“We’d see them coming back when we’d lift in the mornings,” hockey player Maggie Westfal ’09 said. “They’d have ketchup and other stuff just smeared all over them.”
At 7 a.m. Monday morning, after staying awake for two straight days, 18 Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges took a different kind of “walk of shame” back to their dorm rooms. Covered in seven days’ worth of food, beer, ketchup, sweat and tears, these boys were even more conspicuous than the normal Yale contingent shuffling across campus at dawn. Instead of the smug smile of those strutting home to brag to their suitemates, the boys of DKE hung their heads in an exhausted daze, able to proclaim their well-achieved brotherhood and, moreover, their narrow survival of hell.
Or at least Hell Week.
Beyond visible and occasionally pungent displays of humiliation, the seven-day period — affectionately dubbed “Inspiration Week” by DKE brothers who view the tradition as essential to creating strong fraternal bonds — holds a daunting mystique imbued with scandal and rumors. In public, the pledges’ required activities are largely entertaining — dressing in costume, singing in Commons and rollerblading through Cross Campus in pink spandex. But at night, within the confines of the DKE house, pledges undergo physical and mental initiation exercises that the brothers dutifully keep a secret of 79 Lake Place.
“Everything we do is very well-planned,” DKE Rush Chairman and Pledge Master Peter Pacelli ’07 said. “It’s not ‘Hell Week’ or ‘Hazing Week.’ It’s just a time for the pledges to get to know each other better and get closer.”
DKE initiation this year began on Sunday, Jan. 8, when the pledges received individual names and costumes, which they were required to wear each day, unwashed, for an entire week. The nights of “Inspiration Week” were fully packed with activities that lasted until 6 or 7 a.m., leaving little room for sleep — often only 30 to 45 minutes a night.
“We were told it would be the most fun we’d never want to have again,” pledge Jay Pilkerton ’09 said.
Each night of “Inspiration Week” consists of varied activities structured to make the pledges “come together as a pledge class,” Frank Piasta ’09 said. Mental nights are designed primarily to test character: The would-be brothers are exposed to fake fistfights to see if any would attempt to intervene and are “tested” by being told that they are no longer allowed to join the fraternity.
“We’re able to see who’s in it not just for going to Toad’s and not just for free beer,” DKE pledge Alexander Christ ’08 said. “[Initiation is] one of those things that they can’t get by without, and we all understand and respect them.”
But one pledge who asked to remain anonymous said the trials were more a source of fear than respect.
“During the physical parts, all I wanted was to move on to the mental night,” he said. “But the mental stuff was worse.”
These activities, coupled with the DKE pledges’ bizarre attire, have sparked campus discussion, gossip and questions that have long gone unanswered.
“Most rumors aren’t true, and we don’t really care to correct them,” said a junior DKE member who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s fun to have the mystique.”
Today’s rumors, though, are nothing compared to the scandals of the past. In 1967, a Yale Daily News article exposed hazing traditions that make the stories of contemporary initiation rites seem like a mere weeklong frat party. “Pledge week at DKE this fall began with a food fight,” the article stated, “and ended with a hot branding iron applied to the small of each pledge’s back.” The article, stating that beatings and hot coat hangers bent in a “D” shape were routine parts of DKE initiation, led to a story in The New York Times a week later, in which President George W. Bush ’68, a former DKE president, defended his fraternity’s practices. DKE was later fined for its inappropriate initiation rites, but these days DKE members said the fraternity no longer brands its pledges.
“I never saw a coat hanger, but they definitely had other things,” a freshman pledge who asked to remain anonymous said of this year’s initiation process.
Although at times deeply embarrassing and physically taxing, the current pledge activities of DKE and other fraternities stay within lawful bounds, several members said. Pilkerton said the pledges are not physically abused.
Yale College officials said they are unaware of any extreme initiation rites, but take such matters seriously.
“Hazing is illegal, and the definitions of hazing are pretty well spelled out,” Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said. “Just like any other infraction of the Undergraduate Regulations, if it comes to our attention, we deal with it.”
For members of DKE, legal bounds are defined by the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, a resource of risk management in Greek organizations which the DKE International chapter uses to outline laws of Greek life. According to FIPG regulations, all hazing is prohibited, including “any action taken or situation created, intentionally, whether on or off fraternity premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.”
Despite these official regulations, the physical aspects of DKE’s initiation week are a far stretch from wearing dirty floral dresses to econ class. According to a number of sources, pledges are required to participate in what ordinary students would call grueling, uncomfortable activities.
“A friend pledging DKE told me that one night they had to go outside, soaked in beer, and stand in tubs of water. It was so cold outside that they had to pee on each other to stay warm,” said a freshman who asked to remain anonymous. “They also had to bend over naked and had honey smeared on their butt cheeks. Then the brothers threw stuff like oatmeal at them, and they weren’t allowed to scratch.”
Several other sources with an intimate knowledge of the pledge process corroborated this story. Other activities, they said, included running up the stairs at Payne Whitney Gymnasium at 5 a.m. and groveling, a secret exercise that, according to one pledge, “doesn’t do anything health-wise. It just hurt, and we had to do it a million times.”
“I was told that each pledge got either a half or a whole pizza topped with stuff like coffee grounds and tons of Tabasco,” said R.J. Price ’09, who called himself a “close friend” of a DKE pledge. “They had to eat the whole thing, even if they threw up on it, and the whole time they used a lot of beer. They would throw pitchers at the pledges.”
DKE officers declined to comment on specific activities involved in the pledge process.
Yale’s chapter of DKE — the nation’s oldest, founded in 1844 — is only one of many organizations to uphold rites of initiation. Among other initiation activities are Alpha Delta Phi’s “naked punt returns” on Old Campus and the women’s swim team’s tradition of sliding naked across the Women’s Table.
But fraternities including Sigma Chi and Beta Theta Pi shy away from more intense initiations, requiring only that pledges stay at the frat house for a week.
“I can’t see how you can have someone be equal when you abuse them. It’s counterproductive to a cohesive brotherhood,” Sigma Chi president Ratko Jovic ’07 said.
Jeremy Ershow ’06 of Alpha Epsilon Pi said he does not see a need for hazing as a way of building group trust.
To the brothers of DKE, however, “Inspiration Week” is a crucial part of molding a strong sense of brotherhood. Interviewed members all said they believe the events of initiation have bonded them in ways that simply sitting in a house for a week never could. Tight new friendships were formed out of a mutual struggle that was both “challenging and painful, but fulfilling and worthwhile,” said Pilkerton.
The history of DKE initiations has always been shroud
ed in mystery. DKE brothers are not only hesitant to reveal their traditions in interviews; close friends are rarely told the full story, often left wondering about the activities that have kept their frat friends consistently coming home past dawn. Although the DKE boys loyally refuse to divulge the secrets of their brotherhood — traditions that began long before Bush’s time at the fraternity — the brothers brush aside the rumors surrounding Hell Week.
“Not all that you hear is true,” Christ scoffed. “We’re not going to satisfy rumors one way or another.”