If a young man wants to join a fraternity to gain extensive drinking experience, he’s making a very bad choice

It’s front and center in any discussion of a frat’s alcohol policies; if you don’t follow the policy or if you do anything illegal, you could lose your insurance

And then there is Peter Smithhisler, who is the senior fraternity man ne plus ultra: unfailingly, sometimes elaborately courteous; careful in his choice of words; unflappable; and as unlikely to interrupt or drop the f-bomb on a respectful female journalist as he would be to join the Communist Party. He is the kind of man you would want on your side in a tough spot, the kind of man you would want mentoring your son through the challenging passage from late adolescence to young manhood. He believes that the fraternity experience at its best constitutes an appeal to a young man’s better angels: through service, leadership training, and accountability for mistakes, a brother can learn the valuable lessons he will need to become “a better dad, a better teacher, a better engineer, a better pilot, a better ‘insert career here.’” Spend some time talking with Pete Smithhisler, and you can go from refusing to allow your son to join a fraternity to demanding he do so. Indeed, the day after I talked with him, I happened to be at a social gathering where I met two women whose sons had just graduated from college. “The fraternity was what saved him,” one mother said with great feeling. Her son had waited until sophomore year to rush, and freshman year he had been so lonely and unsure of himself that she had become deeply worried about him. But everything changed after he pledged. He had friends; he was happy. “If only I could have gotten my son to join one,” the other mom said, wistfully. “I kept trying, but he wouldn’t do it.” Why had she wished he’d pledged a fraternity? “He would have been so much more connected to the college,” she said. “He would have had so many other opportunities.”

Smithhisler was honest about the fact that he is at the helm of an outfit that supports organizations in which young people can come to terrible fates. “I wrestle with pay day loans in Tennessee it,” he said, with evident feeling. His belief is that what’s tarnishing the reputation of the fraternities is the bad behavior of a very few members, who ignore all the risk-management training that is requisite for membership, who flout policies that could not be any more clear, and who are shocked when the response from the home office is not to help them cover their asses but to ensure that-perhaps for the first time in their lives-they are held 100 percent accountable for their actions. And neither the fraternities nor the insurance company are hiding their warnings that a member could lose his coverage if he does anything outside of the policy.

When he’d had to have some surgery while at school, his brothers had visited him almost around the clock, bringing him food, keeping up his spirits, checking in with his doctors and charming his nurses

One way you become a man, Smithhisler suggests, is by taking responsibility for your own mistakes, no matter how small or how large they might be. “A policy is a policy is a policy,” he said of the six-beer rule: either follow it, get out of the fraternity, or prepare to face the consequences if you get caught. Unspoken but inherent in this larger philosophy is the idea that it is in a young man’s nature to court danger and to behave in a foolhardy manner; the fraternity experience is intended to help tame the baser passions, to channel protean energies into productive endeavors such as service, sport, and career preparation.

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