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By James Tobin
At the age of 99, the Georgian manse of Phi Delta Phi lives on like a roguish
old gentleman, enjoying the peace of old age but still smiling over memories of
a wild youth.
Phi Delta Phi, the oldest of the three international law fraternities, was founded
at Michigan in 1869. But the house at 502 E. Madison wasn't built until 1914. (It
was then, and remains, the only "Phid" chapter with its own residence.) The Phids
were always a little older and more sophisticated than the undergraduate societies,
and they soon became notorious for social outlawry.
That reputation was sealed during the Prohibition days of 1921, when the Phids
imported a troupe of Broadway chorus girls for an unsanctioned party. Dean Henry
Bates disciplined 26 Phids but kept the matter quiet. Then word leaked to the Detroit
Times, which trumpeted "wine, women and song days ... at U. of M."
That put U-M President Marion LeRoy Burton on the defensive. "The university
cannot be aloof in these matters," he said. "There are a few students who still
think they are independent of the community. For those who persist in this attitude,
there is no room in the University of Michigan."
In fact, the erring Phids stayed in school, and the house continued to make room
for independence. After West Quad was built across the street, its youngsters often
bore the brunt of Phid rowdiness. One such incident nearly got out of control late
one Friday night in 1941.
It started with a beer-soaked Phid football game under West Quad's windows. When
the Quaddies yelled for quiet, the Phids screamed back, and before long the cops
were pulling the two groups away from an incipient brawl. The West Quad men pointed
at one future attorney as the lead instigator; according to the official report,
they "were unanimous in their opinion that this one fellow managed to shout the
filthiest language they had ever heard, which is saying a lot."
Of course, Phid was hardly the only fraternity to get in trouble. The difference
was the Phids' special ability to get out of it. The transcript of a disciplinary
hearing in 1949 shows the authorities had their hands full against Phids well trained
in legal argument—especially in the era when many law students had survived combat
against Germany or Japan.
Every "mixed" party on campus—meaning a party of both sexes—had to get the University's
approval, with no intoxicants allowed. In this instance, police had found all three
violations: the Phids were hosting women (including at least one member's wife)
and drinking beer with no authorization for a party.
Hauled before the Committee on Student Discipline, the Phids faced the formidable
Grover Cleveland Grismore (JD, 1914), professor of contracts in the Law School.
Grismore was clearly in a mood to teach the house a lesson. But Bill Porter, '49,
president of Phid, and Robert Fisher, '49, the house manager, were unfazed:
Porter: "What is the gist of the complaint?"
Grismore: "You have violated University regulations."
Porter: "There is no charge of immorality or anything like
Grismore: "No—you held a mixed, liquor party."
Porter: "Now, the word 'liquor'—does that include beer?"
Grismore: "Beer is liquor."
Porter: "Not in Kansas. Not in the Army. Maybe here."
Grismore: "You have served liquor in the house in the shape
of beer time and time again?"
Porter: "What do you mean 'served'?"
Grismore: "I can't think you believe it is proper for men,
even if they are 30 years old, to take women into their living quarters. I just
can't believe that."
Fischer: "Properly chaperoned?"
Grismore: "Were they properly chaperoned?"
Porter: "Yes, sir. If it hadn't been for the war, most of
us would have been practicing for two or three years, had a home by now. [This]
was no different than having some couples over to the house for bridge."
Grismore: "You don't mean to say the fraternity is equivalent
to a private home?"
Porter: "It is to me. That is our private home."
Grismore: "Now, Mr. Porter, don't try to tell me that kind
of a thing. ... Can't you fellows realize that the reputation of the whole University
is jeopardized when you do that kind of a thing? People are bound to see girls going
in and out of your house. They know it is a men's fraternity house. What are they
going to think when they see girls coming out of it in the middle of the night?
Porter: "What time is 'middle of the night,' sir?"
The Phids walked away with no more than a warning and minor fines.
Women were admitted in the 1970s and soon made up half the membership. Contrary
to what Professor Grismore might have predicted, the gates of hell did not open.
What the members call "Phid-cest" has occurred, of course, with results ranging
from strained relations in the communal kitchen to marriage. As for the actual rate
of, shall we say, liaisons, reports vary. "It wasn't happening as much as you would
think," says MaryAnn Sarosi, '87, a three-year Phid who would later become the Law
School's assistant dean for public service. "People thought: 'This may not be the
Phids now content themselves with only one big party per semester. Possibly the
social whirl has slowed because it takes more energy than it used to just to keep
the old house standing. The four old columns had to be replaced with metal sheathed
in wood. The pipes are iffy. The porch on the west side had to be rebuilt. Every
year brings the renewal of defensive measures against bats escaped from the attic.
"It always felt like you were in a fraternity movie, where somebody was constantly
going to tear down the house if you couldn't raise just enough money to keep it
going," says Dan McCarthy, '07, who put in time as house manager. "It was a matter
of trying not to let things totally fall apart on you within the limited budget
that you've got."
Phid networks survive via phone calls, Facebook, recommendations, and reunions.
And Phid friendships last. Barney Eskandari, '06, lived in the house only one year,
but his Phid friends are among his closest. "They're all great people," he said.
"Most Phid people are. It was probably one of the best places I ever lived."
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