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AROUND TOWN

A Reunion of Brothers to Help Out the Sisters

June 03, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the first time in almost 50 years, the Pi Kappa Alphas had hung out their shingle at the storied "Red Castle" close by the USC campus.

The boys of PiKA--classes of 1939 through 1949--had come home, to the scene of youthful pranks and youthful romances, to the turn-of-the-century sandstone mansion built by lumber tycoon Thomas Stimson and today home to a group of nuns.

What a difference half a century makes. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet now say their prayers in those wood-paneled rooms where the PiKAs sang:

"He rambled down to Hades

"To see the poor lost souls

"Saw a bunch of Kappa Sigs a-roasting on the coals. . . ."

Some say it was in self-defense that Carrie Estelle (Mrs. Edward L.) Doheny bought the 30-room fraternity house at Adams and Figueroa for the nuns in 1948, eight years after the PiKAs had acquired it for $20,000.

She lived just in back on Chester Place and, for starters, there were those fraternity parties in "the catacombs," a maze of dungeon-like rooms below street level.

Never mind that the nuns tidied things up and put washing machines down there. The iron-gated wine cellar is just as it was when errant PiKA pledges were locked inside and sprayed with a hose.

Ben Chadwell, 71, a retired yacht broker living in Rancho Santa Fe, had to laugh. A laundry? "I sent mine home to Oklahoma. I kept three boxes going on Railway Express."

Perhaps Chadwell was one of those who inspired Doheny to buy the Red Castle. As a pledge, he crawled through an air shaft to escape from the catacombs and, covered with soot, appeared at Doheny's door to ask liveried butlers if he might use the phone.

When Whitey Fruhling, 68, of Sun Valley, Idaho, was house president, he'd be called before USC President Rufus B. Von Kleinsmid "once a month or so" at the behest of the beleaguered Doheny. It was the noise thing.

Then there was Dev Leahy, 69--"I'm the notorious guy who jumped on the pogo stick" and took out one of the oak floorboards. This day, he'd memorialized the spot with a hastily made marker.

About 40 brothers came for the party, the first time the nuns had opened the mansion for such an event. The PiKAs had an inside track. Sister Anne Marie had taught Dorothy McDonough, wife of reunion chairman Vincent McDonough, in school. And the fraternity gave proceeds of the event, $1,000, to the sisters' retirement fund.

Sister Anne Marie, flitting from room to room, was having a grand time. "This is the liveliest bunch. . . . These fellas are tremendous."

Herb Brown, 71, a widower and tried-and-true Trojan who now recruits promising students for USC, was reliving his 1942 wedding day, when Mabelle Hammerstrom walked down the stately curving staircase to say, "I do."

Those stairs held memories of a different sort for John Anderson, 74, who was telling how a hapless pledge was made to lie at the foot while "we divebombed him with eggs" from two flights above. "Well, it turns out he was allergic to eggs and his eyes swelled closed and we had to call the paramedics."

Anderson had dusted off his fraternity pin for the first time in 50 years and had asked his wife, Eileen, to wear the one he'd bought for his mom. "My mother worked at Finch's card shop at 5th and Hill Street at 25 cents an hour and paid my initiation into this outfit. I washed dishes for my room and board."

Some PiKAs went off to war; a few didn't return. For others the service years were an epiphany. While in the Navy, Eugene Buhr "decided to tear up my little address book." Now 70, he's pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Hawthorne.

Over lunch on the veranda, PiKAs and wives reminisced as a pianist played "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "Sentimental Journey." Each room held a memory, from the catacombs--scene of a notable luau with palm fronds filched from a cemetery--to the Ivanhoe-like tower. But what was this? The old bridge room now a women's bathroom?

At day's end, guests moved inside, where McDonough, 73, retired from General Electric and living in Ventura, said what others were thinking: "The last time I stood here was 48 years ago . . . younger, smarter, full of aspirations."

John Langdon, cutup of the class of '49, joked that he pledged PiKA because it was the only house that asked him. He wasn't rich, he didn't drive a red convertible or play football. Maybe, he said, he got in because, "I could imitate Clark Gable."

Eyes misted over as, one more time, the PiKAs raised their voices in song:

"He rambled down to old SC

"Thought he'd join a frat

"Thought he'd take a look around

"To see where he was at. . . ."

The Kind of Story That Saves Lives

Since the car crash that left him severely brain damaged, Brandon Silveria, 26, a onetime "party animal" and athlete, has told his story to 200,000 students, most recently via satellite at John Marshall High in Los Feliz.

It needs to be told as long as there are teens and alcohol, cars and graduation parties.

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