Thursday, February 04, 2010

More to the Story

Just when you think you’ve said it all on a topic, up pops a new angle on an old story.

I thought a tale in Days with the Dads, my memoir, included every detail of the connection between Jerry Kramer, a five-time All-Pro with the Green Bay Packers in the 60s, and our son and me. It did. At least, it included everything I knew about that when the book was published late last year.

I was mystified, and frankly a bit miffed, about Kramer’s lack of interest in talking with me while we were seated next to each other for an hour or more in the Chicago airport. After all, I had told him I was a long-time Packers fan and admired his play. Only recently did I stumble onto a fact that would have guaranteed some Klade-Kramer conversation.

Sandy and I were visiting one of our local library’s periodic discount book sales. Sandy usually fills a couple of bags with titles to support her two to three book a week reading habit. I usually fill one hand with two or three titles. This time, I found more. One was a well-worn copy of Jerry Kramer’s Farewell to Football, published in 1969. I’d never heard of the book, and assumed he authored only two—Instant Replay and Distant Replay.

When we got home, I casually flipped Kramer’s book open, and read a few lines. One jumped right out at me. “I’d just pledged Sigma Nu,” Kramer said on page 106. That was at the University of Idaho. That was the same year I pledged Sigma Nu at the University of Wisconsin. Lo and behold, our family football hero and I were fraternity brothers! I just didn’t know it when we met at O’Hare.

Kramer’s Farewell book has a lot of personal information. He includes several descriptions of Sigma Nu happenings on the Moscow campus. He gives “clowning around” with buddies, including fraternity brothers, as one reason for his lackluster academic work. Kramer finished nearly four years at Idaho as a football and track all-star, but without a degree.

The Sigma Nu chapter at Idaho was known to be strong during the time I worked in the state and nearby in Utah. Its members included plenty of academic achievers, and a number of men who went on to become leaders after graduation. I met several who were successful businessmen in Boise. Throughout the 1980s, both U.S. Senators from Idaho—Republicans Steve Symms and Jim McClure--were Sigma Nus. I met one of them.

I did not meet McClure, but as far as I know, he served with distinction during his 18 years in the Senate. He was said to be strongly influenced by the mining industry, which did not always gladden the hearts of those of us interested in sound forest management. But mining was important in Idaho, and McClure was up front about his political positions. I saw no reason not to respect him.

Symms was another story. When we met in Boise in 1973, I was performing one of those low-level duties that sometimes fell to information officers. Wearing my uniform, I was working at a booth at the Idaho State Fair, answering questions about the National Forests and handing out maps and brochures. Symms had a booth almost directly across the aisle where he was promoting his candidacy for Congress.

The Symms family ran a large orchard and fruit processing business west of Boise. His campaign slogan was, “Let’s Upset the Applecart.” He was running hard against the status quo in Washington and what he saw as excessive governmental control on every level (sound familiar?). He and his supporters said some pretty nasty things about federal and state employees during that first campaign.

When the lunch hour provided a lull in booth visitors, Symms strode over to me. He offered a friendly smile and a firm handshake. “You’ve probably heard some of my comments about feds,” he said. “You know, of course, I don’t mean you Forest Service guys. You do a great job.”

I said, “Sure, we know you’re not talking about us.” By that time in my career, I had met enough politicians to not be surprised by enthusiastic insincerity. And I knew he probably was not surprised by my insincere response.

Symms won the election and went on to serve four terms in the House and two in the Senate. If he was distinguished by anything, it was as an accomplished philanderer. Rumors flew about his romantic adventures in Washington. Idaho journalists were said to know about several, but, as they did in those days, they kept his personal life out of their reports. However, when Symms’ long-suffering wife sued for divorce she put his alleged extra-marital activities on the public record. The media carried the stories, and Symms declined to run for another term, perhaps thinking his behavior would not be appreciated by voters in a conservative state.

I saw Symms once more after our Boise encounter. He passed within several feet of me as he rushed down a busy hallway in the Capitol Building in Washington. I was there as part of a legislative training course. I called out, “Hello, Steve.”

He responded with a big wave, and a hearty, “Well hi, great to see you,” as he continued on his way. He made it sound as though he remembered me well. I didn’t believe it for a minute.

So what does all that prove? Fraternity brothers, especially those from other chapters, certainly are not equivalent to birth brothers. However, they have one thing in common. Whether you respect them, admire them, choose to ignore them, or dislike them and their activities, they are yours forever.

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