Members of Sigma Alpha Zeta gathered to celebrate the 60th reunion of the University’s original fraternity.
Seven students and a table. That was all it took to form Sigma Alpha Zeta, Clemson’s first national fraternity and the organization that helped paved the way for all 46 Greek letter fraternities and sororities on campus today.
In the fall of 1959, Winston Fowler, a young Clemson student, traveled to the University of Virginia as a cheerleader. When he was mingling with other students, he heard about their university’s notable and highly secretive Seven Society.
“I got very little background information,” Fowler ’62 remembered. “I was just a sophomore talking to people.” But what he heard was promising. Seven Society, aside from being an organization known for its secrecy and generosity, was a social group that gave its members a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their college experience. For Fowler, this was an important piece of the puzzle.
When Clemson University was an all-male military school, incoming students were divided into “companies” that provided a chance to socialize and make lifelong friends. In the post-World War II era, this tradition faded away, and by 1959, Clemson was still without fraternities, official or otherwise, to fill the gap. It was an awkward time for new students seeking recreation since all official organizations at that time were subject to close scrutiny.
These organizations, such as Tiger Band and Taps, “were an approved form of social gathering, but it didn’t meet the needs of a purely social fraternity without the service aspect of it,” said Jeff O’Cain ’69, who pledged in 1967. “You had to be personally involved in doing something for the University to be recognized as a group.”
So, when Fowler returned from his trip to Virginia, he decided to tell his friends about what he had found. Sitting at a round table that could only fit seven, they decided to form an under-the-radar social fraternity in lieu of a full-blown secret society.
Maybe it was destiny, or maybe it was just a bit of good luck, but Fowler and friends quickly came across a piece of relevant information: The Board of Trustees had unexpectedly decided in their last meeting that they might allow probationary local fraternities on campus.
“Let’s be the first!” Fowler said to his friend Bill Shachte ’63. The plan changed. They drafted a charter and were ready to become officially recognized. After some further encouragement from the others in the group, Shachte gave their proposal to the Dean.
It worked. Sigma Alpha Zeta became the first official fraternity at Clemson.
Sixty years passed, and the “Zetas” haven’t missed a step. In 1959, the first seven members went on to tap seven more, leading to the original 14. Although the fraternity started small, it only continued to grow, and by the time Sigma Alpha Zeta became defunct in 1970, the fraternity had a total of 209 members — each one a loyal supporter of the University and their fraternity.
Tight ties kept the Zetas together and still do, evidenced by the reunion that ran from March 29-31 in Columbia, where over 130 Zetas and special guests gathered for recreation and reminiscing.
Highlights of the event included a golf tournament with trophies ranging from “longest drive” to “worst putt,” a Zeta history reading, door prizes and a ladies mimosa party with special gifts presented by the first Zeta president, Winston Fowler, and the last, Bob Ogletree ’70. Saturday morning, a memorial was held for the 38 deceased members.
The event also featured video appearances from President Clements and Coach Swinney. Clements thanked the Zetas for their selflessness throughout the years: “You had 209 members over your 10-year existence as a local fraternity, and all of you have been outstanding and loyal alumni over the past 60 years. Thank you to those original 14 members for taking the chance to start something new, and thank you to all of you for your support of Clemson. Enjoy your celebration, and go Tigers!”
Since Clements was unable to make it to the reunion in person, he sent the Tiger in his place.
“The Tiger came busting through the door; ‘Tiger Rag’ was playing. The whole place went bonkers,” said O’Cain.
The Tiger’s surprise appearance energized the guests, especially since many of the Zetas had been the Tiger in the past.
An auction was held afterward that featured several items, including a custom Zeta-made wine bottle. The crown jewel was a signed championship football that had been briefly introduced by Coach Swinney in his video appearance. When the video ended, O’Cain walked on stage, saying, “Boy, I sure wish I had that football!”
Then, the football went sailing from the back of the room into his hands.
Ogletree, the last Zeta president, won big and went home with the football. All proceeds from the auction went to Dabo’s All In Team Foundation.
The reunion was the result of a titanic effort to find and contact all living Zeta members, several of whom had not been in touch for decades. Linda Williams (wife of an early Zeta member) spearheaded the outreach and was aided by alumni in Columbia. Zetas Turk Matthews ’69, David McLellan ’71 and O’Cain worked to plan and budget the event.
“The real highlight was in the number of people who attended,” said Fowler. “It was just very heartwarming to see people you hadn’t seen in 20 or 30 years, sometimes 40 or 50 years, or maybe since graduation. That was the big highlight.”
LONGEST LASTING LOYALTY
The announcement of the 60th reunion was a happy surprise for many, but it was not the first time the Zetas reunited — and it will not be the last. They still meet at least once a year at the University, usually on weekends when campus is quiet. They tour the facilities, including the Sigma Alpha Zeta Presentation Room (also known as Room 201A) in Cooper Library. The room was gifted by the Zetas and is maintained by a perpetual fund. To them, it was simply a chance to give back.
Sixty years ago, Fowler was impressed by Seven Society’s loyalty to their university and decided that Sigma Alpha Zeta would do the same. Over the years, they’ve made gifts to the University sometimes overtly (the presentation room, for example) and sometimes subtly, like a secret society might.
Regardless, the Zeta spirit remains unique. It’s an aged-to-perfection concoction of respect, energy and that quintessential Clemson loyalty.
“It was a spirit that we derived from our responsibilities to Clemson and our responsibilities for each other,” said O’Cain. “For love and affection and brotherhood.”