In the past year, national media coverage placed the entire college fraternity system in the United States under close, public scrutiny. One of Oklahoma University’s national fraternities was “outed” for racial taunts captured on social media. A Penn State fraternity was caught using social media in a heinous incident with coed guests.
Cable news panels asked, “Should we do away with the present fraternity and sorority systems in our colleges and universities?” “Has the fraternity system become obsolete?” “Are the fraternity members elitists?”
As my wife and I watched these programs, I wished I could have been a panel member discussing the value of fraternities. I am a huge benefactor of the Greek fraternity system. As a panel member, I would expound on the great value of fraternity life and how it and my fellow brothers helped shape parts of my life, giving me tools to persevere and succeed.
I entered the freshmen class of Ohio Wesleyan University in 1953, when the Korean War was ending. Despite U.S. soldiers of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds fighting together in this war, segregation was still prevalent in our country. Meanwhile, I was one of two Asian male students entering the freshmen class at a time when fraternities throughout the country were either white Christian males, black and interracial, or Jewish only.
During OWU rush week, I never discussed my childhood experiences or ethnicity with anyone. For all anyone knew, I was just another new student. While this omission was not a conscious effort on my part, my ethnicity certainly was a huge and inherent part of my early life.
Life in the Internment Camps
As a Japanese-American, I faced outright prejudice most of my early childhood. I was 7 years old growing up in Los Angeles, CA, when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, forever changing my life. In March the following year, 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, living mainly on the West Coast, were rounded up by the United States Army and FBI, and herded into one of 17 “holding camps,” many of which were fairgrounds or racetracks in Washington, Oregon, and California. My parents had two months to store our furniture and belongings, and to turn over our home to a caretaker, or be placed in prison for treason. Many people were forced to liquidate their businesses and their homes at greatly reduced prices.
We were allowed to have one suitcase per person. No contraband, radios, or cameras were permitted. We were initially incarcerated in a tent constructed in the parking lot of the Santa Anita Race Track. Some families had to live in the horse stalls, which still retained a horse stench.
From March to October 1942, the United States government hastily built permanent camp locations, many of which were located on government land that was either part of desert areas or swampland. That fall our family was moved to a permanent internment camp in southern Colorado. There were similar camps located in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. Most of these concentration camps had anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 camp internees, all of us contained by barb wired fences, watchtowers, and armed guards.
Our family, like all the internees, lived in a 10-foot-by-16-foot, tar-paper-covered barracks—10 to a block. These living conditions were totally oppressive in the hot, humid summers, and bone-chilling winters. I remember we all had to eat in a common dining hall and share the one-block washroom facilities. Grade schools and high schools were created in the latter part of 1943, but certainly were not equal to other educational establishments across the United States.
In 1945, at the end of World War II when we left the relocation camps, each member of our family was given 25 dollars and a one-way ticket to a destination of our family’s choice. When we learned our LA home had been robbed and destroyed by fire during our internment, my father elected “never to return to the West Coast” and chose to move us to Chicago, where I finished grade school in 1949.
Fraternal Bonds at OWU
In the fall of 1953, I was a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan. Needless to say, I was scared and not quite sure what to expect, or even if I belonged. I decided to enter the rush process. I soon learned that many fraternities had two levels of acceptance—a social membership whereby you have the rights of attending parties and eating with your fellow “brothers,” but none of the privileges of full membership, including living in the house. These full memberships had a “Caucasian-only” clause, so I was unable to be offered this membership. I fully understood this, given that this was 1954, when segregation still lingered nationwide.
My initial introduction to the Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi was, however, quite different than the other fraternities. The active members warmly greeted me and never once discussed a social membership. Nobody asked me about my past life, nor did I ever feel I had to mention anything about my five years incarcerated in an internment camp.
I was overwhelmed by the OWU Epsilon Chapter’s sincerity and compassion. The chapter was setting a precedent by breaking with the “Caucasian clause.” I felt great—equal and proud to have joined Alpha Sigma Phi at Ohio Wesleyan.
In my initial acceptance for being an Alpha Sig, I was privileged to meet the then-president of Ohio Wesleyan, Arthur Fleming ’27, who also was a distinguished Alpha Sigma Phi alumnus. I also had the honor of meeting Ralph Burns ’32, as he navigated the process to advance my acceptance, and later, during my senior year, took me to an Alpha Sigma Phi National Conference, where I met some of the outstanding alumni. Others in the brotherhood also became a big part of my personal growth over the years and even today, including pledge class president Fred Ballard ’57, Bill Frazer ’57, Bill Steinbrenner ’57, Dave Huff ’57, Paul Cruser ’57, and my first roommate Len Rott ’57, to name a few.
When I graduated from OWU in 1957, I fulfilled my military service obligation, entering the United States Air Force, and eventually rising to the ranks of Captain. I was fortunate enough to serve in Japan and travel all through the Far East during my tenure of service.
Following my service, I completed my graduate program at the Dental College of Loyola University in Chicago. My wife, Irene, and I set up a private orthodontia practice in Park Ridge, IL, where I practiced for 31 great years.
While throughout my career, I authored numerous scientific papers and a textbook, lectured domestically and internationally, and served on many boards, my biggest professional accomplishment was the opportunity to put permanent “smiles” on the faces of many patients.
In addition, I have had the continual support and love of Irene for 54 years, as well as two successful children, Dr. David Arai and Mrs. Shaunna Lynn Balady, and my grandchildren.
As I reflect on these years, I realize that some of my life lessons and personal development resulted from my association with my initial pledge class, and I thank them for their guidance and friendship. These accomplishments were made possible because of that early invitation to be a part of a thoughtful fraternity committed to helping its members help the world around them, no matter what their background.
So, if I’m asked whether fraternities are a necessary part of today’s college or university communities, my answer is simple: absolutely!
Dr. Harold Y. Arai ’57 and his wife live in Libertyville, IL.