Past Times

Past Times: NC State fraternities had surrogate moms

Sigma Nu fraternity’s Lena Clark provided guidance to the sometimes mischievous brothers.
Sigma Nu fraternity’s Lena Clark provided guidance to the sometimes mischievous brothers. N&O File Photo

Despite the “animal house” reputation of 1960s and 1970s college fraternities, N.C. State University houses weren’t without some guidance. In 1977, writer Stephanie Stallings introduced readers to one fraternity’s favorite adviser.

Lena Clark knows that if a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity at North Carolina State University here comes in the kitchen and locks the door, he’s got a problem he wants to talk about.…

In her 30 years as the fraternity’s cook, she’s also become their chief counselor and confidante. While baking thousands of her famous drop biscuits served swimming in honey, she’s also dished up advice on family, school and even dating problems.

In fact, she told one student recently to change his attitude if he wanted to date a certain girl. “I laid it on him,” she said. “I told him he was too selfish and cold and if he would loosen up and show some warmth, she would go out with him.” The couple is now going steady.

Lena, as the brothers call her, has attended weddings of couples that met at the fraternity. Sons of the first men she fed in the fraternity are now brothers.

Sigma Nu’s brothers and alumni recently paid tribute to Mrs. Clark’s 30th anniversary at the fraternity at their formal dinner-dance. They presented her with an electric organ to accompany herself when she sings, as she often does to the brothers, and a gift of $1900. Mrs. Clark plans to save the money for her retirement.

From the beginning, pledges or trial members of the fraternity learn that Mrs. Clark is their friend. The kitchen is a haven of understanding as they perform chores under her protective guard.

She’s the one person who can call a halt to the good-natured but often tiresome harassment that pledges must tolerate to become brothers.

“I have to protect the little pledges from the brothers,” she explains.

Often, Mrs. Clark has the last word about who becomes a brother. She’s been around long enough to know if someone will make the grade.

“She’s been here 30 years which means she’s seen 60 pledge classes,” said fraternity president Keith Franklin of King’s Mountain. “That’s more experience than any of us have had.”

Reflecting back over her years of fraternity life, the widow and mother of three adopted children is happy about the fact that hazing has been outlawed. She remembers the days when pledges had to do outlandish things like drink a half gallon of water before they could eat a meal.

In addition, she says that the fraternity is more active in community projects now and their parties are also more festive. She now spends an entire day preparing lavish hors d’oeuvres for a cocktail party where beer and pretzels once sufficed.

Although the quantities are still large, the food she’s serving three times a day is also different. Ethnic foods like tacos, pizza and lasagne have replaced meat and potatoes once considered a must for every meal.

Mrs. Clark insists, however, that the college students don’t change much “I have some interested in clothes; I have a little group that loves parties; and I have some that studies all the time and that’s the way it’s always been.”

Whatever their interests, Mrs. Clark knows them and doesn’t forget. She easily recalls names of the many alumni who return specifically to visit her and perhaps share another confidence: they’re safe with her.

“I don’t tell no secrets,” Mrs. Clark said. “I know them all but I don’t tell them.” The N&O Feb. 24, 1977

Housemothers also kept a watchful eye over the houses and their residents, as Raleigh Times writer Carol Colvard explained in 1964.

Housemothers are traditionally nicknamed with some form of “mother” and Mrs. Pearl Perkins quite naturally became “Ma” (to Kappa Sigma).…

Mrs. Nelsie Short, called variously, “Mums,” “Mom,” and “Shorty” by the Pi Kappa Phis, enjoys her occupation as a change from the hotel and motel management that has been her career.…

Mrs. Short’s tiny chihuahua, Prissy, has been chosen fraternity mascot and wears a sweater with the fraternity emblem.…

Mrs. Eugenia Bizzell found that planning for the Phi Kappa Taus was not quite like planning for the average family. …

She likes her boys and they like her, and consequently the Eggplant Incident was retold with much laughter.

Mrs. Bizell decided to vary the menu slightly and introduce the boys to new culinary experiences. This was long before she discovered “they like anything as long as it’s hot dogs, hamburger or steak.”

She purchased a bushel of eggplant and cooked and served part if it. The reaction? “Oh,” she said, “they almost died.” She had put the remainder of the bushel on the back porch, and the eggplant-dislikers took matters into their own hands and played football with the rest of it. The Raleigh Times March 7, 1964

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Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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