ATO fraternity hopes to put disreputable past aside, revive chapter at MU

Monday, December 26, 2011 | 4:53 p.m. CST; updated 5:32 p.m. CST, Monday, December 26, 2011

COLUMBIA — Creighton Hayes remembers sitting with his father, flipping through the photo album of his dad's years as a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

As they turned the pages, William Hayes would tell his son stories about serving as  president of the Pi chapter at the University of Tennessee.

Bill Hayes died when Creighton Hayes was 9, but those three letters – ATO – were a special part of the boy's alphabet when he started at MU this year.

That’s when he decided to resurrect some of his father’s legacy. He became the president of a new ATO colony on campus. A colony is the first organizational step toward becoming a fraternity chapter. Members participate in meetings, fundraising and other activities but do not have full membership status.

The death of MU’s old Alpha Tau Omega happened Dec. 15, 2008. The fraternity had been a presence on campus for more than 100 years.

But after a decade of repeated policy violations and displays of behavior that both MU and ATO’s national organization deemed inappropriate and irresponsible, it lost its recognition as a student organization.

This year, after a five-semester absence, echoes of ATO’s old reputation are still heard around Greektown, even as 56 young men — the largest colony in ATO’s national history — work to restore its name on campus.

Greek organizations are subject to both state and university policies. ATO’s attempted return, for example, comes just as a campus policy change allows fraternities to decide if members who are 21 can consume alcohol in fraternity houses. (National policies of the sororities on campus do not allow alcohol in their houses.)

ATO had run afoul of university policies in the past, including admitted hazing in 1999 and a party in 1997 that ended with members dumping garbage on Presidential Drive.

But the fraternity drew even greater attention in November 2006 during its annual “cornjigger” party, held that year at Lakeview Resort in the Lake of the Ozarks.

The morning after the party, rooms were found vandalized, and barbecue grills were floating in the lake. Damage from the party was estimated at $11,000.

ATO agreed to pay for the damage and accept other sanctions from the university. But conduct code violations continued. ATO gained a reputation as a house that really liked to party.

The responsibility to govern fraternities and sororities falls to the Office of Greek Life. When a complaint is filed against a chapter, an investigation is conducted. If the complaint is valid, sanctions are issued against the chapter.

Julie Drury, senior coordinator of MU Greek Life, said that in December 2008, ATO’s national organization agreed that the best course of action was to close the MU chapter, hoping it could come back stronger in a few years.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it’s necessary to take breaks like that, and the national organization was very much on the same page,” Drury said.

Even as the chapter closed its doors, fraternity officials had their sights set on a return as soon it had served its five-semester sanction.

“It was a no-brainer to say we’re coming back; it’s only going to be a matter of time,” said William Filmore, a leadership consultant for the national fraternity.

“We’re not in the business to close down a chapter that’s been started, but the fraternity does recognize that there are times when there’s a chapter that is not doing the things we encourage them to do.”

Talks to bring ATO back to MU began in spring semester. This fall, Filmore and a fellow leadership consultant, Jordan Fischette, came to Columbia to begin building an entirely new ATO chapter.

About 2,000 MU students attended informational sessions, received emails and went to lunch with Filmore and Fischette to talk about helping to revive the fraternity.

From there, Filmore and Fischette set up meetings with those who remained interested. Each potential member was evaluated on his involvement on campus or in high school, GPA and plans for the future.

They were scouting for a core group of young men who would focus on moving the fraternity forward.

The hard-partying stereotype of the Greek system on any campus was codified in the 1978 movie, “Animal House,” with its defiance of authority and signature yell: “Toga! Toga! Toga!”

So, when a real fraternity participates in similar behavior, the stereotype is reinforced. If a fraternity with a splotchy past hopes to restart a colony, many write the effort off as a joke.

“Everyone that’s on campus only knows the past,” said Creighton Hayes, who was selected to lead the new ATO.

“We have some work to do, but not total reconstruction. This is a new focus and new guys.”

The fraternity will function as a colony until it meets the requirements to apply to be recognized as a full chapter. Now that the national leadership consultants have left, it is up to Hayes, as president, to guide the colony through that process.

Among the requirements: creating a signature philanthropic event and having colony members complete 15 hours of community service every semester. The colony must maintain an average GPA of at least 2.8 out of 4.0.

This process typically takes a year. This past semester, the ATO colony hosted a brotherhood retreat, participated in intramural sports and joined the Intrafraternity Council, the governing council of fraternities on campus. The group plans to participate in Greek Week in the spring.

Hayes wants to complete the requirements for chapter application by the end of the spring semester.

The first verb of the creed of ATO is “to bind.” Before signing to ATO, each potential member was asked to read this creed and to decide whether it was something he could live up to – even as they live down the fraternity’s past at MU.

“If you look at us as an organization right now, we’re a typical group of guys,” said colony chaplain Kyle Fitzpatrick. “In 30 years from now, when I come back, everything’s going to be different, but I’ll be able to say I was part of this when it started.”

The national fraternity puts a strong focus on leadership development. ATO hosts four national conferences each year; its most popular has grown from an ATO-only workshop to a weeklong co-ed program.

This emphasis and the chance to recreate the organization were two major draws for members.

“I didn’t think (pledging a fraternity) was really for me,” said vice president Zac Revermann. “A lot of it was the opportunity to start something new and base it on our own beliefs instead of what somebody had already set up.”

Without a central gathering place – a physical house – the fraternity lacks the opportunity to create the community that comes from seeing brothers on a daily basis.

The earliest the group can move into a house is a year after becoming a chapter. Until then, ATO must create the atmosphere of a house through other activities, such as watching "Sunday Night Football" together in the Student Center after a colony meeting.

“The people you meet from this are the people that you’re going to know for the rest of your life when you’re looking for a job or he’ll be the best man at your wedding,” Fitzpatrick said.

In Hayes’ closet at home in Pennsylvania hangs a hooded gold-and-blue ATO sweatshirt. It belonged to his father.

When he was little, the younger Hayes would wear it around the house, the sleeves dragging on the ground.

Today, the sweatshirt is a little snug. But for Creighton Hayes, the letters are the right fit.

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