The Greeks are growing. And with the resurgence in college fraternities and sororities comes the danger of hazing. It's a ritual that can kill -- witness the 1978 case of Chuck Stenzel at Alfred University. In recent weeks, an outbreak of hazing has disturbed Alfred State College's quiet campus, and the administration is grappling with ways to control what can be a brutal rite of passage.
CHUCK STENZEL, locked in a dark car trunk, felt stinging cold on his bare arms. At least, he thought, Jack Daniel's is keeping me warm.
It was a lung-crystallizing night, just 9 degrees. Wearing only T-shirts, three shivering young men -- cramped in the back end of the old blue Chevy -- could barely see a sliver of street ice through the floorboards as they bumped along.
Along with the other fraternity pledges, Chuck, a blond, strapping, 6-foot-2 athlete, was taken by surprise from his Alfred University dormitory on a February night in 1978 and forced to ride in the trunk to a ritual drinking party.
Each pledge had been handed a pint of bourbon, a bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer. They were locked up until they drank all of it. More beer drinking games followed at the party. The fraternity brothers wanted the pledges to get sick and throw up, to fulfill a traditional part of their initiation.
Chuck started slurring his words. He was later carried to bed by his frat brothers to sleep it off.
Chuck never woke up.
Just before midnight, a frat member checked in on him and found that he was barely breathing and that his fingernails had turned blue. Another brother turned Chuck over and saw that the upper part of his body looked purplish, and he felt cold.
The two other pledges were also in peril. One had gone into cardiac arrest. The other boy was in an alcoholic coma.
Chuck, an economics major at Alfred, was pronounced dead at 1:45 that morning.
"I buried my beautiful sophomore son three days later," laments Chuck's mother, Eileen Stevens, "with all his hopes and dreams for a promising future."
The tragedy of Chuck Stenzel is the frame for a powerful new investigative study on college killing called "Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing," by writer Hank Nuwer, a graduate of Cheektowaga Central High School and Buffalo State College. In his book, Nuwer examines why fraternity members inflict such an odd and cruel practice on their "brothers."
As a member of a fraternity at Buffalo State, Nuwer was a victim of hazing himself.
Ordered to steal a funeral parlor sign, he was caught; the police were called. His parents got a phone call in the middle of the night.
"You can imagine what my mother's reaction was," remembers Nuwer, 44, who had once planned on becoming a priest, having attended the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary in Buffalo.
Worse than that late-night prank, Nuwer confesses, as a "brother" he graduated to hazing other pledges -- picking them up off the floor after they collapsed in a heap from doing countless calisthenics.
That painful phone call to his home, he says in an interview, can't compare to the call that came from the Alfred University dean to Eileen Stevens, telling her that her son was dead.
"She was ready to bargain with God. The devil. The caller himself: Take my life, my soul -- take me. I've lived. But make it untrue. Take me, not Chuck," writes Nuwer in his book. "The caller's words roared like a waterfall in her mind."
Rite or wrong, hazing is still part of life for many college freshmen.
Greeks are on an upswing, with almost a half-million members of campus fraternities, more than double the number 15 years ago. In the State University of New York system alone, 70 new chapters of sororities and fraternities have been created since 1986.
Along with increasing membership, reports of violence are on the rise as well, Nuwer says, despite the fact that hazing is illegal in New York State. He notes that hazing "shatters the lives of perpetrators, as well as those of victims and their families. It destroys the reputations of otherwise admirable institutions." College men have been so uncharacteristically savage that, for some freshmen, the ivory tower has turned into the Tower of London.
Members are sworn to secrecy, yet Nuwer has a nearly 40-page list of hazing incidents -- everything from humiliation to sexual violation -- that sometimes led to maiming or death. About 50 people have died because of these rites and related incidents (such as falling off roofs during frat drinking parties) nationwide in the past decade or so.
"Greeks get very upset when other Greeks or ex-Greeks reveal hazing practices," says Nuwer, who also addresses hazing in athletics, the military and secret adult organizations.
In October, when an Alfred State College student suffered a compressed vertebra during an initiation, it is alleged that some fraternity members harassed the victim for reporting the incident.
"Almost all Greeks take oaths not to reveal fraternity secrets, and so they regard whistleblowers as traitors -- pure and simple," Nuwer says.
"A brother asking a pledge to clam up about dangerous, silly and demented fraternity practices involved in hazing is akin to a rapist asking a victim to keep silent about a rape."
In an interview, Nuwer stresses he's not anti-fraternity, just anti-hazing. If his study saves the life of one young pledge, the author feels his efforts will be worth it.
"They would try to find your weakness," Nuwer recalls of his own frat days at Buffalo State in the late '60s. "I couldn't keep down the raw eggs we were supposed to swallow. Once they had your weakness, they would make you do it over and over again." That seemingly benign initiation has led to salmonella infection among pledges. One student at the University of Texas won a lawsuit over it.
Perhaps one of the most horrific "hell nights" took place at Monmouth College in New Jersey in 1974. Members ordered five pledges to dig six-foot "graves" on a sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean. The five then lay down in the graves while members threw sand on top of them. The "grave" of William E. Flowers Jr. collapsed. He began inhaling sand and smothered.
A smattering of cases in the hazing hall of shame includes:
At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., Joel Harris, 18, collapsed and died during a three-hour hazing ritual in 1989. Pledges were hit if they were unable to recite "historical facts."
At the University of Lowell, in Massachusetts, William Burns nearly died after members placed a sleeping bag over his head and lined up electrical heaters along his body, in 1988. A fraternity brother died a similar incident eight years earlier.
At Norfolk State University in Virginia, during one of several "inspiration" sessions in 1988, Christopher Peace suffered a broken jaw. He charged that he and other pledges had been slapped, punched and beaten with paddles.
At Ohio's Xavier University, Kirk White charged that he had to drop out of college in 1986 after receiving "kidney slaps," punches to the back that caused him to urinate blood.
At Tulane University in New Orleans, a pledge lost his arm in 1985 after falling in front of his drunken big brother's car and then being dragged through the streets.
At Syracuse University, pledge Ronald Quill claimed he and four initiates in 1985 were forced to eat pig fetuses and a turkey head. They also had hot wax poured over them and suffered other indignities during the 36-hour ordeal.
At the University of Wisconsin, Rick Cerra, 21, died in 1981 while enduring severe mandatory exercises while wearing heavy clothing.
Buffalo State College suspended a sorority in 1988 after an alleged hazing incident. Each one of the 22 fraternities and sororities at Buffalo State (representing 500 students) has an anti-hazing policy.
Today at Buffalo State, hazing still "unfortunately is not extinct," says the college's student life director, Kate Ward.
Students submit to abuse because they convince themselves, " 'I want to be part of that organization and that's what I'm going to do,' " says Marsha Jackson, Buffalo State's coordinator of Greek affairs.
Ironically, she says, the initiation process "is the smallest part of Greek life. Greeks do a lot of good things, not only in the college community but in the rest of the community at large."
Ms. Jackson notes that there has been a movement recently to eliminate pledging because of "the legal issues and liability factors. But it's not going to happen overnight."
Indeed, one frat president, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, protested that fraternities "are 200-year-old institutions. They don't change very rapidly. Doing away with pledging is a revolutionary idea."
For instance, new members of a frat or a sorority might be chosen on the basis of grade average or how well they know the history of the organization. That way rushees won't get a bum's rush.
"There were expulsions at Morehouse after the death of Joel Harris in '89," Nuwer says. "There were expulsions at Western Illinois, and they just kicked a fraternity off campus at (the University of) Texas-Austin. That's the only way it will be stopped -- through very harsh action."
Recalling his old frat days at Buffalo State, the writer admits:
"I hazed people, even though I hated it. I went along with it.
"I wanted to know why decent people like myself would haze others," says Nuwer, who got a degree in English education.
"We as a fraternity were a tradition-loving group and we were trying to keep up certain traditions.
"At the time you would think it's demeaning, but you don't think it's very dangerous."
Pack psychology takes over and responsibility spreads thin, Nuwer says:
"During pledging, you think: 'I know this is a caring person. He couldn't possibly do anything that bad to somebody else.'
"People think that these were villains, sadists and satanic kinds of people." More frightening, a hazer can be "your neighbor next door, your son or your daughter."
Anyone, he maintains, is capable of participating in group violence.
Hazing dates back as far as the 1600s in a practice called salting and tucking. With a knife, an upperclassman would scrape the skin off a younger boy's chin right before a traditional drinking ceremony. The young man would chug a glass of salt water, which burned his exposed flesh. The price of pain forged the bond of obedience to the brotherhood.
Why has hazing continued through the centuries? Nuwer quotes sociologist Richard Sigal in his book, published by Longstreet Press. Hazing appears to be another tribal rite of passage:
"Young men are being asked to prove they're men, and the way you prove yourself a man in this society is by blind compliance -- by drinking to excess and doing things perceived as very masculine," Sigal says. The sociologist blames the 1978 movie "Animal House" for promoting a pro-hazing, anti-feminist ideal that many fraternity men believe is essential for the Greek good life.
Alcohol also plays a big part in distorting people's judgment, Nuwer says, when it comes to participating in barbarous rituals like "slamming" -- where pledges are hung upside-down, beaten and dropped on their heads.
"If someone doesn't go through hazing, he or she is seen as not worthy of being in the group. You really want to belong to an organization. I really wanted to belong to this fraternity. My experiences were so positive, other than the hazing."
Victims are often outgoing, enthusiastic, athletic kids. Nuwer refers to the case of Jay Lenaghan, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound football player who died of alcohol poisoning while pledging Zeta Chi in Springfield, Mass., in 1984. Lenaghan was urged to eat spaghetti, chug great quantities of wine, then vomit into a designated trash can and repeat the process until the can was filled. Other Zeta Chi activities included branding the fraternity symbol on pledges' buttocks.
After getting his degree from Buffalo State, Nuwer, now a senior writer at Rodale Press in Emmaus, Pa., did graduate work at the University of Nevada-Reno. While he was there, a young football player, John Davies, died in an initiation rite where he was required to drink large quantities of wine, beer and liquor. A grand jury called his fraternity morally responsible for the death, but assessed no criminal penalties.
"The death appalled me," Nuwer says. One of his first stories as a writer explored fraternity manslaughter in Human Behavior magazine.
For "Broken Pledges," Nuwer spent almost three years on research and writing.
When her son Chuck died, Eileen Stevens formed C.H.U.C.K. -- Committee to Halt Useless College Killings.
"Broken Pledges" was painful reading for her, she concedes.
"It's shocking and upsetting, but it's a hard reality," says Ms. Stevens, who is troubled over the recent eruption of hazing at Alfred State College.
After 12 years, she still feels a great "sadness that Chuck is not here."