Band of brothers unites to revive a banned fraternity


After the University of New Hampshire kicked the Sigma Beta fraternity off the Durham campus in the fall of 2008, it appeared to be the end of the line."Truthfully, there was poor oversight from alumni. We weren't paying attention," said Tom Moulton, a Sigma Beta brother from the 1970s and chairman of Hampton-based Sleepnet Corp. "The place was totally rotted, structurally and morally."The 1921 Georgian-style house had fallen into almost total disrepair, finances were in disarray and its reputation was seemingly beyond repair. Sigma Beta had been sanctioned for a stabbing incident in 2006, cited for hazing and alcohol infractions in the spring of 2008, and in September 2008, three members were arrested after a drug raid."We were on the brink of being extinct," Moulton said.But what could have been the end for Sigma Beta became the first step in a unlikely renaissance. After the fraternity was booted off campus, Moulton and a group of fellow successful fraternity brothers from the 1960s to 1990s came together to begin a total makeover of the fraternity's physical infrastructure and, more importantly, its reputation. It was a quest, Mouton explained, to rehabilitate Sigma Beta's public reputation and recapture the spirit of philanthropy, academics and service that was part of the fraternity's founding charter 90 years ago."I pledged as a sophomore in 1975, and it was very influential, very defining moment in my life," Moulton said. "It had a life-lasting impact. Every single one of my long-term friendships came from my time at Sigma Beta."In addition to a difficult $1.7 million major renovation project, another successful fraternity brother said it was time to jettison the popular "Animal House" image of toga parties and debauchery."The popular model of a fraternity has become outdated. We know that the movie 'Animal House' provides the idea that fraternities are about nothing but drinking and parties," said Doug Clark, a 1979 UNH alum and chief executive of Newmarket-based New England Footwear. "Things had gotten so out of control, and we needed to remind ourselves and the community why fraternities can be such a good thing, about why kids walk up these steps (to the house) in the first place. We needed to spend more time and effort redefining the fraternity of the future."'Walking the walk'The rebirth of Sigma Beta began in the fall of 2008, when a 19-member task force was created with the support of more than 80 former brothers. A fund-raising drive was initiated to raise $1.7 million - an amount that Moulton said was no small feat as the economic downturn made getting a bank loan a difficult prospect.But Moulton, who also heads a construction business, and the band of fraternity brothers - which also includes Bob Taft, chief executive at Boston Restaurant Associates, and Bob Webster, managing partner at Hodges Ward Elliott, the Atlanta-based hotel investment firm - made it a personal entrepreneurial mission.Clark, who is the alumni board chairman, said that the brothers voluntarily put in hundreds of hours with plans to put in many more and raised more than $500,000. Moulton leveraged his banking relationships, his own construction business and the human capital to complete the project to gut and remodel the building.When the school year ended in May 2009, demolition and rebuilding began and was completed in June. The alumni had an official grand opening during Homecoming Weekend in October.During a recent tour of the new Sigma Beta House, Clark and Moulton recited a lengthy checklist of modern alterations and additions that include entirely remade rooms, new bathrooms, electrical wiring and high-tech sound and video security systems. Moulton said the entire project is on schedule to be paid off in five years and the potential fraternity revival will be in strong financial shape.The house on Madbury Road in Durham is occupied now by another fraternity on a two-year lease. The more difficult task for Sigma Beta, Clark acknowledged, will be to rebuild the trust of the community and UNH officials to get removed from permanent suspension status. One advantage, Moulton said: it's a locally chaptered fraternity, which will allow them to have greater oversight.Clark said they are taking the small and necessary steps to show that "we are walking the walk" of rehabilitation. One of the biggest issues Sigma Beta now faces is redefining the culture of a 20th century fraternity, Clark said, to meet the needs of current students while abiding by stricter rules in today's college life and blending the foundations of the fraternity's specific standards and ideals.He said they have plans for mentoring programs and scholarship programs well beyond the building project.The Sigma Beta task force has raised money to sponsor a class at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics. Clark said there is a wide range of potential volunteer projects the fraternity could take part in, including providing morning crossing guards for local schools.He said if current trends continue, Sigma Beta could be restored as early as the fall of 2012.Alumni will be heavily involved in the recruiting process for new pledges that will fit into the new fraternity paradigm - and will remain involved for years to come, he said."We are pretty adamant about this," Clark said.
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