The proximity of the hazing death at Bowling Green State University of 20-year-old Stone Foltz this past March placed the senseless tragedy and the practice of hazing pretty much right on our doorstep. At an off-campus pledge initiation for the fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha, Foltz died after consuming what the Foltz family attorney termed “a copious amount of alcohol” in proving his worthiness to be known as a Pike.
According to ABC News, Foltz was coerced into drinking an entire bottle of alcohol in less than 20 minutes. His blood alcohol level determined at the hospital was 0.35, more than four times the legal limit. Seven men, ages 19 to 23, have been charged, and all will have their day in court. All have pleaded not guilty.
Now, I know there are those out there who will say that no one held the Delaware, Ohio, native down and poured the alcohol down his throat. I’m pretty certain that will play a part in the defense strategies for the seven who’ve been charged. However, having been young and having felt pretty bulletproof myself, and also having taught high school juniors and seniors for 32 years, I know young people often have such great desire to be accepted as well as a general feeling of invincibility, surely a bad combination.
On the surface, it seems so illogical to invite someone to join a group of which you are a part and yet subject that person to demeaning and potentially dangerous activities. Yet, the roots of such rituals reach considerable depths into historical soil.
The earliest references to organizational hazing dates all the way back 387 B.C. and the founding of Plato’s Academy. Back in its earliest days, hazing was called pennalism, an archaic term that continued to be used through the Middle Ages and referred to a system of mild oppression and varying degrees of torment to which first-year entrants into organizations were subjected.
As for when the term “hazing” replaced the original term for the practice, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it was the late 1840s when hazing began being used at Harvard to describe the acts of brutally initiating newcomers.
Over the years, it might be surprising to some that overindulgence in alcohol hasn’t always been what prompted tragedy. In 1959, Southern Cal pledge Richard Swanson died when he choked on a quarter-pound slab of raw liver soaked in oil that he was expected to swallow whole.
In another incident, a Monmouth College pledge died of asphyxiation when he inhaled too much sand in a ritual where he was instructed to dig a six-foot grave on a beach and then lie in it as seven members of Zeta Beta Tau shoveled sand into the pit.
During my undergrad Miami days, I pledged Sigma Phi Epsilon during my freshman year because the thought of another year in a dorm, frankly, was intolerable. I wanted to live in that fraternity house on Church Street off campus.
My experiences were so mild compared to anything of which I’ve heard recently at Penn State and Ohio University, which also resulted in the deaths of Timothy Piazza and Collin Wiant, and the Foltz tragedy just 60 miles north of us.
My experience, I’m not sure I’d even have called it hazing, rather sophomoric hijinks. Some of what I was compelled to do was actually good brain exercise (and, believe me, in those days, I needed that stimulation!) while the rest was plain silly.
I was expected to memorize the Greek alphabet and, when commanded, be able to say it seven times before a lit match held by an active burned down. If I failed, I owed 10 pushups. Since talking has always been my specialty (just ask my Lady Jane), I easily beat the wrap every time and can still go alpha to omega at warp speed.
I also was expected to memorize all the actives’ names, majors, hometowns and girlfriends’ names, certainly useful information. To this day, when I travel south on I-75 and pass that sign in Kentucky for Fort Mitchell, I still think of Bill Pierce.
While some of the “hell week” activities involved some drinking, it was actually the actives who were doing the imbibing! The rest of the pledges and I were doing silly things like aligning ourselves as human bowling pins and falling in creative ways when an active rolled a basketball down the imaginary lane.
The only beer-related activity I can remember was one where two pledges faced each other pretty much nose to nose. We were given an Alka Seltzer tablet to hold in our mouths and told to hold a swig of beer in our mouths so that we would foam all over one another.
So, each time I hear about an incident such as happened to that 20-year-old young man from Delaware, Ohio, Stone Foltz, whose every dream still lay ahead of him on a life’s road that should have been thousands of miles long, I just simply have to ask myself, as I do so often in today’s crazy world, how did we get from there to here?
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.