Hell Week aside, it was harder to get into Alpha Omega Lambda than any other fraternity on the Towson State University campus, north of Baltimore.
But Victor Siegel, a sophomore known to his friends as Ricky, welcomed the rites of passage that began five weeks ago. On Sundays he studied the frat history and creed. When it was forbidden, he didn't speak to women. At the direction of his "older brothers," he and seven other pledges donned Mr. Clean, Tarzan, and Playboy bunny costumes.
On Tuesday morning Siegel, outfitted as a bunny, was giving two other pledges (one dressed as a boxer, the other as a skindiver) a ride home on Interstate 83 after the threesome had spent nearly six hours trying to gather as many signatures as possible from Alpha Omega Lambda alumni.
Exhausted by Hell Week ceremonies that began two days earlier, Siegel fell asleep at the wheel of his Toyota. The car crossed the shoulder, became airborne and flipped over, instantly killing the driver and seriously injuring another pledge, 21-year-old Charles F. Sutton.
Earlier that night, at Western Maryland College 30 miles to the west, a 17-year-old freshman was hospitalized after drinking himself into unconsciousness as part of pledging rituals for the Delta Pi Alpha fraternity. As a result of that incident and evidence that the freshman had been paddled, C. Wray Mowbray, dean of student affairs suspended the fraternity.
Officials at Towson State took even stricter action. They revoked the charter of Alpha Omega Lambda. Although school authorities there said they had not determined whether the car accident was directly related to pledging activities, they cited four incidents over the past four weeks in which members of the fraternity had destroyed school property and violated rules against hazing and said that the accident crystallized the university's concern about hazing.
At Towson State and 640 other colleges around the United States, spring marks more than stiff-armed baseball teams and muddy quads. In the last decade, membership in 5,000 fraternity chapters has increased 47 percent. Although deaths as a result of hazing have averaged about one a year, fraternity groups have been trying for the last three years to eliminate hazing.
"Hazing comes from the English school system," said Jack L. Anson, executive director of the National-International Fraternity Conference in Indianapolis. "It's not unique with fraternities. A friend told me the worst hazing he'd ever seen was from a volunteer fire department. This guy's a banker. He had to wear funny clothes and stand on the corner making speeches."
Towson State is a commuter college with 9,600 undergraduate students. "There's only two reasons why guys join fraternities," said a freshman there, Steve Rykowski, who spurned the fraternal rites of spring, as most of Towson's students do. "Status and girls. There are some girls who turn to butter when they see a fraternity pin."
But the university's 11 fraternities and five sororities also offer the things that fraternal organizations have always specialized in: fellowship and the security of belonging. Towson's fraternal groups pale beside the hellions in the movie "Animal House." Most don't have their own houses, but meet in club rooms at the University Union where they plan dances and sponsor charity raffles.
Pledging, for the most part, is also tame. Aspirants of one sorority were commanded to take daffodils around to all the women in the school administration.
The 40 brothers of Alpha Omega Lambda come from a tradition that departs from the norm at Towson. They throw dances and fund-raising benefits for charity, but their pledge candidates run a longer gauntlet than most.
This year's pledge class of eight was immediately visible on campus, first in their caps and Army green T-shirts with the frat letters, then in their costumes.
"I was scared at first when I pledged," said Semak Baharloo, a shy senior pledge. "But after the first line-up I realized how caring my older brothers were. Alpha Omega Lambda is like the other social clubs, but it's harder. You have to commit yourself. Your brothers love you back."
At Towson, where school spokesman Katie Ryan refers to the events of last Tuesday morning as "the tragedy," school policy forbids pledging "acts which cause pain suffering, humiliation or public embarrassment."
In revoking the fraternity's charter, which prevents the group from using Towson State's name or any of the university's facilities, school officials interviewed fraternity president Stephen Horn, and two other members, and decided that "the activites as admitted constituted hazing."
The investigation began March 10 after an incident in the dining hall in which one pledge threw up after he ate ice cream with salt and pepper on it.
Ryan said the fraternity had destroyed a telephone and a bulletin board in two dormitories, and conducted a "food gorge" in the dining hall March 24 in which pledges were required to eat gluttonous portions without using their hands. Some of the food was doused with Tabasco sauce, Ryan said.
Then Hell Week began.
According to Ryan, the pledges met at 10 p.m. Sunday in the Glen, a wooded ravine that runs through the heart of the campus. They were quizzed on the fraternity's history and creed, and required to do push-ups "to exhaustion."
Five hours later they were driven to a deserted area near the Loch Raven Reservoir north of the campus, and left to find their way back. The pledges, dressed in their costumes, were told they had to be back for a 7 a.m. breakfast.
Monday evening, after a day of classes, the pledges assembled again, and were sent out to collect signatures of former fraternity members.
After searching for a fraternity brother in Timonium, Ricky Siegel was on his way to his friends' houses when he fell asleep near Seminary Avenue in Lutherville. He was killed around 2:45 a.m. Charles Sutton was flown by helicopter to the shock trauma unit. He was listed yesterday in good condition. The third pledge, Michael Carmody, suffered minor injuries.
In the aftermath of the accident, the weeks of pledging that forged the fellowship of Alpha Omega Lambda only sharpened the sense of loss among its members. "Since Ricky's death, all the brothers have been together," said Semak Baharloo. "He was the greatest guy, unselfish and loving. I miss him so much."