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May 16, 2009

HOWARD R. ALTER, JR. R.I.P.

My old boss, mentor, friend and Theta Chi Fraternity legend passed away last week. His obituary is here, which includes a link to his obituary in the local Pittsburgh newspaper.

I have hundreds of "Uncle Howie" stories, most of which would be be indecipherable to non-Theta Chis due to all the obscure and personal references. So instead of trotting them out, I'll just post below the tribute I wrote for him on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1998. (Click below where it says "more")

One tidbit - if you want to know what Howard sounded like in his prime, the best approximation I can think of is Otho, from Beetle Juice (especially the passage starting at about 4:45)



Now imagine that voice reciting this, his favorite poem, a poignant metaphor for Brotherhood:

An old man, going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way;
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide--
Why build you the bridge at the eventide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."

October 31, 1998

Any excuse for Brothers to gather in good fellowship is welcome, but especially so when marking an auspicious occasion such as this one. For tonight we celebrate yet another major milestone in the life of that legendary Theta Chi, Howard R. Alter, Jr. And celebrate we will. But I, for one, refuse to swallow the notion that this is Howard’s 80th birthday.

Those of us who, however briefly, were brought into the realm of Howard’s special powers know the truth.The truth is, in short, he is immortal. Like the Highlander, or Lestat the Vampire, or the Energizer Bunny, Howard was here long before us, and he’ll still be here long after we are gone.

There is ample proof of this. When Moses brought down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, his first words upon seeing the paganism and debauchery the Israelites had fallen into while he was gone were not, as reported in the Bible. “Behold, I bring the Laws of God! Damn ye sinners!”  The actual words were, “You’re all idiots - I said no more Little Sister programs!”

And what of the evidence unearthed just recently at the buried city of Pompeii? Unknown to but a few of the very most learned of scholars, a miraculously preserved document was discovered in what appeared to be the 1st Century AD equivalent of a waterfront saloon. The inscription identifies the bearer, one H. R. Alter, as a Seaman Second Class in the Eritrean Navy. Coincidence? I think not.

Need more? Most historians agree that the Norman conquest of England in 1066 was the result of expansionistic ambitions of the French. But this is not the story according to one eyewitness. HRA’s official biographers have discovered a diary written by a French foot soldier. This man records in his diary that, when asked why Howard had advised the French to conquer England, he replied “Because they know me here.”

Centuries later, he joined forces with the famous Booth family of English gin makers, and came to America in search of True Brotherhood. After serving successfully as Abraham Lincoln’s campaign advisor (once a Republican, always a Republican), Howard moved to Vermont and made history once more. And although credulous non-believing revisionists have since edited the story of the Founding of Theta Chi to eliminate Howard’s role, we here tonight all know the Rest of the Story. Howard was, in fact, the first Alumnus Advisor for Frederick Norton Freeman and Arthur Chase, and Mabel Oswaldt their first housemother.

Having ensured the successful founding of Theta Chi, Howard journeyed far and wide, appearing, Zelig-like, at key moments in the history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Careful scrutiny of period photographs will find him
    at Andrew Carnegie’s side during labor negotiations,
    correcting Woodrow Wilson’s spelling on the League of Nations Charter,
    deftly cashing out of the stock market just before the Crash, and
    tossing banana peels in front of FDR at his inauguration.

After establishing himself as a Pennsylvania squire, he started a successful dry goods and milling business, and personally built the family home of Stockland by hand. His family secure, he entered Penn State and joined Omega Chapter. From that point on, Howard’s history is well known to Theta Chis in particular and to the inter-Fraternal world in general. He’s held every office there is - Alumnus Advisor, Regional Counselor, Grand Chapter, National President, Executive Director, NIC Board, and many others. He’s won every award and honor there is to win, so much so that we had to create new ones. He’s one of the few men in history to have memorial award named for him BEFORE he died.

My personal remembrances of Howard begin during my time as an undergraduate, and broaden considerably during my tenure as one of Howard and Dale’s Field Representatives in the early 80’s, and later during my other roles in the official family - the regional staff and various boards and alumni groups.

I remember my first encounter with Howard at the 1976 National Convention in Miami at the Konover Hotel.  I met him when my Chapter president went to find Dale Slivinske to lodge some niggling complaint about the planning for the Convention. We found them in the hospitality suite, where I nervously introduced myself to Howard while my Chapter president proceeded loudly to harangue Dale. What happened to me next has, I’m certain, happened to practically everyone in this room - I had my first encounter with the prodigious Alter memory. Howard not only knew who I was, but also what chapter I was from, how much we owed to the NBT, what the status of our pledge and initiation fees were, our Chapter house address, and the names of our Chapter and Alumni officers.

He offered me a drink, and I sat timidly next to him as he and Dale argued minutiae with my Chapter president. And, as I was to witness many times thereafter, he gently sliced apart our petty complaints, while maintaining his cool, and cementing a new working relationship with our Chapter leaders.

Others will, I’m sure, recall for this occasion a variety of anecdotes about Howard. Space limitations preclude my telling most of mine, so I will record here just the highlights. For those interested in the wide-screen Technicolor versions, just give me a call.

Upon my arrival as a brand-new Field Representative in August 1979, I inquired brightly of Howard what things he did NOT like to see in his Field Reps, he answered, tersely, “Beards.”

Other Field Rep hijinks include these vignettes from Trenton and New York City:
Sprinting from Mama Leone’s to Penn Station to make the last train home.
The night one of our boys tried to join The Elephant Man on stage during the play.
Closing the garage door on Howard’s car.(Not me)
Fire extinguisher fights in the Executive Office. (Again not me)
Getting kicked out of a nightclub for pinching girls on the rump.(Right, not me - would you believe HRA?)
Stopovers in Washington DC to fill the field rep’s car with tax-free libations.
Howard’s comment upon hearing Mabel’s signature high-pitched cackling laugh, “So who’s going to go down and gather the eggs?”
While responding to correspondence from fraternity adversaries, Howard would pause the Dictaphone in mid-sentence to add an aside such as ”You idiot” or “Dale, where do we get these people?”

I also recall fondly these Howard moments
The Howard Alter Roast at the 1984 Convention in Scottsdale
Howard’s Foster Brooks impersonation at BA Chapter - UCLA’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

My favorite memory is also the least funny or momentous - the ritual Opening of the Alumni Contributions each evening in Howard’s office. Howard’s equivalent of the “Sun Under the Yardarm” was when the last of the staff, usually Suzanne, left the office for the evening, which signaled that the bar was open.Howard would say “Has Suzanne left? Oh, good. I’ll have an Ezra Brooks and water.” I or one of the other Field reps who happened to be in the office would pour, and we’d gather in Howard’s office for the show.

Dale would prop his socked feet up on one of Howard’s leather chairs, and with a Merit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and a Dewar’s & soda at his side, he’d scribble left-handed on a spiral-wire-topped steno book, recording the contributors, their Chapter, and their gift amounts as Howard would open and read the mail.

Howard’s desk was notoriously sloppy, and his usual posture in his highback judge’s chair was tilted way back to within a few degrees of horizontal. From this perch, peering out between stacks of correspondence and back issues of The Rattle, he would attack the pile of mail. He’d operate a guillotine-like device that excised a thin edge off the envelope. He’d extract the contents like a cardinal counting votes for the new pope, and would announce the contributor, chapter, year, check amount and banking number for Dale to record.

Occasionally, he’d encounter an address change. The envelope would be fed to the guillotine three more times, preserving the corrected address and old mailing label for update in the computer. He’d hand it to one of us and say, “Put that in Anne’s in-box, so she can enter or lose it, whichever comes first.”

Like a celebrant at the altar, he would ritually repeat the process, adding comments and humorous asides about the contributor or his chapter, to the unending amusement of the staff. He would often take this opportunity to quiz the staff, calling out the chapter designation and asking for the corresponding school, or vice versa. He’d also keep a running tally of the giving of his Omega chapter mates, often calling them on the spot to goad and cajole them to give ever more, so as to stave off the competition from chapters like Alabama and Purdue.

When the mail was done, Howard would chair a discussion regarding the restaurant selection for the evening. Of course, the legendary Crecco’s of Trenton was preferred, but we couldn’t go there every night. We’d run through the possibilities - Mastoris’s, the Extension Diner, Washington’s Crossing Inn, and other favorite spots. Each restaurant had its own batch of Field Rep and Howard anecdotes, like the time one field rep announced loudly at Washington’s Crossing Inn that George Washington had died of syphilis. Needless to say, we couldn’t go back there for some months.
    
But Crecco’s usually had the most votes, and besides, as Howard famously says, “They know me there.” Following generously-poured cocktails enjoyed while surrounded by  pictures of owner Lou Crecco hugging celebrities and competing in the NYC marathon, we’d share appetizers of Fettucine Alfredo alla Crecco (Italian sausage was the secret ingredient) and fried mozzarella alla marinara (served here long before other restaurants discovered it). I recall that Dale would often order liver, the only person I have ever seen do that, washed down with his favorite red wine from a bottle wrapped in burlap. Lou would buy us an after-dinner round, and we’d typically indulge in Stingers, sweet and tart. We’d wind up back at headquarters as sated as human beings could ever possibly be. Howard loved to spoil his boys when we were in town, rewarding us for all those lonely days on the road and nights on the couch. Even today, I’d spend another 3 months on the road for just one more of these nights.
    
Two more comments, both on the serious side. I recall with great admiration how Howard would make the 6-hour drive through all kinds of weather from the National Headquarters in Trenton to his home to Pittsburgh to visit his mother. He’d leave after close of business Friday afternoon, and return Sunday night, making the round trip practically every weekend he was in town. His example has helped me maintain a weekly visit to my mother’s home for the last 15 years.

Finally, I consider Howard’s devotion and compassion for Dale Slivinske during his illness and passing to be the most Christ-like example of true brotherhood I can cite. Many of the circumstances of Dale’s condition, I have to believe, mitigated against much of what Howard had held sacred most of his life. But in all that time, there was not one comment of betrayal, not one judgmental aside, nor any level of abandonment or distancing on Howard’s part, whether from and increasingly sickly Dale, or from Dale’s heretofore unknown friends. Instead, there was unending paternal and fraternal love, constant personal assistance and companionship, and, in the end, as courageous an example of the Helping Hand as one could possibly imagine. This more than anything I believe to be the truest legacy of Howard Alter.

And so I join my Brothers in saluting Howard on his 80th birthday, and I look forward to repeating this celebration 10 and 20 years from now.

Fraternally,

James J. “Jimbo” McMahon, ZE ‘79

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