Well, it did prepare you for boot camp,” Walter Carroll admits, “although the program was a little different.”
Carroll was recalling initiation into his high school fraternity, TKO. By the time he graduated from Isidore Newman School in 1940, Carroll was a veteran practitioner, as well as former victim, of typical fraternity initiation rites: “paddling, having eggs thrown at you, being wrapped in toilet paper – the whole thing.” After this arduous introduction, fraternity brothers could enjoy weekly meetings, athletic events with other fraternities, and regular dances and other social occasions with dates.
High school fraternities, like the college level groups, have a Greek letter name, a motto (usually related to the name initials), secret rites and handshakes and a self-generating membership: new members have to be voted in by the current members. At one time, high school fraternities were an important part of New Orleans young folks’ social life. While high school sororities were outlawed in the city’s private schools in the late 1950s, fraternities were present for a while longer, lasted in public schools long after that and are possibly still present today.
TKO is a national fraternity, as is Phi Kappa (one of the few that spells out its name instead of using Greek letters as initials,) and SAR, a Jewish group. New Orleans in the 1950s also boasted a range of local high school fraternities in Uptown private schools, including AKO, GA, DTO, DKA, OBD and NPD. Cammie Kehoe Lewis (whose husband John was a TKO and whose father was a DTO in the 1920s) recalls that “Boys were loyal to their fraternities but they were all really good friends – they would invite other fraternities to their dances.”
OBD member Ken Kolb, a De La Salle 1957 graduate, fondly remembers, “dancing to Little Richard and Fats Domino” and, like his brothers in those years, “drinking massive quantities of Dixie 45.” Favorite fraternity hangouts in the 1950s were the University Inn on Lowerline Street and Fee’s on Joseph Street.
For healthier pursuits, the fraternities relied on sports tournaments. Football games were played on a field near Walmsley Avenue where Dominican High School is now located. Jack Zoller, SAR member at Fortier in the 1940s, remembered that football games “weren’t exactly bloody but there was tackling – never any serious injuries though.” Guy Scoggin, an OBD in the 1940s, recalls that his brother Billy had to be pulled from the pool at the New Orleans Country Club after holding his breath too long while racing in a fraternity swim meet.
Fraternities afforded members an active social life. Zoller notes that, “we had a formal every winter, at the Lakewood Country Club or maybe at the Jung Hotel roof.” SAR in those years made sure the brothers participated. “The fraternity would ‘pair up’ people – tell you ‘your date is so-and-so,’” Zoller explains. Other popular fraternity dance spots were the Lakefront (Shushan) Airport, the Southern Yacht Club and the Jerusalem Temple.
Schools had reservations about fraternities. Jesuit High School students were not allowed to join (but rumors persist of Jesuit boys being members and even serving as officers).
Cartan Gibbons, a TKO at De La Salle in the 1950s, explains that “at De La Salle you couldn’t wear your fraternity pin” or take part in fraternity activities on school grounds. On one occasion Gibbons had ordered a new member, a “rat,” to get him a Coke, and was overheard by one of the Christian Brothers who taught at the school. As Gibbons explains, “Brother said, ‘you can be in one of those fraternities but if I catch you again, you’ll be expelled.’”
Fraternities met weekly. Walter Carroll says that in the late 1930s his TKO chapter met on Friday afternoons “on Robert Street, at the Lokers’ – there were a lot of Loker members.” “They were my uncles,” says Gibbons.
Fraternity loyalty ran in families: Gibbon’s older brother had also been a TKO member and had even served on the Pan-Hellenic Council as a TKO representative. TKO had been founded in 1872 at a military academy in California. There was a motto, a fraternity pin and a handbook, which pledges had to memorize. “It was like going to school. They’d call you in, ask you questions,” Gibbons explains. Mistakes were punished. “You’d get a hit.” In spite of this, Gibbons notes that meetings regularly began with a prayer.
A New Orleans activity the fraternities enjoyed was the Krewe of Crescent City truck floats on Carnival Day. “It wasn’t like today,” Gibbons says. “We were lucky if we had 12 pairs of beads between us.” Beer was a different matter. As the boys and their dates proceeded along the route in their truck on Mardi Gras, the parade stopped for a ruckus on lower St. Charles Avenue. “Oh, it was the cats and the frats,” Gibbons explains. “The cops came.” The high school rivalry between fraternity members (“frats”) and their non-frat classmates (“cats” – prone to wearing slicked back duck-tail haircuts) somewhat dampened Carnival enthusiasm that year.
While the Uptown chapters of fraternities emphasized hard partying and sports (“what more could a testosterone-filled male ask for in the greatest city in the world?” as one former member put it), the suburban public high school chapters were somewhat calmer.
TKO at East Jefferson High School only began in 1964, although the Uptown chapter had been in existence since the 1920s. John Darner, East Jefferson class of 1977, was not only chapter Grand Master but presided over the National Fraternity. “Our biggest events were our yearly formal dance and our banquet to announce our new officers, sweethearts, chapter parents and member of the year,” Darner says. Parents were glad to participate and the fraternity raised money for their formal with “car washes, raffles and candy sales.” While admitting, “We consumed a large amount of beer,” Darner stresses the valuable experience the fraternity gave him, explaining that he and his fellow chapter heads Eddie Schnauder and Eddie Steger “own our own businesses and I think our experience as Grand Master leading a group was good preparation.”
Fraternities also promoted romance. As Cartan Gibbons remembers, “fraternity pins were only $5 then and I used to buy three at a time.” Cammie Lewis explains, “When you were pinned, you wore your sorority pin and the fraternity pin next to each other.” John Darner’s wife of 27 years was also his chapter’s Sweetheart.
Today, at least one national high school fraternity, Phi Kappa, says on its Web site that it reinstalled its Alpha Omega chapter in New Orleans on Dec. 1, 2007.
The 1961 Fortier High School Phi Kappa chapter has its own page on their class Web site www.fortier61.com. That year Grand Master Alan Lacoste presided over a full round of social activities: “a ‘Come as You Are’ party, a ‘Go Cart’ party, an ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry’ party, a ‘Play in the Hay’ party” and a dance, “The Rebel Romp” at the Lakefront Airport – all that, plus rush and a baseball season.
High school fraternities promoted under-aged drinking, exclusivity that may have offended non-member and a wealth of currently unacceptable behaviors. In spite of that, they left fond memories. As Gibbons says, “I had a great time!”