The 1970s: From Dissent to Disco

Omicron Oracle

December 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 was assembled by the Oracle editor from the recollections of Gary Dufel '74, George Lutz '78, Andre Martecchini '78, Randy Rosenberg '74.

To some, the 1970s, like the 1950s, are regarded as “do-nothing” years. Arriving too late for the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that characterized the 1960s— in legend, anyway— and too early for the free-spending “Reagan Revolution” years of the 1980s, the ’70s are sometimes considered bland.

In fact, the 1970s, like the preceding decades, were a time of excitement, growth, and change at Omicron Zeta. From a time when campus unrest was the rule to days and nights when the throbbing beat of disco music took center stage, Lambda Chi was alive and lively.

Long hair and beards, frequently thought of as a ’60s phenomenon, actually didn’t peak at Omicron until 1972. And in other ways, too, the early years of the decade were an extension of the campus turbulence that had closed in the 1960s. Dress was generally sloppyl protest marches, sit-ins, and “be-ins” were common; and some brothers— like their counterparts elsewhere — experimented with illegal drugs.

As the 1970s began, it would be difficult to argue that studies were a priority at the fraternity. Although several brothers did excel scholastically, the cumulative grade average of the house was low (less than 2.5) and, with the ending of the military draft in early 1973, a number of brothers took semesters off — sometimes by their own choice, sometimes by Cornell’s. (Such interruptions of a four-year college stint were rare in preceding decades, when even a temporary loss of the student deferment brought an invitation to serve Uncle Sam).

Although there were plenty of exceptions, in the early ’70s many graduates finished their Cornell years with few concrete plans for employment or further study. They just left— or, in some cases, didn’t leave, but stayed in the Ithaca area to find out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.

Bit by bit, as the years progressed, this laissez-faire attitude changed. By mid-decade, most graduates knew exactly where they were going to work (or where they would attend grad school). In the late ’70s, brothers became even more focused on studying for a specific career. There was still plenty of fun to be had, but academics occupied center stage, and the fraternity’s grade average frequently topped 3.5.

In sports, the 1970s were generally rewarding years for Cornell fans. Hockey, soccer, and lacrosse fielded very good teams. Football was outstanding; the early ’70s were the years when Ed Marinaro was known forhis prowess on the gridiron, not on the small screen. At Omicron, afternoon lacrosse games were often held on the front lawn; in the later ’70s, the fraternity fielded a couple of intramural lacrosse teams that did well.

Indoor sports involved mostly bridge and poker games that could begin Friday evening and last until Saturday lunch.

Parties were large and frequent in the 1970s. Student abuse of alcohol was not yet a national concern; in fact, during the decade most states followed New York’s lead and reduced the drinking age from 21 to 18. Many Omicron parties were big bashes, held outside, with bands setting up on the front lawn, often turning it into what today would be called a “mosh pit.” Most affairs were open to all, regardless of Lambda Chi or even Cornell affiliation, and hundreds attended, with partygoers spilling up and down Edgemoor Lane.

Streaking— making a dash through campus dressed only in one’s birthday suit— came and went, mostly in 1973-74. At the house, Thumper games were a varsity event for most of the ’70s. Favorite hangouts included the Someplace Else Tavern, the Fall Creek House and the Haunt downtown, the Chapter House (“Jim’s”) nearby, Dunbar’s and the Nines in Collegetown, and the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg.

In the ’70s, the corporate world discovered that getting away from the office— going “on retreat”— provided a good way to energize and refocus the work force. Omicron brothers emulated the business community by temporarily leaving 125 Edgemoor en masse for a yearly overnight retreat to concentrate on the ideals of brotherhood and fraternity excellence.

Omicron’s water-balloon launcher, later known as the “Funnelator,” was invented in the 1970s. Elastic surgical tubing was affixed to a plastic bucket to form a giant slingshot. When a balloon was launched from the fraternity roof, it could french someone at a nearby house; even unsuspecting people across the gorge in Collegetown were potential victims.

Ray Melton, chef extraordinaire, was hired in 1976 and has been at Omicron ever since (though he is planning his retirement; see story below). The years B.R.— before Ray— featured mostly mediocre food and an equally mediocre assortment of cooks. One, a gent named Ernie, frequently took off on Friday afternoons, leaving a note for brothers to put dinner in the oven because he would be at happy hour. Chefs named Jack and Helen also took their turns in the kitchen.

One of the many stewards during those years got a great deal on bags of lentils, and they began to be served in one form or another at virtually every meal. After weeks of nonstop lentils, brothers finally voted a total ban on the legume; it’s unknown whether in subsequent years the ban was ever formally lifted.

Some long-standing Omicron traditions waned in the ’70s. Date Night, a Wednesday dinner staple for years, faded away. The “Little Sisters” program, begun in the 1960s, was disbanded a decade later. And “informal initiation,” the infamous “Hell Week” preceding initiation, started to be dismantled in the 1970s (and it was utterly finished in the ’80s).

But there were beginnings too. In the late ’70s the “100 Days Party” tradition was started. Ray Melton’s connection with Ithaca’s South Side Community Center led to FLN Day, a December dinner with gifts for poor children. FLN stood for “Forty Little Nippers,” and the tradition of helping underprivileged “nippers” has lasted for years. And it was during the 1970s that men of many colors, creeds, and national origins began to be seriously rushed, pledged, and initiated, starting the diversity that blossomed in the ’80s and continues to this day

Do-nothing years? Not the 1970s. Not at Omicron.