An Advisor’s Farewell Letter to Penn State’s TKE Fraternity

The following letter was written to Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity alumni of Penn State’s Pi Chapter on July 12, 2001.

Dear Fraters,

After nearly two decades as Advisor to TKE, I must finally hang up my hat. I leave reluctantly, however, for I believe there are few jobs more important than working with today’s young men.

The particular reasons for my leaving are simple. First, I made a firm resolution to leave the practice of law, and I have been unable to find a job in the State College area. Second, I am moving to be with my new wife. On December 29, 1998, I married Daniela Miseje, who lives in Bratislava, the capital of a tiny Slovak Republic. Bratislava is a city the size of Pittsburgh located 40 miles east of Vienna, Austria. Slovakia is a tiny country, about half the size of Pennsylvania, with about five million people. I have been visiting Slovakia often since the Iron Curtain came down in 1991; in fact, I have spent almost a year in Slovakia on visits over the past decade.

My wife and I explored plans to live in State College after I received my Ph.D. in December 1999. However, there just does not seem to be a job for a 58-year-old former attorney who wants to start a new career—and who has also been the “maverick” on Penn State’s Board of Trustees!

I could, of course, have continued to practice law. I founded my own law firm in 1971, built a successful practice and earned an excellent reputation. But a few years ago, I decided to leave the practice of law. Let me explain.

When I entered the practice of law three decades ago, I loved it. Our common law system of law, I believed, was the greatest and most successful application of reason to concrete facts in the history of the world. And, for at least a decade, it was an honor and a pleasure to be part of it. I loved working with other attorneys, and arguing cases in court. Even more, I loved to talk with other attorneys about the law. Then, beginning in the 1980s, the law began to change. It became more and more irrational, with court decisions, statutes, and regulations that often made little sense. It was no longer fun to study, talk about, or even to go to court. In the 1980s, I went around to talk to many of the attorneys I most respected. Each of them confided to me that they felt that the law was no longer fun to practice and, worse, they no longer felt the pride in it. By the 1990s, it became clear that this was not simply a passing problem. The law had become almost the exact opposite of what it once was.

I can’t do something that I don’t feel pride in. So, I decided to withdraw from the law and change careers. I went back to school. In December 1999, at the age of 56, I graduated from Penn State with a Ph.D. in history, philosophy, and political science.

I used up my savings to get that degree and in the meantime had gotten married, too. I then began looking for jobs. I had hoped to stay in the State College area, and to bring my wife over here. My prime objective was to be able to continue to work with students at Penn State. However, finding a job at my age is not easy. Further, being a strong advocate for students did not help any. I was told that I was “too hot to handle.”

Well, I wanted to get together with my wife sometime, and the possibility of jobs in Europe seemed much better than here. So, I finally had to sell my home and make plans to move. I have a very good chance to get a job teaching there, and I believe that I can work with students there.

The hardest thing about this change, however, is not selling the home I love, but leaving the students at Tau Kappa Epsilon. I have written you many letters over the years about my experiences as advisor at TKE. Let me say that there is nothing I have ever done that is as valuable or as important as working with these young men.

How shall I explain this? Basically, there is no group of young people in the world that is as abandoned as today’s American college students—especially young males. Yes, they have more money and possessions than ever. And, too, they have the likelihood of jobs after graduation that earn huge salaries. Nevertheless, they are abandoned. It is assumed that they have everything, that they are the privileged. Yet, when it comes to the things of the spirit, to anything that has to do with their soul, they come to college the poorest young men, the poorest boys, you ever saw.

Of course, they do not see it this way. They were almost all raised in suburbs where they had everything money can buy. They come to college with more cars and electronic equipment—TVs, stereos, and computers—and more sports gear, than you or I even believed could exist when we were in college. Today’s students are more “street-wise” than any young people in history.

But when it comes to the things of real value, these they arrive here without. Let’s take a simple thing, like singing a song. Singing songs are part of the joy of youth. One of the most enjoyable and beautiful things in the world is to hear young men raise their voices in song. I remember when the Brotherhood sang songs in harmony, whether for a sorority or for alumni or guests at Sunday formal meals or serenading our Brothers’ pin mates under their dorm windows. It was the best way in the world to share the joy and vibrancy of being young. When I was active, I loved to sing, but I wasn’t the greatest at keeping on key, so our song leaders, Bob Barziloski ’64 and Bud Arberg ’64, asked me to just “move my mouth” at the IFC Sing. But I could boom out a song, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world to hear my brothers burst out in song.

Now, jump forward a third of a century. I wish you could have been present when I taught each new pledge class the Teke Toast. Many candidly admitted that they had never sung a song before; the schools apparently don’t have them sing anymore. And there I was, the only person available to give them their first instruction in singing! I had to stand with my ear in front of each mouth, trying to hear if they were on key, and then sing with my mouth at their ears until they found the key, getting each one to breathe deeply and sing from the chest and clearly pronounce the words with their mouths. No one had ever taught them such things before. All I could think of with each new pledge class were the words of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” whose words about people “hearing songs that voices never sang” reverberated in my mind. When Simon & Garfunkel wrote those words, they had no idea what the reality would be like. Imagine, a whole generation of young men who have never lifted their voices in unison—except when drowned out by a thousand kilowatts of electronic sound—or never learned to sing in harmony!

But that is just one small example. I found that I had to step back a thousand paces in my thinking when talking about brotherhood or fraternity. The modern kids have no idea what this is about. The only idea of fraternity they ever saw was the movie “Animal House.” Of course, they know that movie is a farce but, nonetheless, they have no deeper idea of what fraternity really might be. Young boys are raised with no idea of either the purpose or meaning of—or even the need for—true brotherhood. They have grown up thinking that brotherhood is no more than “hanging around” with their buddies. They are given no examples of “brotherhood” other than having friends to party with or hang around with. Yet, they know there is something missing; they feel there should be “something more.” But, again, no one has ever explained to them or shown them what that “something more” might be. And, while they want “something more,” they are also afraid of it, for it might mean obligations.

I found myself often thinking of the Boy Scout Law: “Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.” It seems as though everything in our whole society is aimed at making these truths meaningless. Yet, I could see on their faces and in their lives that these were the truths they needed most, and wanted most. Yet, the problem was always there: how to convey these in meaningful ways, to find examples that they could understand and live.

The biggest problem seems to be in the loss of the power of words. “Getting the word” was once the essence of understanding in our Western culture—”In the Beginning was the Word.” But to today’s kids, words are not words, as we older alums once understood them; words are only used to tell others what they want to hear, or to color things with the right attitude. The “spinmeisters” have stolen language. When one tries to explain anything, the boys have only one question: “What do you want me to do?” When one tries to convey something deeper, such as truth or loyalty, they are at a loss for understanding. “Everything is relative, isn’t it?” For them, there is no hard reality; they have never had to deal with that. They have been told a million times: “Just figure out what you want, and then figure out how to get it.” Truth and loyalty, even courage, are only there to get what one wants. There is no point to an ideal, no point to honor. They have been taught to agree completely with the Watergate gang: “Winning is not the more important thing—it’s the only thing!”

You have all probably read about the “dumbing down of America.” It is a hard concept to grasp. These kids are smarter than ever. In TKE, over half the House is either in the Honors program, or their grades entitle them to it. TKE has an average well above the All-Men’s Average, the All-Fraternity Average, and even the All-Women’s Average. But when it comes to the most important things in life, and not simply multiple-choice exams, they have no idea. They have been given the most jaundiced idea of history you could imagine. Everything ever done in Western Civilization is evil and tainted. Their ancestors, they are taught, did nothing but enslave African Americans, oppress women, and exploit the poor. They have been deprived of any pride in their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, and, consequently, in who they themselves are. They have been deprived of reverence, tradition, and—most of all—roots.

What is most heartrending, however, is their loss of any reverence for romantic love, or even for sex. Yup, we all thought of sex twenty-six hours a day when we were students. But it really is different now. I used to talk to the students about their parties. They have music so loud that it is almost impossible to hold any conversation. The words to almost all music these days are dripping with either sex or violence. I kept asking them what is going on at these parties? Finally two boys took me aside one day and said,

“Let us explain to you the facts of life.”

“Okay,” I said, “please explain.”

“Understand,” they said, “that for almost all of us, we have no intention of getting married in the next six or eight years—till we’re twenty-eight or thirty. First, it will take that long to finish graduate school and start on a career. Second, there is so much to do and see in this world. We will not be able to start a family, and many of us doubt that we will ever want to have children.”

“So,” I said, “explain your parties.”

“Well,” they replied, “it’s like this. One goes to these parties for several months. Then one night you see a certain girl, and she sees you. It is ‘love’—or lust—at first sight. Over the next few weeks they will have more sex than you will have in ten years of marriage. Then they will get sick of each other and never want to see each other again. Then one goes back to the parties and waits for it to happen again.”

“And these girls,” I asked, “what about them? Is this how they feel, too?”

“Yes,” they replied,” “they are emancipated women. They are taught they don’t need us.”

“Aren’t you even looking for someone to marry?”

“No,” they replied, “we would never even dream of marrying any of these girls.”

And, you know? I have come to understand why they feel this way. But it is no less a tragedy. One looks at the faces of both the brothers and the sorority girls—or the independents—at the parties. In their faces one can read the nearest thing to despair this side of war. Yet they have never experienced anything else, and they think that this is how it has always been. This is having fun! If you try to talk of love, well, “love” is a word to use to get laid. Oh, yes, some have seen love in their own families—between their parents, or grandparents. But it seems beyond reach to them.

They desperately want to believe in love, courage, loyalty and truth, but there are few to teach it, fewer to exemplify it. But where do they hear anymore of true love? Where can they see courage, loyalty, purity, and honor in real human lives? Where is there someone to show it to them? I am sure that in the lives of most of our alumni there were many men—whether teachers, Boy Scout leaders, coaches, or professors—who served as examples to you, who took you “under their wing” and taught you, if only by example, what it means to be a man. Well, it seems that in our super-organized world, there are few of these left—or, if there are, they rarely reach today’s youth.

How can men live in a world without love and romance, without loyalty, courage and truth? It is not possible.

Now, all this seems pretty negative and depressing, you might say. And it is. I must confess that I went through a pretty bad case of depression as I saw what was happening. Why then, you might go on to ask, do I say that I am saddest about leaving as Advisor to TKE? Why have I cared so much about students at all?

The reason is that these boys need someone older who cares about them more than anything else in the world. They are like plants that sprouted after a summer rain in the desert, which have become parched and withered in the sun. They are hungry and thirsty for some real nourishment, something deeper and more real than running after money, power, status, sex, and pleasure. The glitter has worn off of these goals, and they seem empty. They are reaching for something higher in their lives, and they haven’t the slightest idea in the world how to find any such thing; there are few men left to teach it. Over the years that I have served as Advisor, most of them have been cynical; they often simply did not believe anything higher existed. There is only that “jungle out there” of “dog eat dog” competition for survival. Their hearts tell them there must be more than this. They want to believe that all those words, like love and romance and truth and beauty and courage and loyalty, have meaning.

Way down deep in their hearts they want to believe, and they want someone to show them that these things really do exist. I could not do much to show them that, except by being there, by going out to the House a couple times a week to eat dinner with them, and by going to their meetings (when I heard about them). I just went, talked with them, tried to learn their language and tried to give talks at meetings. Every year there were some who responded, who sought me out and asked me questions. Every year I saw a little bit more of what I said take root.

Each year the boys have gotten better in many respects. The House did pull itself together in sports and activities, pledged outstanding students with high averages, re-entered Greek Sing, and became outstanding in many activities. But in some respects, they did not get better. The descent into emptiness grew.

And it was on this that I was banking. For nature abhors a vacuum, and the vacuum growing in the lives of young students was approaching absolute. Finally, I am beginning to see this turn around and to see my faith in them justified.

For the past two or three years, I have seen a deep change in the freshmen that are pledging the House. It seems to me that a generational change is taking place—a change as great as the one that occurred in the 1960s—only in a very different direction. Suddenly, a generation appears that seems to feel and think quite differently from those that went before. I think this is happening now.

The signs of it are small. Students coming to college now seem to have thrown off the mentality of the sixties. They are not looking so much for pleasure as they are looking for some meaning in their lives. This I have long expected, and it’s finally here. When I took this spring’s pledge class out to dinner to give them my usual talk, something quite different happened. Instead of listening quietly as usual, they chimed in. When I told them that the major purpose of a fraternity was to build men, they became interested. One of them asked me:

“Do you think we are wimps?”

I looked at them and pondered, should I tell the truth? I decided this group was sincere. So I answered:

“Yep, I sure do.”

Instead of turning them off, the look in their eyes brightened. It was as though instead of teling them what I thought they wanted to hear, I was telling them the truth. I knew I had said the right thing. So, I asked them:

“Do you think you are wimps?”

“Yes,” was the emphatic answer.

A generation had finally arrived that knew what was missing. We then talked about manhood—what it might mean in today’s world.

The first thing I said, “is to undertand what freedom means. For to be a man is to be free. But freedom does not mean simply ‘choices,'” I told them. “Being able to choose between Nike and Reebok, or any other consumer choice, was not a manly idea of what freedom was. Freedom is not freedom to do what you want. It is not what you want that matters—but who or what wants and needs you. That is all that really matters—for whom are you there? That is what fraternity is all about.”

“Does anyone need you?” I asked.

They all sat up. I had them interested.

“So, what is freedom?” they asked.

“Freedom means two things,” I said, “and both must be fulfilled to be free. The first is to get yourself into shape. That means everything about you: body, mind, and spirit. To be in shape is to be beautiful in everything you are and everything you do. That was the highest ideal of the ancient Greeks: To Kalon, the beautiful. It was that ideal that brought together the Founders of our Fraternity when they first formed as the Knights of the Classic Lore. It is the ideal that informs all Greek organizations—that’s why we are all called ‘Greeks.’ You must get your body into shape,” I told them—”no couch potatoes allowed. You must get your mind into shape, and that means not only for multiple-choice exams, but also in conversation and discussion. You must be able to think—a rare commodity these days. And you must think deeply. And then there is your spirit. It must be alive and vibrant, ready to serve, and eager to make a lasting impression.”

“Once you have your body, mind, and spirit into shape,” I told them, “the real meaning of freedom is possible. The only thing that is worth choosing then is: Whom shall this perfect mind, body, and spirit serve—to whom shall I offer this perfect gift? That is the only choice worthy of a man. If you choose to serve ‘yourself,’ then it is all wasted. A free man chooses to serve something higher than himself. He chooses to serve his wife and children, his God, his peers, and his country. The real meaning of freedom and manhood is to choose something higher than yourself to serve and to wholly give yourself in serving it.”

“For a man,” I told them, “only cares about being free in order to make that one choice—the choice of whom or what he shall serve—to whom shall be give himself. All other choices are meaningless. Whether one has a Corvette or a motorcycle, a big apartment or lots of vacations, these mean nothing—and like last week’s breakfast, they are forgotten as soon as they are consumed. This is the reason to get one’s body, mind, and spirit into shape—i.e., to become beautiful: in order to be able to offer yourself and to serve something higher than yourself. It is only in the choice of this offering of a beautiful self in service to something greater than yourself that a man is truly free.”

“I am asking you, for the next few years, to serve something higher than yourselves. I am asking you to serve your Fraternity, to serve the ideal of Brotherhood, and to make it real, to bring it back to life.”

“Fraternity teaches yo, and requires of you, courage and loyalty. The ideals of TKE are ‘love, charity, and esteem,’ TKE exists to test and train your strength to actually live these ideals. TKE is where you can learn to become  a man. Its sole purpose is to teach you what you have to give, and how you can serve, and to prepare you to be a man worthy of serving something higher.”

That evening was different from many before it. For, instead of leaving as soon as dinner was over, they wanted to stay. Some of the eleven pledges had to leave at 8:00 for meetings, but those who staying surprised me. As soon as a few left, the others moved up to sit closer to me. It was like I was sprinkling water on parched ground, as though no one had ever told them such simple truths before. They wanted to hear more. We talked for another hour or so, until they had to be back at the House.

What these young men are hungry for is to hear the most elementary truths that most of us learned even before we got to first grade. They have never heard them. They have been told that the only reason to go to college is to get a job. They have been taught: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” This is an empty slogan, not a way for men to live. No one can live long on such shallow nourishment of the spirit.

This spring the members of this pledge class begged me to stay, for I told them that unless I found a job, I would have to leave. They came up and asked me to talk with them. One time we talked about drinking and TKE’s long history of being dry. We ended up talking about Socrates’ argument in The Laws, where Socrates argues that drinking parties are essential to higher education.

Socrates argues that “higher” education is different from “lower” education. Lower education is training for jobs, while higher education is about learning virtue. If one wants to learn virtues, Socrates says, one must test oneself. For example, the only way to learn courage is to put oneself in dangerous situations, and learn how to handle them. The same is true for the other virtues. To learn temperance or prudence, one must likewise put oneself in situations designed to test those virtues. What better situation, Socrates argued, than drinking parties to test temperance? It is in such parties that one learns self-control, how much one can take before losing self-control, and how to avoid drunkenness.

I told the boys that the most important lesson I learned with my brothers was to put way down deep in my gut, where alcohol could not reach it, the knowledge that I could depend on my brothers. Whenever I became intoxicated, if my brother came up to me and said, “Ben, you are making a fool of yourself,” I replied, “Thank you, brother, and get me out of here.” In that way, I learned my limits, and my respect for my brothers grew, as well as my gratitude. My bothers acted as though they needed me; they took care of me, protected me, but also taught me to respect them. Soon I did not want to get drunk in front of them, did not want to embarrass myself, or to put them to the trouble. Soon, I wanted to help younger brothers learn the same thing, and to earn their respect, as I had grown to respect my older brothers. Thus the ancient wisdom teaches us not only how to control ourselves, but also brotherhood.

This, I pointed out, is exactly what is missing in the brotherhood today. Today, when brothers get drunk, there is little feeling of relying on one’s brother. If a brother goes up to another and attempts to pull him out of a bad situation, the drunken brother usually starts a fight with the brother who is trying to help.

It was great to watch them take in what I was saying, and to think, perhaps for the first time, that drinking parties were about more than getting drunk—that they could be about learning both brotherhood and responsible drinking. And that this lesson was right there in the writings of the ancient Greeks after whom the fraternity and all Greek fraternities are modeled.

Well, they have finally arrived—the generation for whom I have spent the last two decades trying to preserve the Fraternity. The young men—it is far better to think of them as boys—for whom all I have done, are coming to the University now, trying to learn the ancient wisdom. They are hungry for it, and with a little guidance they will find it.

This letter is unconscionably long, I know, but I have wanted to convey to you as best I could why I have believed in these boys for so long.

You see, fraternities are the only place left in the whole University where the simplest truths can still be taught. They are the only places left where the manly virtues can still be learned. They are the only hope for where the original purposes of education can still survive.

I want to thank you for the support you have given to our Fraternity over the past eight years, since 1993, when I took over as President of our Alumni Board to “Save the House.” You all responded magnificently, and many of you gave me encouragement to continue when it seemed almost hopeless.

Now, I believe, that your faith in TKE is going to be redeemed. I am only sorry that my resources ran out and I cannot be around for the flowering that I know is coming.

I hope and pray there is some alumnus out there who sees in what has happened at TKE the opportunity to serve something higher, something worthy of his time and effort. These boys are much in need of someone who can tell them the simplest truths of our Founders and our fathers, and make the old faith in manhood live again and make us proud.

I thank all of you for the opportunity to have served TKE. It is my “finest hour.” And I am proud that I was able to serve our bond in the fraternity, and these young men. I thank all of you for the support you have given me through these years.

As a footnote, the pledges asked me this spring how I was treated as Advisor. Having begun being truthful with them, I held out my cigarette, and the saucer I was putting my ashes in, and said,

“I have been Advisor here for almost two decades, and I have chain smoked for all of those years on all my visits to the Fraternity—and one one has ever thought to get their Advisor an ashtray.”

The pledge who asked me the question, and the other pledges with him, looked me in the eye, and said,

“We will get you an ashtray—the Advisor’s ashtray. And we will keep it on the mantle as a matter of honor, always ready for you when you come by to talk to us.”

“Well,” I told them, “don’t rush out to buy one yet, because I don’t know if I can be here next year. My financial situation is pretty grim.”

“But you must come back. We need you,” was their reply.

Well, I did everything I could, but the gods were not with me, and I could not put together any plan that could make it possible for me to stay. Now the hardest thing I must do is to explain to them why I cannot be here next fall.

I am thankful to all of you who gave your support to the House so unstintingly over the past decade to save our Fraternity. I believe you are about to see your faith redeemed. Please do not stop in your support. Please give even more generously.

Also, please contact the members of the Alumni Board of TKE and thank them for all the time and effort they have given to TKE, for without them we never could have arrived at this point. I wish to thank them personally and to share with you their names:

William Lauch ’64, Larry Geary ’64, Ralph Colaizzi ’64, Robert Grover ’64, Jack Jackowski ’65, Ross Gibson ’66, Dale Davenport ’66, Rich Wolfgang ’94, Josh Tzuker ’97, Mark Odendahl ’98, and last but not least by any means, Chuck Gaston ’61.

If the alumni of our Fraternity ever think of thanking anybody, I beg you to thank and honor these men, who have served their Fraternity above and beyond the call of duty, and have made the future possible. TKE is a dream, the kind of dream that makes men. Many have served her, and she is truly worthy of the deepest, truest love and loyalty. TKE is the deepest meaning of what education is really all about.

Again, thank you for all of your support and encouragement during these many years. Thank you, most of all, for the chance to serve something greater than myself—to have served the ideals of our Founders, and to have served our Fraternity.

Yours in the bond,

Ben Novak ’65
Pi Chapter Advisor