When I first read about the death of Gary DeVercelly Jr. back in 2007, my initial reaction was, “Oh my God, his poor family.” My second thought: “It’s a miracle something like this didn’t happen during my days at Rider.” I pledged a fraternity, Phi Sigma Epsilon, in spring 1967. It was one of five fraternities on campus at the time. While it wasn’t considered the animal house — Tau Kappa Epsilon enjoyed that distinction before losing its charter in 1980 (later winning it back) — drinking was pervasive and excessive. Hazing at Phi Sig was unpleasant, but not potentially lethal as I felt it was within at least two other fraternities.
That same year, the cultural changes that swept the nation came calling at Rider. The Student Government Association, riding the crest of the Student Rights movement, presented 32 “demands to the administration,” one of which was to (officially) allow the consumption of alcohol on campus. Interestingly, then-Dean of Students James McRoberts testified in Trenton on behalf of lowering the drinking age to 18, arguing, among other things, that Rider was “the only campus of its size in New Jersey that was dry.” New Jersey eventually lowered its drinking age from 21 to 18 in 1973, raised it to 19 in 1980 and raised it back to 21 in 1983.
There were many college administrators, and parents, who believed it was better to allow drinking with some degree of supervision on campus than to force students to drive off campus to drink and drive back impaired. On weekends, it was common, particularly for underclassmen, to head for Staten Island, where the drinking age was 18. Those with false proof frequented a handful of bars in Trenton that didn’t much care what age you were as long as your money was good.
Around the same time, drugs started becoming commonplace, particularly in my fraternity, which bridged the “Greek versus freak” divide by welcoming both. The first floor housed most of the hippies — those drawn to marijuana, long-form rock anthems and activism — while the second floor accommodated the drinkers and those less concerned that the world seemed to be going up in flames.
By spring 1969, however, a period marked by sit-ins, mass demonstrations, boycotts of classes and “drink-ins,” the Phi Sig brothers found common cause in trying to avoid the military draft and by making further demands on the Rider administration, including claiming the right to establish all student social and disciplinary regulations. The Board of Trustees shot that one down, but it did authorize coed visitation in the dorms and Greek houses.
As with most students who joined fraternities and sororities at the time, I was looking for a better social life, one that included lots of parties, easier access to alcohol and pretty women, and, by my senior year, easier access to marijuana. Phi Sig didn’t disappoint.
But looking back, things could well have ended at my fraternity the way they did for DeVercelly’s Phi Kappa Tau: with a horrific tragedy. Young people often do stupid things. I did. Guys in my fraternity house did. We just didn’t know it at the time.
Rider was a different place in the late ’60s, as was the nation. The cultural climate had changed, almost overnight. But some things don’t change and young people exercising poor judgment is one of them. Given Rider’s history, and similar experiences at colleges across the country, the Rider administration needed to act. It responded appropriately, not only to the DeVercelly death, but also to the changing attitudes toward substance abuse.
Randy Bergmann, ’69, is co-adviser to The Rider News. He was editor of The Rider News in the 1968-69 academic year.