Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Housemothers Bring Real World to Frat House

Frat housemother at SMU loves serving Pi
By CAITLIN MYERS

The bass of a neighbor's stereo thumped against the thin walls of Lila McCurtain's apartment. Deep voices shouted profanities outside her window. A car alarm went off.

Lila McCurtain, 76, is one of only four fraternity moms left at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. For the past seven years, she has lived year-round at the Pi Kappa Alpha house on campus. She's been called a 'new school' version of housemothers.

Oblivious to the chaos, Ms. McCurtain calmly crossed her legs and leaned forward in her turquoise workout ensemble, preparing to demonstrate how she relaxes people for hypnosis. It's one of her many interests.

"If you want tranquility," she said, "you have to forget all that other stuff."

Ms. McCurtain, 76, lives inside a fraternity house – and likes it. As housemother to the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter at Southern Methodist University, she deals daily with loud music, empty beer cans and an endless supply of testosterone.

"This is best job I've ever had, hands down," she said. "I get to experience all the fun things about college without having to actually go to class."

Ms. McCurtain is part of a dying breed. At SMU, only four of the nine frats with campus housing employ housemothers. The others use male house directors, usually graduate students closer in age to the fraternity members.

That's probably the case elsewhere, fraternity officials said. Brandon Weghorst, a spokesman for the national office of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, attributed the drop to several factors, including tight finances at local chapters and a dwindling applicant pool for the job.

Ms. McCurtain remained at the frat house when students returned home for the summer and will welcome them back in the fall.

Perks of the job include an apartment in the fraternity house, chef-prepared meals and a salary she wouldn't reveal, except to say it is "adequate for [her] needs."
Her first-floor apartment is stuffed with the trappings of her many interests: racks of sequined ball gowns, family photographs and a Total Body Gym, for starters.

People who know her say the unconventional job suits her well. This, after all, is a woman who on her 50th birthday created a list of things she wants to accomplish each year to make sure she stays active.

Goal No. 21 was to become a housemother. And after seven years on the job, she has no plans to leave.

Ms. McCurtain decided to try the job at the suggestion of her son Monte, who was in a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. She had recently retired as a rehabilitation counselor at age 66.

"I thought my mom would be a good housemother because she has spent her whole life being a good mother to all those around her," her son said.

Nate Harris, chef at the Pike house for nearly 12 years, describes Ms. McCurtain as the "new school" version of housemothers.

"She relates to them on their level, about issues that really matter to them," he said.

Those issues include sex. Pike members say Ms. McCurtain candidly advises them on healthy and responsible sexual behavior, lessons that can come at the dinner table or through her short stories and poems that circulate around the fraternity house.

"The idea of talking about such private stuff with 'Mom' was a little weird at first," 21-year-old Pike member David Dines said. "But it's actually nice having someone other than guys to talk with if we need to."

One of Ms. McCurtain's passions is ballroom dancing. She hones her tango and waltz weekly at community centers and dance clubs around the Dallas-Fort Worth area, often wearing one of her lavish gowns.

She then lends her expertise to fraternity members in annual lessons because, she said, she's never been a fan of the "belly-rubbing" dance moves practiced by many of today's college students.

"When I was a pledge freshman year, she taught us how to ballroom dance, which at the time was not very useful," Mr. Dines said. "But, I'm sure someday I will be thankful I know how to do it."

Ms. McCurtain has coached the Pikes in many areas, from traditional etiquette to autohypnosis (it helps improve grades, she said). Members of the fraternity consider her a valuable role model.

"Whenever we are tense about anything or stressed out with school, we know we can sit down with her at dinner, and she will lighten the mood with one of her many stories," said Henry Weiler, 21.

Ms. McCurtain said the fraternity members have taught her some along the way, as well.

"My men are totally awesome," she said. "They have taught me that it's OK to be messy. And I now know how to stay up late."

Caitlin Myers is a freelance writer and a student at Southern Methodist University.