The Journey of Mama Dukes as a Fraternity Mother

In our own journey of becoming lifelong members of our organizations, we often forget that we are not the only ones on this trek. Our friends, significant others, and family members are also along for the ride. This is the story of Mama Dukes (how I affectionately refer to my mother, much to her chagrin) and her adventure of being the mother of a fraternity man.

My membership as a fraternity member began in the spring of 2004. I had a couple friends I knew from high school in a fraternity at my alma mater, UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County). They wanted me to join, and I was on the fence. I had recently transferred from another school, where things had not worked out so well. At this point, I was focused on finishing my degree as quickly as possible and moving on with the rest of my life. I had a good job working part-time as a clerk with Customs and Border Protection at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and it had a strong potential to become a full-time gig upon graduation. I didn’t have the time to worry about being in a fraternity.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked the guys I met from the chapter a lot. I started meeting them that fall semester and hung out with them from time to time. On a fateful Sunday, unbeknownst to me, one of my friends had set certain wheels in motion that would forever change my life and affect the life of Mama Dukes as well.

It started like any other Sunday. I woke up, got ready for work, and made the drive to BWI for my shift that morning. While at the office, I received a call from my friend Mike. He asked if I wanted to go to dinner with some of the guys when I got done with work. I said sure and he said to meet at one of the lecture halls on campus, which was a short distance from where I worked. I met him at the lecture hall and he happened to be wearing a shirt and tie like I was. This was somewhat rare for Mike nowadays after our four years at a private, Catholic high school. He led me to a hallway connected to the lecture hall and there were some other guys I never met before standing there also in shirt and tie.

Mike then mentioned to me that I was about to participate in the Associate Member ceremony to join the fraternity and that I really didn’t have a choice because he had already paid the necessary fees.   I didn’t know what to say besides some profanity along the lines of WTF?! He then dropped another bomb: “By the way, your mom is here too. I took upon myself to invite her. Welcome to the Fraternity!” If you knew Mike, this kind of behavior wouldn’t really surprise you, but I’d be damned if it didn’t throw me for a loop that day.

Here I was standing in front of other guys I didn’t know about to join a fraternity I had no intention of joining and Mama Dukes was there somewhere. I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice at this point, so I went forward with it. As the ceremony started and I faced the front of the lecture hall, I listened intently to what was being stated by the members. I knew that my mom was behind me somewhere watching and listening as well, trying to figure out what the heck was going on and what I was getting myself into. The more I heard from the officers conducting the ceremony, the more comfortable I felt about Mike’s decision to force me to join.

At the end of my initial induction into the chapter, I sought out Mama Dukes in the audience. This was all very new to her, and I knew she had her concerns. Before I could say anything, she congratulated me and gave me a hug. It felt a little forced as I could tell she was hesitant about what I was embarking on. Mama Dukes then turned to my friend and newly appointed Big Brother, Mike. She waved her finger at him and said it was his responsibility to keep me safe.

It was somewhat in jest, but also had the undertone of a clear threat to Mike. You know that nervous laughter you have sometimes? That was Mike’s reaction to the statement from Mama Dukes. She meant business, even if there was a slight jovial tone to her comment. At the end of the day, you don’t cross Mama Dukes. Mike got the message, and from that day forth he kept me safe (well except for that time HE broke my nose in a Fight Club-style boxing match, but that’s a story for another time).

I was officially initiated into the chapter later that semester and every step along the way she wanted to know what was going on with the process. I was living at home and commuting to school, so it was tough to avoid the conversations. Plus being her first child in college and not having that experience herself, it was all uncharted territory for the both of us. What I understood at the time as being nosy and annoying, I now realize was concern and caring.

I had friends at my previous institution who told me the horror stories of how they were hazed; it was one of the reasons I was reluctant to join a fraternity at my new school. I told Mama Dukes some of these tales and it was something that weighed on her when I went through my new member process. I was fortunate that my experience was absolutely hazing-free. Mama Dukes couldn’t have been happier to hear that, even though it was something she learned after the fact. Ultimately, she wanted me to be safe. Upon hearing that I was not hazed, she was relieved she would not need to cash in on her threat to Mike.

Fast forward to January 2005, the next big moment for Mama Dukes. My aunt, and the sister of Mama Dukes, had a significant brain tumor for quite sometime. She fought one battle a few years earlier and won. Then two years later, she went into remission and the results were unfortunately not the same the second time around. Mama Dukes was devastated to lose her younger sister, someone she helped raise and they were extremely close. It was an intensely difficult time for our family, as the death of my aunt was the first time many of us had to cope with the death of a loved one.

On the night of the viewing, about 30 active and alumni members from the chapter came out to pay their respects. Outside of Mike, none of them had met my aunt. However, many of them had met Mama Dukes at some point and they wanted to show support for my family. I knew that a few of them were planning on showing up, but I never expected the outpouring of support we received. It was overwhelming, but in a very good way.

“When one of us is hurting, we are all hurting.” I can vividly recall one of my fraternity brothers saying this to Mama Dukes. It is a moment I know she will never forget. I still tear up thinking about it almost a decade later. He had met her before, even though she probably did not remember because she had met a lot of the guys over that year. He was a bear of guy, and he completely swallowed up Mama Dukes, all five-foot nothing of her in his arms. He reintroduced himself, offered his condolences, and said those ten simple words, “When one of us is hurting, we are all hurting.”

In that moment, her whole perspective changed. It was her 180-degree moment.

Well, maybe more of a 120-degree moment, as she was already warming up to the idea of me being in a fraternity. Mama Dukes could see the evidence of me becoming a better person. I was volunteering more frequently. I was raising money for various philanthropic causes. I was taking on leadership positions within the group and on campus. I was doing better academically.

The night of the viewing shed a new light on the fraternity for Mama Dukes. She saw a group of men who cared about each other like a family. “When one of us is hurting, we are all hurting.” She witnessed firsthand the brotherhood I would often try to explain to her. She saw it was just as strong as the bond I had with my actual brothers. That night, Mama Dukes inherited more sons than she ever was counting on having in her life.

In the spring of 2005, brotherhood and sense of family presented itself again, as I struggled with the death of my aunt. I turned to alcohol as a way to cope with her passing, to numb myself from the feelings I was experiencing. It took a torrid effect on me. Alcohol became my crutch as the other things around me were falling apart.

Unable to connect with me as I turned everyone away and sensing that something was wrong, Mama Dukes instinctively turned to Mike. She told him that she was concerned about me. He saw what was happening and had the wherewithal to intervene. Mike talked with me about what was happening and encouraged me to get help, along with some staff members who also saw a dramatic change in my behavior.

Mama Dukes knew that I would listen to Mike. Mike promised her that he would keep me safe, and Mike knew not to cross Mama Dukes. Mike realized the problem was outside of his scope and recruited other people to help. I was self-destructing, but thankfully, my brothers guided me out of the darkness I was experiencing and into the light. They were there for me when I needed it the most, something with which Mama Dukes is eternally grateful.

It is a common theme that has continued over the years. My brothers being there for me, and Mama Dukes being appreciative. It is something I attempt to return over the years, and a sentiment she demonstrates to them when she gets the opportunity.

This spring semester will be my 10-year anniversary of becoming a member of Lambda Chi Alpha. A decision that changed my world for the better. Joining the fraternity drove me to take part in so many new opportunities that I never knew existed. I would not be doing the work I do now if not for Mike tricking me into joining. If it wasn’t for Mama Dukes threatening Mike that same day, who knows where I would be now.

One of my fraternity brothers suggested that I become a resident assistant. I applied, was made an alternate, and was hired two days before the start of the fall semester. I was then encouraged to be the ritual chair for the chapter. I fell deeper in love with my organization and had the privilege of hosting the installation for three chapters in that role. I was challenged to run for IFC President and even though I lost the election, I was provided an opportunity to work for the Campus Life and the Vice President of Student Affairs offices. Another brother pushed me to apply for LeaderShape® with him, so he wouldn’t have to do it alone. My fraternity led me to understand my passion was to support and help others and that medium was college students. They constantly pushed me to be better, to do more and have always been there to help me along the way. Mama Dukes knows that. She knows I would be in a very different place right now if it wasn’t for my fraternity. Not necessarily better or worse, but just different.

Mama Dukes asks frequently about the brothers whom I was closest and still stay in regular contact with over the years. Every time I am back in Maryland, she knows that part of that time will be spent catching up with the guys. The brothers that I am closest with are like extensions of our immediate family. She wants to know what is going on in their lives and how they are doing.

The bonds of my brotherhood and my lifelong journey in a fraternity still continue 10 years later. I am not as connected as I once was because of frequent career moves and inability to get back to Maryland as often as I would like. My focus has shifted away from my own fraternity to supporting and advising students in their own fraternal experience. There are times that Mama Dukes keeps me in the loop about what is happening with the guys, when her and I chat. She cares about them as if they were her own sons and, in a way, they are. Mama Dukes has witnessed the positive contributions a fraternity can have on young men and has seen that persist over the years. Even through disparaging times, brotherhood can trump and overcome. The story of Mama Dukes as the mother of a fraternity man is about to reach its first decade and she will experience many more.


By Justin Sipes, University of North Florida


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