Sunday, March 02, 2008

SMU House Mom - Go Mom Go!

76-year-old fraternity house mom teaches ballroom dancing and sexual enlightenment
By Caitlin Myers, Contributing Writer

Plucker's chicken bones, Styrofoam to-go boxes and what looks to be the remains of someone's accounting textbook litter the path to her apartment. Apologizing, she tiptoes around the mess, but says don't expect her to clean it up. "I'm not the one who has to pay for the damages," Lila McCurtain said once she's inside the SMU Pi Kappa Alpha house, whose hallways reek of the weekend's festivities.

After all, she's the fraternity's house mother - not its maid. She's the woman who provides, among other things, ballroom dancing lessons, sexual enlightenment and hypnosis to more than 100 fraternity members. But she is definitely not a maid.

And she's part of a dying breed. Of the nine Interfraternity Council chapters on campus, only four house mothers remain. Since the fall of 2005, SMU's Greek system has been slowly replacing these long-time staples of fraternity row with "graduate Greek house directors," a group of younger, male graduate students employed and trained by the university.

Sigma Chi, Phi Delta Theta, Kappa Alpha Order and Pi Kappa Alpha are the only houses still utilizing female house directors.

"Respect for the house mother position has kind of gone away," Ryan Williams, coordinator of Student Activities and Greek Affairs, said. "It takes a very special person to do this job well."

McCurtain more than fits the bill. The divorced mother of three grown sons (and seven grandchildren) says she's not here to baby-sit. She came to the PIKE house nearly seven years ago after some convincing from her youngest son, Monte, a Greek alumnus from the University of Oklahoma. When asked by one of her men's mothers during Parent's Weekend if she took good care of her son, McCurtain replied with a prompt, "No."

"I told her that one day, when her son lives in the real world, he will probably have a wife and children and will have to take care of them," McCurtain said. "So, I am giving him an opportunity to practice by taking care of me."

Don't mistake her frankness and practicality for a lack of compassion, though. She says that's a common misconception about her Chinese zodiac sign, the monkey. "We monkeys are often considered insensitive, but that's just because we are the active sign of the zodiac," she said. "We're fast moving and have high energy."

At 76, McCurtain makes an effort to ballroom dance five nights a week at various community centers around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When she's not waltzing, she likes to tone up with the Total Body Gym that sits in the middle of her living room. "No other house mom is like ours," junior PIKE member Curtis Edenfield said. "She gets all dressed up and tries to teach us her ballroom dancing skills. It's awesome.

"A tour of her tiny, first-floor apartment inside the PIKE house (one of the job's perks, along with an undisclosed salary from the fraternity) reveals her passions in life: several rolling racks of feathers, sequins and satin ball gowns, elephant figurines and family photographs, a Ms. Congeniality Award from the 1994 Ms. Senior Texas Pageant, where she was also the first runner-up.

"That's me from a long, long time ago," she said, pointing to a black and white photograph of herself hanging above the desk. "Eighteen years old. Back when I was a brunette."

She's proud of her soft, wavy blonde bob now. She cuts and bleaches it herself. She's gone through every hairstyle imaginable, even enduring the pain of the frosting phenomenon.

But it was her naturally brown locks that taught her a lot growing up in McAlester, Okla. As the "mousy brunette" in a family of blonde sisters and an athletic brother, McCurtain quickly learned that to get noticed she had to bring something else to the table.

So she started dancing. On her father's feet, in the country town's one-room schoolhouse, McCurtain learned to foxtrot and two-step. By the time she was a teenager, the boys chose her over her sisters because, well, she could "dance the pants" off that one-room schoolhouse.

When she's not dancing, she substitute teaches for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district. With what free time she has left, she enjoys writing, especially love poems and short stories. Inspiration comes from her own life, and she often wakes up in the middle of the night to jot down a new prose.

She shuffles through piles of papers and video tapes and produces a bound, cardstock calendar entitled "Alpha Males 2008." She sells these homemade calendars for $20 a piece, with the proceeds going toward building and maintaining an orphanage that her son Monte setup in Zambia, Africa.

Inside, each month features men from 21 to 75 years old "who are successful in every area of their lives" and "above all, they know how to treat a woman." Six of her fraternity men fill the pages; the rest include dance partners, friends and family.

Junior PIKE member Clark Lundy is Mr. February. His photo is accompanied by one of McCurtain's original poems, "Tethered to Your Heart."

We can't forget about the other months, though, McCurtain points out. Junior Jonny "Red Beard" Morgans is Mr. August. Beneath his picture, McCurtain writes, "He may pirate your heart." Then, flipping back several pages, there's junior pledge brother David Dines, better known as Mr. July: "Tennis is his game; if you're a match, love is his goal," reads his description.

It's hard to imagine the stereotypical fraternity guy willingly participating in such a testament to romance. However, the PIKE men say it's the least they can do for Mom."She's done so much for us," Dines said. "So, we try to help her out whenever she needs us."It is this mutual respect between a tough-love kind of mom and her sons that has kept McCurtain at the PIKE house year after year.

Despite a national trend toward more male mentorship in fraternities, this chapter's members couldn't imagine their house without Mom."We're her boys," Lundy said. "Each year she gets a whole new set of us to watch over. And she's completely selfless, even offering up her own racks of costumes to us for Halloween.

I love knowing that years from now I can come back to this house and Mom will still be here."Likewise, her men have told her she only need knock three times on her apartment wall before someone comes to her aid. "My men, they really do take care of me," McCurtain said. "They're totally awesome."

While her poems and short stories have drawn a cult-like following within the house, McCurtain said it is her lessons in sexuality that rank most popular. As a retired psychotherapist for a physical rehabilitation hospital, she taught sexuality to quadriplegics and patients with traumatic brain injuries. Next to them, frat guys must be a synch.

"I tell them, 'Today, I am not your house mom; I am your Dutch uncle. So, feel free to ask me anything you like,'" she said. "If I don't know the answer, and one of their older brothers doesn't know either, we will research it in the library.

"Rounding out her skills, McCurtain also offers hypnosis, a talent she happened to pick up at a traveling workshop. Her goal is for the fraternity members to improve their grades through autohypnosis, a technique she herself uses to drown out the slamming doors and rap music of her men's late-night partying.

"When else would I ever have the opportunity to meet a woman like this?" Lundy said. "She has experience in so many different areas, it's unbelievable."On her 50th birthday, McCurtain made a pact with herself to accomplish something new each year. At the rate she's going, she said there are only a few things left to check off her list, and she's saving the best for last."When I go, I'll be 100 years old, on the French Rivera, in bed with a strange man," she said.

"You see, I've been to the Rivera plenty of times, but never in bed with a strange man, so that's kind of the final frontier."