Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Housemother gives KU’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity a touch of home

Housemother gives KU’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity a touch of home -


The Kansas City Star

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At the moment, she was cutting flowers for the dining room in preparation for that evening’s dinner, but at alternate times over the next couple of hours, she would meet with a vending machine representative, refill her candy dishes, check on the temperature in one of the house’s sitting rooms and retrieve a patched-up pair of jeans for one of her boys.

“As you can see,” she said between chores, “my job consists of mom-like things.”

Company is the housemother at Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Kansas, a smiling, joking presence who, when not overseeing the various tasks around the house, is charged with keeping tabs on the 95 testosterone-infused young men who fill the building and nearby annexes.

For the past eight years, she has served as the lone maternal presence inside the big house at 1645 Tennessee St. in Lawrence: taking sick fraternity members soup, teaching them to use a washing machine and generally filling in for the dozens of mothers who are unable to regularly look after their sons once they leave for college.

Company is one of almost 30 housemothers on the KU campus who fill a long-standing Greek life tradition. And with Mother’s Day quickly approaching, it seems like the perfect time to recognize this unusual kind of “mom.”

“I can’t fathom sending my kids there without Sally,” said Tammy Thomas, who has served as president of the Mom’s Club and has sent two children through SigEp.

Today, the job comes as naturally as breathing for Company.

She’s a constant stream of motion, checking on this, looking into that, making sure the boys know her door is always open.

A decade ago, however, it would have been hard to imagine this life.

After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston and a master’s from the University of Texas, she went abroad, eventually meeting the man she would marry. For the 30 years prior to arriving in Lawrence, Company lived in Spain, raising her three sons with her then-husband, who ran a technology business.

When she decided to move back to the states to be closer to family, her sister, a housemother at a KU sorority, helped her land a job as a housemother at a fraternity. Company wasn't sure what to expect.

She’d never seen “Animal House.” She’d never been in a sorority and had little first-hand knowledge of what exactly Greek life entailed. The idea of a houseful of 18- to 22-year-old boys posed challenges.

That first summer, when fraternity members began to arrive for the fall semester, she was full of nerves.

Although a housemother was nothing new to the men of SigEp — in fact, according to fraternity lore, the chapter’s very first housemother went on to marry its founder, James Naismith — members weren't sure what to make of this new woman who lived in a small apartment inside the house.

She, in turn, wasn't quite sure what to make of them. There was an adjustment period, certainly. She wasn’t used to the noise level or the language. When she walked into the dining room, conversation would stop.

An adjustment period isn’t unusual.

“They’re women who are committed to working and dedicating their time to this population, which is sometimes a challenge,” says Amy Long, associate director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, of the job of the housemother. “They’re really dedicated people, and they have to have a lot of energy to do the work they do.”

And for Company, things slowly got easier.

By Christmas, she said, she’d started to settle in. And by the spring semester, she’d fallen in love with the work.

“We just started to get to know each other better and become more relaxed around each other,” she said. “And I think I started feeling more like a mom to them, instead of just ‘Mom.’”

Today, there’s no question who rules the Sigma Phi Epsilon roost.

To her, they’re all her sons. She knows their names, their majors, what kinds of extracurricular projects they’re working on, what kind of candy they prefer.

Few things in the house are without her fingerprints, from the decorations in the dining room to the kinds of beverages served in the kitchen.

During a recent visit from a drink vendor, she quickly nixed the idea of a fountain soda machine: “We don’t want our young men to be filling up on sugar all day,” she said. “They have enough energy as it is.”

On Sundays, she gathers new members and carries out “Minutes With Mom,” where the primary focus is etiquette. Among the topics they’ve covered: how to use a cellphone respectfully, how to escort a lady, how to iron a shirt and how to use a washer and dryer.

They’re lessons that can seem tedious but that, years later, the boys come to appreciate.

“It’s kind of easy to take for granted, then you look back and realize how much she did to to help everybody,” said Jeff Brown, a former member. “And she was a big part of the house and all the good things that were accomplished (there).”

As for the boys’ real mothers?

They’re glad to have someone who can fill the motherly role while their kids are away.

“She’s the mother of 95-plus guys, and I can guarantee you, I’ve seen her and observed her, and that is a genuine caring that she provides,” Thomas said. “It’s not anything made up.”

During a recent break from her tasks, Company sat with a visitor inside her small apartment. She rolled through stories and anecdotes, happily recalling her past eight years as the fraternity’s resident mom.

She’s not sure how much longer she’d like to do this, but she’s not sure of the alternative.

“I could retire and go to Spain; I have two children there, and my only grandchild is there,” she said. “But I keep thinking: What would I do with my time? I would just be so bored.”

It was mid-afternoon on a recent weekday, which meant Sally Voth Company was well into her daily duties.

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