated either “smooth”— meaning jackets and ties— or “grubby,” meaning blue jeans and T-shirts. The latter predominated; they inevitably involved dancing to a loud rock band in the dining room and drinking quantities of draft beer in the bar. During the band’s breaks, impromptu games of Thumper were quickly organized.

Favorite off-campus hangouts were the Chapter House (“Jim’s”), the Royal Palm, and (until it burned in 1967) the Alt Heidelberg in Collegetown, and, for the better-heeled, the newly-opened Boxcar on Route 366 and the Someplace Else Tavern downtown.

Studies were important, of course, if for no other reason than keeping the student deferment: Busting out usually meant a letter from the hometown draft board, and for much of the decade, that could mean an involuntary trip to Vietnam, Study hours were generally enforced in the evenings, although many brothers still chose to do their homework in one of the libraries on campus. Several brothers joined ROTC, some reaching advanced rank.

Despite the lack of many typical ’60s icons, Omicron was not isolated from events in the news. Indeed, several brothers were quite politically aware.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent shock waves through the fraternity, as it did nearly everywhere else. “I remember it well,” says brother Gavrell. “Of course, no one could believe it. A contingent from Lambda Chi drove to Washington the next day and waited literally all night in line to get into the Capitol rotunda to view the casket. We were in the building only for about three minutes, but I am glad we went.”

The year 1963 also saw Omicron Zeta’s 50th anniversary. The fraternity celebrated with a gala dinner featuring James Perkins, the new Cornell president. That same year, brother Mil Hollengreen ’63, whose father was also a brother (class of 1925), was killed in a car crash. A room on the first floor was named in his memory.

At Cornell, student unrest reached its climax in the spring of 1969, when Willard Straight Hall ws taken over by black students whose friends then passed them firearms. The rumor spread that the students in the Straight— or their sympathizers— were going to firebomb one or more of the largely white fraternities. At Omicron, for a week or so brothers acted as lookouts in shifts, 24 hours a day, in case trouble arose. One night, someone threw a rock through a front window of our house, but that was it. No fraternities were firebombed.

But there were many lighthearted moments, too. In 1961, brother Ed Cabic ’62 invented “Joshua Dibble”— a name that for decades afterward was synonymous with “brother of Omicron Zeta.” Sunbathing on the roof was a popular late spring activity. And in the late 1960s, Omicron started an organization known as the Little Sisters, a group of Cornell and Ithaca College coeds who didn’t date any particular brother but acted as hostesses during social functions and otherwise brought a touch of feminine charm to 125 Edgemoor. The Little Sisters lasted until well into the 1970s.

Omicron went through a string of cooks in the 1960s— Henry Stuttley, Walter Dow, Pat Pasquale, Tom Brewer. The fare was generally just OK, except during rush, when gourmet touches were much in evidence. Dates were welcome at Sunday dinner, and several brothers brought their girlfriends to the house.

In the 1960s at Cornell, rooms in university dorms for sophomore, junior, and senior men were virtually nonexistent. No doubt, some people joined fraternities mostly to avoid the hassle of renting an apartment in town. Others saw them as thinly veiled excuses for partying instead of studying. But for many brothers, Omicron Zeta served as a valuable socializing influence during their college years.

Our fraternity took many a young man from the immaturity of high school to at least a measure of adult manners and the responsibilities of mixing socially and living with others. While college life for many in the ’60s led to protests, free love, challenges to the system, and experimentation with drugs, for the men of Omicron, it was largely a time of stability and personal growth within the mainstream of society. All that— and a good time, too.