Opening the Old Deke House by Dana Hughes, Rho ’49

This story is a prequel to the excellent series of the early ‘50s recently penned by Brother Don Ayers.

First let me set the scene. I was among 86 high-point, combat veterans to enter a special class which Lafayette started in early November, 1945, to catch up with the freshmen of the already formed Class of 1949.

Pre-WWII, Lafayette had been a small men’s school, closely oriented to the Presbyterian Church, of some 1500 students. But, when we arrived, the Campus was almost deserted after being relinquished by the Army’s pre-training program (ASTP) for Air Cadets earlier in the year. Frankly, the school was starving for students, or practically none of our Special 1945 Veteran’s Class would ever have qualified for admission.

Soon after settling in on Campus, I started meeting other high-point Marines. Among them was Andy Olinger, who asked me to join him and several other Marines as Zete (Zeta Psi) pledges.

However, my first room mate at top of Old McKeen Hall was Joe Trickett, who had already pledged Deke. Although a recent high school graduate, Joe was a very mature football player and had already met a number of the newly-arrived veterans. He soon introduced me to several other good guys–combat veterans–who were already members of his pledge class. They included Marine Jim Schultz; Air Force Pilot, Charlie Brownie; and Navy Blimp Pilot, Jim Mott. So, after being invited, I decided to join them as the newest member of the Deke pledge class. The four of us soon became such good friends that we roomed together in a first floor suite at the tiny, old dorm: Newkirk Hall. Over looking the, then, much larger Quad, this delightful living experience couldn’t have been much different than veterans of that time saw in the days immediately following the Civil War.

Our large pledge class of some 12-15 recent prep/high school grads, mixed in with about an equal number of older combat veterans, was the first group of Dekes to open up the Old House after it had been evacuated as a barracks by the Army ASTP program.

As can be seen by the various existing photographs, the House was of English Tudor design with broad exposed beams prominently built into the exterior architecture. A delightful and much-used feature was a two-sided, wrap around open porch . The front, built very close to Sullivan Lane, faced the rear of the Phi Delt (Phi Delta Theta) House, while the side looked out on, then, much more extensive March Field.

Describing the old house further: From the front door, one enterred a large reception hall which faced a broad set of stairs leadfing up to the second floor. To the left was a small card/sitting room with a side door leading out to March Field. Proceeding through this area was an extensive living room/meeting area with a large, open stone fireplace at the back end.

Going back to the entry hall, to the right was a billiard room complete with a full-sized pool table still in surprisingly good condition. To the left of this room was a dining area large enough to accommodate the entire house membership in one sitting. This lead to a small operations kitchen used chiefly as a serving, dish washing and china/glassware storage cabinets.

To complete this description, upstairs was a broad center hall faced with about six study/bedroom suites. At the end, this lead to the tiled-shower/toilet room on the left facing the small house office area. Oddly, this contained a row of upright filing cabinets still filled with copies of various 1940-through ’43 subject exams. Proceeding straight through was “The Kennel”, which–at one time–must’ve been an addition to the original house. This was a quiet refuge off by itself, which housed a study area large enough for four desks and led into a bunk room accommodating four, two-up bunks. All very comfortable . . . A military barracks it was not.

Leading up from the second-floor hall was another set of stairs to the third floor. Here were located four more, fairly-large living/study suites, as well a second shower room .

BUT . . . The Army had left the house an absolutely unlivable interior wreck when they evacuated in early 1945. So, the poor Old House sat there all closed up, forlorn and musty for the best part of a year. Aided by a few old Dekes, including Perc Hill and “Waxy” Baron–who had obtained earlier discharges–and with no thought of rank, privilege nor standing, our large pledge class quickly turned to, although it was truly hard to know where to begin.

Members, among the veterans were, the four of us previously mentioned, as well as Don Diebler, our huge heavy lifter. The freshman already on campus included: Joe Trickett, Johnny Wynn, Tex Roland, Dick Heller, Dave Luesenhop, Bill Bruckman, Doc German and Ralph McGee.

We quickly decided to throw open all doors and windows to air out the House.

By the next morning, the cold, early December air did freshen out the House, but it sure make things rather brisk inside. Fortunately, the heating plant was still operable. How-ever, with little money among us to pay for it, and no treasury, we needed a tank of oil. As with paint and other supplies, we had to take up a collection.

We decided as our first task to tackle the ground floor. This meant really hard work cleaning up, waxing and polishing the tiled floors in the front hall, dininfg area and service kitchen and, then, trying to vacuum the filthy, badly worn and mauled carpets in all of the other rooms. This became such a hopeless task that we wound up trashing all of them. The same was true of most of the upholstered furniture in the card and living rooms. However, the long dining tables were still serviceable and, with much elbow grease, we were able to do a satisfactory job in the service kitchen. However, our engineering experts had a really rough job repairing the dumb waiter leading down to the cooking kitchen in the basement. Apparently, some Army genius had tried to ride in it!

After cleaning up as best we could, the next job was filling and sanding all of the holes in the plaster walls—and even some of the ceilings, including the long stairwell. Looked as though the Army recruits must’ve held rock fights in the place. Fortunately, they didn’t use hand grenades!

Filling, sanding and painting such a larger area sounds like a daunting job, but it’s surprising how much can be accomplished by 25-30 willing hands, each giving up all of the free time they can spare. As a result, we managed to get the place in a worn but livable condition by the end of December.

Fortunately, along about this time we were rescued by our own guardian angel. He arrived in the form of Ben Haytock, a Deke lawyer practicing in Easton. Ben came in, surveyed our work to date, and carefully examined the existing furniture and bare wood floors. Then–by some minor miracle–he found a way to replace all of the sofas, upholstered chairs and missing carpets on the first floor. As we watched each of the furniture trucks unloading, suddenly by mid-January, ’46, WE WERE REALLY LIVING!

The second and third floors proved much easier. We group cleaned and refurbished the halls and shower rooms, which were of glazed tile and, thus, relatively easy to clean up. However, each designated suite occupant agreed to fill and repaint the walls and ceilings of their own study/bed rooms. While in deplorable condition, so that new mattresses had to be bought by each occupant, both the metal-built bedsteads and study desks were still in relatively good shape.

Now, the Old Deke House was once, again, in full operation and rapidly regaining it s pre-War position as THE leader on Campus.

BUT, I haven’t yet mentioned the kitchen which was located in the basement. This was till an unbelievably-disgusting mess: stove, sinks, working counters, walls, ceiling covered with thick layers of congealed grease and deep, black-smoke covered filth!

I don’t quite know how it happened, but I wound up as straw boss responsible for the kitchen clean up.

By literally working night-and-day, my strangely-willing crew and I commenced the miserable job by buying pounds of steel wool and Brillo to scrub down everything in sight. This was followed by countless cans of harsh cleansers (no detergents in those days), gallons of hot, soapy water, scrub brushes used until there were no bristles left and unbelievable tonnages of good ol’ fashioned elbow grease. All of this proved so tough that the final wall/ceiling filling, patching and painting became a breeze. This truly unforgettable job took a full two weeks to bring the kitchen up to a usable standard . . . And this was becoming vitally important. All of us were getting hungry!

This led to the problem of hiring cook. Bill “Scupper” Platt–a recently returned pre-war Deke–had been designated as House Commissar, the Brother in charge of ALL feeding and eating arrangements. As old, life long friends, Scup and I set out on a cook search.

First, we tried the House pre-War cook, but he was successfully operating Steve‘s Cup in P’Burg and had no interest in giving up his business. Then, by some stroke of charmed luck we chanced upon Gladys and Frazier: a happy, cheerful, young married couple living in Downtown Easton, who wanted to work together. Both were younger versions of well-known personalities–Gladys: a smiling image of Aunt Jemima; Frazier–the dignified personification of Morgan Freeman. It quickly turned out that Gladys was an excellent cook, who had no trouble handling 30-35 hungry young men. And Frazier became our Butler/Major Domo, who was for many years in his glory, especially on Inter-Fraternity Weekends when the House was filled with numerous, imported beautiful young ladies.

By early Spring, ‘46, older Dekes–who had left Lafayette to enlist; most to gain commissions–were drifting back to finish up their degree work. They included Bill Service, Bill Brenn, Jack Bye, Scupper Platt, Art Schlobaum, Rocky Turrell, Charlie Boas, John Florsheimer, Bob Magee and Vince Nuccio. Surprisingly, with no seniority problems nor cliques forming, the age range in the House rapidly escalated from 18 to 29 years old. We were ALL just Brothers.

I’ll close with a few words about how we lived way back then. The Old Deke House of the late ‘40s can best be described as an upscale, young men’s club in the pattern of Philadelphia’s Union League or the Pittsburgh Duquesne Club. The dress code rapidly changed from Marine greens, Army ODs and combat boots to button-down oxfords, LL Bean or Orvis khakis and Bass Weejuns during the daytime, plus coats and ties for ALL hands at the dinner table. Dinner was served by white-jacketed waiters; me and other members working for our meals under the direction of Bob Magee and Eddie Miersh.

There was almost always a spirited bridge game-or-two going on in the card and living rooms, while the very serious players were surrounded by vociferous discussion groups debating the issues of the day–especially the merits of the latest Truman initiatives, the worth–or lack of same–of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, or the validity of the Kinsey Report (US sexual mores), as well as other timely national and sports news.

Although someone had donated a large consol radio, complete with c record changer, there was No TV. It hadn’t, yet, been perfected. Of course, the billiard room at the other end of the entrance hall was equally occupied and continually busy.

While we weren’t “The Jock House” on campus (that distinction belonged to the Theta Delts–our neighbors across the way), the Dekes were well represented in all varsity sports, especially football, and even had a champion swimmer: Johnny Florsheimer, in our midst. Basically, though, most of us soon became heavily involved in intramural sports. In fact, we were happy to have the Deke red-tag football team become known as: “ferocious, opponents.”

In short, The Old Deke House quickly regained its Pre-War eminence as the leading fraternity on the Lafayette Campus. But, it quickly became evident that this wasn’t enough. We needed a bar!

So, soon after the ’45 Holidays, we decided to convert a large, unused section of the basement into our own recreational bar room. Under the professional guidance of Sonny King and Bill Morrison, who both had considerable experience in construction, as well as myself–who had worked as an electrician’s apprentice–we embarked upon the project.

After some 6-8 weeks, the result became a beautiful room with paneled wood walls, red-tiled floor, dropped tile ceiling and Naugahide-covered recessed sitting areas.

Our pride and true joy, though, was a Naugahide-fronted bar prominently displaying a large Deke Crest hand painted in full color. The bar area was backed by shelves of assorted liquor while varied sets of glassware were displayed in special racks built above. Throughout, the room was lit by recessed lighting controlled by conveniently- located dimmer switches, as well as spotlights directed to the bar area.

So, not only were “The Drunken Dekes” looked up to throughout the Lafayette Campus, but invitations to our famous Friday Night “Socials” soon became a much-sought after privilege throughout Campus leadership.


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