Jim Pritchett ’71 shares his memories of the Tau Chapter houses, starting with his freshman year in 1970 as a UT Kappa Sig pledge.
It’s Fall 1970. No. 1 ranked UT is in the middle of a 30-game winning streak and we are savoring the recent victories over UCLA (won with a Hail Mary pass in the last eight seconds of the game), OU and Rice. Today the Horns are playing SMU, but more importantly to this Kappa Sig pledge from Dallas, I’m about to experience my first Tau Trustees weekend.
I don’t know what to expect as we file into the large living room on 203 West 19th Street to hear the proceedings, but I do know the famous alumni names I’m about to meet. Frank Erwin, Howard Rose, and Lorenzo Taylor. Recent grads are there as well: Robert Spellings, Steve “Cowboy” Murrin and my older brother, Phil.
Frank Erwin has some big news to deliver and he doesn’t mince words. The house needs major repairs, is already carrying a lot of debt, the same old guys who have been putting up the money all these years are tired of going it alone, and unless the “young alums” can raise around $250,000 among themselves in the next year, he will recommend that the house be sold. The State of Texas would probably buy it, he says, and we could rebuild on the other side of I-35 by the recently built baseball stadium. But only a lodge, no living quarters. After all, it’s the 70s, the age of peace and love. Fraternities throughout the country seem to be obsolete.
Our pledge class totals 28. Many seniors have left before graduation, and the chapter is dwindling in numbers. There are rumors of other problems as well, but for this 18-year-old, living in Austin and going to UT, life is good and I remain optimistic.
Fall 1971 — UT’s 30-game winning streak ended in the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame, but we are on a new one and regain our No. 1 ranking. A year has come and gone since Frank Erwin laid out the options for the house. Here we are again: same faces, same living room, but no money raised by the young alums. Mr. Erwin holds true to his word and announces the house will be sold. The room goes silent. He says the state wants it, will pay a good price and, after debts are paid, we will have plenty left to rebuild a new lodge on the East Campus.
Our new pledge class numbers in the low 20s and the entire chapter totals less than 75, even on a good steak night! We start to worry.
Spring 1973 — We decide to have one last party in the house and we book Vince Vance and the Valiants. More than 500 Kappa Sigs and guests attend, including alumni from across the state. It’s a great night, but things get a little out of control as people make their way out the door with furniture, light fixtures, trophies, and other pieces of Tau history. More than the end of a house, it feels like a wake for the chapter.
The house sits vacant until it is torn down in August, with no one there to witness the demolition, much less cheer for what’s next to come.
Fall 1973 — Two weeks prior to rush week we have no house and no place to meet. Fortunately, Frank Erwin comes to our rescue and rents a closed restaurant call The Trough. Located across the street from the Tri-Towers women’s dorm (now University Towers) and next to The Bucket, the hottest bar on campus; it’s a great location. This move transports us from the lonely South Mall to the best West Campus location we could imagine.
Although we got a great temporary location at the last minute, with no house and no plans for one any time soon, summer rush was tough. We managed to pledge a great core group, mostly from Houston, but they are few in number. We start the year with close to 30 members total, including pledges, and struggle through the year to pay our bills.
Fall 1975 — Tim Herman, now our young alumni advisor, finds a solution to our housing problem. The Theta Xis had closed their doors and put their house on San Gabriel on the market. We buy it, renovate it, and put in a swimming pool. The 1960s modern architecture evokes a certain George Jetson spaceship look and feel — quite a change from the historic, first frat house built west of the Mississippi, columned red brick mansion on the hill facing the Tower — but it is ours and we were excited.
Spring 1997 — We move to our current location on West 26th Street, the former Sigma Nu house that was sold to a sorority a few years earlier. Membership continues to grow until the Chapter gets in trouble, causing a major setback and a big drop in numbers. But in the end, our Kappa Sigma bonds bring us back together and we resolve our issues and moved forward. I’m happy to say that our numbers have been steadily growing ever since.
Fall 2010 — The greatest move of all proves to be the construction of our world-class lodge. We get our first-ever 50-man pledge class and have met those numbers all but one year since. The Lodge has all the unique features custom designed for a thriving fraternity: large dining hall, commercial-grade kitchen, study areas and gathering places for socializing and TV watching.
Summer 2015 — Phase II is now underway to build a stand-alone residence hall that will be a five-star living facility by any fraternity or apartment building standards. Coupled with the Lodge, we have a campus with everything we need designed for flexibility to adapt to future needs.
As I watched the demolition of the old Sigma Nu house on the webcam, I remember that there was no one to watch the 19th Street house come down. It’s gratifying to know that this demolition is something to cheer about and that several hundred members and friends were onsite to witness the bulldozers in action. To me, this represents how far we’ve come and the promise of what lies ahead for this great fraternity.
It’s been great fun and certainly a privilege to have been a part of this Tau Chapter history. No matter what challenges we’ve faced, we’ve persevered and have become better and stronger for them. As my friend and fraternity brother George Alcorn told me the other day when I was updating him on things in Austin, “Better take a picture!”
The core group from the 70s remains close as friends and brothers and are active within the chapter. The good times we enjoyed and the difficult transitions we endured helped create a special bond we share today. This same bond has been with Tau Chapter throughout the years and all its members.
Big Frank was wrong about not needing living quarters, but I know he’s very proud of his boys for the determination to rebuild the house, while learning the most important lesson of all: It’s not the house, but rather the members, and not how many members, but the Tau Chapter Bond that distinguishes us from all other fraternities.
The legacy continues and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Jim Pritchett '71
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