Animal House

When Tony Zinnante joined the Phi Kapps in 1961, he played the piano at weekly parties. Today he's trying to help the fraternity clean up its act.
Daniel Kramer

Things probably started going badly at the house on South MacGregor Way long before it caught fire last December, killing Phi Kappa Theta's German shepherd, Nila. Just the month before, the fraternity had caused a stir when a tarp shielding the backyard fell down. Behind the tarp was a massive sign from the frat's Bourbon Street party held the night before. Early-morning joggers along the bayou trails were a little shocked to find an anatomically incorrect rooster letting them know that "Phi Kappa Theta Says a Big Dick Beats a Little Cock."

Outraged officials at the University of Houston wanted the group off-campus. Officials at the national fraternity brokered a compromise, suspending the chapter and promising to work with UH on ways to improve its image. But when the alumni appointed to oversee the group started to really dig, they soon realized the fraternity had much bigger problems than a dead dog and a well-endowed rooster on their hands.

In Greek life, there's one way to be king: to have the best parties. And Phi Kappa Theta had the crown. The frat's parties were huge blowouts, with drinks and girls aplenty. For one party, the Phi Kapps even hired Roger Creager, the country singer best known for alcohol-induced songs such as "Love" (hint: that's not what it's about). Even university officials knew the frat's reputation. Says one who requested anonymity because he regularly deals with the group: "Phi Kapp has always been cocky." He described its attitude as "We're bigger than everybody else, and we don't have to follow the rules."

In a letter to an alumnus complaining about activities at the fraternity, James Parker, who was expelled from the group in August, said that parties nearly always featured gallons of free-flowing, powerful punch made with vodka and 190-proof grain alcohol. The letter describes how on one occasion he witnessed members inject booze into Capri Sun packages with hypodermic needles so that underage girls could drink and not worry about being busted for possession. Current members don't dispute that the frat was known for large and popular parties. They were expensive, though, and as alumni later learned, the money raised at the parties was used to fund future festivities. In the meantime, bills for rent and fire insurance went unpaid. When the electrical fire destroyed the house at the end of 2004, alumni say, the group owed 18 months' rent, had no home insurance and owed the national fraternity more than $4,000 in dues. The national fraternity was fed up. With Phi Kappa already on permanent suspension and special probation, the national branch needed to decide whether to fix the chapter or shut it down. And that's where Tony Zinnante enters the story.

Zinnante doesn't look like your typical frat guy. Remember Bluto from Animal House, John Belushi's legendary ne'er-do-well? Picture the exact opposite. Well-dressed and painfully polite, he says things like "gee golly." Zinnante joined the Phi Kapps back in 1961 when it was still an exclusively Catholic fraternity. He fondly recalls the weekly parties where he'd play piano while other members put on skits lampooning the church, university and any other targets ripe for satire. To improve the current chapter, Zinnante was an obvious choice. Now 64 and retired, he's held numerous leadership positions in the group since he graduated in 1962, including that of national president from 1983 to 1985. Initially, Zinnante thought the problems were primarily financial and stemmed from a lack of alumni involvement. He proposed a mentorship program to help stabilize the chapter while members prepared for a show-cause hearing in August to be reinstated, a task he left to the chapter's officers.

When Zinnante learned the officers weren't preparing for the hearing, he fired off an angry e-mail to other alumni, lamenting their "dereliction of duty" and wishing they'd "gotten off their bloody asses and acted like leaders." The chapter was also violating the rules of its suspension. In a November 2004 e-mail, the national fraternity had told the group that as part of the suspension, its events must now be alcohol-free. The fraternity interpreted that to mean no alcohol at the house, which, of course, had burned down a month after the suspension. One member whined to Zinnante that "In Texas we can't have events without beer and alcohol." The members had taken the attitude that this was their fraternity and that the alumni had no right to be involved in their business, Zinnante says. So on July 10, in order to get their attention, he placed the entire fraternity into receivership and made everyone who wanted back in reapply for membership. The students would have to sit before a 12-member special board of advisers made up of fraternity officials and alumni. That's when the alumni realized just how bad things had gotten at Phi Kappa Theta.  

Zinnante describes the process as peeling an onion; with each layer, "you got a little bit more stench and a little bit more stench." The board heard tales of lewd conduct toward women and rampant binge drinking and got the sense that members didn't believe college had anything to do with, well, college. "Our reputation for women was horrible," Zinnante says. While reading the applications for readmission and witnessing individual interviews with the board, Zinnante also was shocked by many members' low GPAs and the high number of DWIs. According to Zinnante, one member had four DWIs and had done time in prison. He also says that another bragged that he'd failed four drug tests while on probation. The group had also lately been having problems with retention. Out of the spring 2004 pledge class, only one remained active. Two others from that class had left to spend time in prison, one for aggravated assault, according to information Zinnante gleaned during reinstatement interviews. Records show that by August of this year, the members combined to owe nearly $11,000 in dues. They had been pushing the university for some time, Zinnante says, in what one student called a "culture of loopholes." The bad apples had to go.

Almost 30 members reapplied, and those who had demonstrated a pattern of bad behavior -- low grades, misconduct, failure to pay dues -- were either expelled or granted alumni status and put on two-year probation. Those facing sanctions were notified on August 4. It was then that allegations of hazing first surfaced.

In the letter James Parker wrote to an alumnus overseeing the discipline of the fraternity, which he signed with a fake name, Parker claimed to speak on behalf of the expelled and suspended group of students. The letter was a bid to "scare" the alumni into letting them back in -- or else they would go public with damning information about the fraternity. "Everyone's goal in doing this was trying to get back in the fraternity," says Matan Ben-David, who was expelled. The five-page missive details hazing and violations of the fraternity's risk-management policy and finishes with a threat to use their numerous connections in the media to end the fraternity. Parker admits that the letter contains numerous exaggerations -- the media contacts, for one -- and was written while he was angry. He also acknowledges that not everyone who was suspended or expelled took part in writing the note. But along with two other students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, he stands by the hazing allegations.

According to Parker, members of his 2001 pledge class were forced to stand in their underwear while rotten food was heaped on them. He says full beer bottles were thrown at them, and they had to do exercises all night. One pledge cut his hand on broken glass while doing push-ups. In one "ritual," Parker says, he was blindfolded and forced to eat a peanut-butter-covered banana out of a toilet while real dogshit surrounded the can. Another student says pledges in 2004 were forced to eat raw onions, chug water until they puked and endure verbal assaults. One active peed on the ground and forced them to clean it up. They also had to hold lit matches and recite the Greek alphabet without error while the entire group yelled at them, according to Parker and others.

"The stated rule that we tried to follow is that you're never allowed to touch a pledge," Parker says. They also almost never forced pledges to drink, knowing that physical abuse and forced drinking were usually the downfall of fraternities. If the hazing allegations are true, Phi Kappa Theta won't be the only fraternity at UH to face those charges. In 2004, the university sanctioned and put on probation both Sigma Chi and Sigma Pi for one year. According to Parker, the worst hazing was often done by alumni, something that doesn't surprise UH Assistant Dean of Students Heidi Kennedy. "Where you come up with problems is where there is an old culture of alums influencing the actives," she says.

Zinnante says it's exactly that culture that they're trying to change. "Most good young men will respond to structure," he says. But then he adds, "We are not professional social workers." Since the story began to break, someone forwarded a copy of Parker's letter to the UH Police Department. A UH spokesman says, "the allegations raised in that letter are being investigated." A spokesman for the national fraternity says they take hazing seriously as well.

Tom Tupa was one of the members granted alumni status but placed on probation. He doesn't want to comment on the hazing allegations but says he was upset by the alumni's process. "I feel like some of us really have been mistreated," says Tupa, who owed nearly $800 to the fraternity at the time of his suspension. "If you give me alumni status and suspend me from the active chapter, that's saying leave fucking nicely."  

There are now only 16 active members in Phi Kappa Theta, and those contacted for this story say they are working to move forward. All refused to speak about the hazing allegations, emphasizing the progress they've made. After the spring semester, the fraternity had the second-highest average fraternity GPA on campus and several members active in the Student Government Association. Kyle Lavender, one of the founding fathers when the group was restarted in 1992 after a brief hiatus from campus, says he and the other alumni are hopeful for the future. "There's a number of young men worth saving," he says.

Freshmen at UH thinking about going Greek probably hope so, too. Rush is happening now.

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