Rutgers alumni return to say goodbye to house
Troubled frat's ties stay strong
By RICK HARRISON
NEW BRUNSWICK — Jeff Sicat, 39, wasn't sure what to think when Steve Ostergren, 40, called his Rutgers University Chi Phi fraternity brother last Sunday suggesting he come back for one last party at their College Avenue house and maybe spend the night.
"I was like, "Are you serious? Do you really want to do that?"' Sicat said.
But the house was soon to be rented to a sorority, a turnaround for a house that a few short years ago was the scene of trouble.
In 2003 the house was rented by Squamish, a fraternity unrecognized by the school. A brawl broke out during a Squam party, including a baseball bat attack that left two Squam members hospitalized for a month. Two of the eight participants in the brawl were given jail sentences.
This week, alumni said a new era was about to dawn for the house. After a flurry of e-mails and phone calls to brothers from the late 1980s and early 1990s who have scattered across the state, plans for the reunion shifted into high gear.
"When people started hearing about it, it was
more like, "What time does it start?' " he said.
Fourteen brothers answered the call, arriving around 7 p.m. Friday, toting wives, kids and memories.
"It was funny," said Ostergren, the owner of Scarlet Fever on Somerset Street. "When you live in that fraternity house, up on a hill on the sunny side of College Avenue, you spend a lot of time sitting on the porch in beach chairs. And there we were again."
Even the alien scene of 15 kids running around the halls, playing soccer in the yard and calling for their moms couldn't shake that familiar feeling of home.
"We're old guys now, but that's our house," he said. "That's our place."
But while the alumni association still holds the lease and is completing some $200,000 in renovations, the new residents arriving in the next few weeks might not take as much pride in adding their names to the beer pong hall of fame in the basement barroom. The sorority Sigma Delta Tau is moving in.
"No alcohol, no parties, no smoking permitted in the house," Ostergren said, listing the rules that the sorority must follow. "That's what a fraternity is typically known for. Now I have to be a good landlord."
Chi Phi opened at Rutgers in 1867, closing between 1979 and 1981 before the national headquarters shut down the chapter in 1999 because of allegations of drug and alcohol violations.
But Chi Phi permitted the students to stay at the house, and they formed Squamish, a fraternity unrecognized by the school. Squam, as it is known, suffered more trouble in 2003 when a brawl broke out during a party, including a baseball bat attack that left two Squam members hospitalized for a month. Two of the eight participants in the brawl were given jail sentences.
Declining interest in Squam over the years forced the Chi Phi alumni to make a strategic retreat they hope is temporary, according to Sicat.
"The whole fraternity/sorority life as an undergrad is cyclical," Sicat said. "When our children are going to college, it might be on the upside again, and we will want them to have the same experience we did."
Sicat, who attended the mini-reunion with his wife Tammy, 4-year-old son Joseph and 6-month-old daughter Alexandra, showed his family how fun life can be in a big house with all your friends.
The adults drank their Coors Light and Corona beer, they ordered in pizza and played whiffle ball. The wives and kids walked to Thomas Sweet on Easton Avenue for ice cream, and they rolled out the new carpeting for the kids to sit and watch "The Incredibles" projected on a screen hung over a used window-screen box.
"We're like brothers and sisters, and our kids are like cousins to each other," Sicat said of the packed house.
People trickled away after a few hours. Some stayed past midnight. Bill Frisk, 39, of Teaneck stayed until about 3 a.m., although he first tucked his wife and two sons away in a room at The Hyatt.
"It was not my kind of living accommodations at this point," Frisk's wife Claire said of the unairconditioned house on a sweltering night. "We stuck it out for a while, but better to sleep comfortably."