Proof of Life
A drawing or painting usually begins with a sketch and details are added over time. Because we were young when he died, we have a sketch of our father, and the journey we are on is giving us more details. A few more lines, a little color here and there, and we begin to have a fuller picture of his life by looking at his higher education.
College is a special time in life, a rite of passage. We meet new people, make new friends, explore new paths and start to figure out who we are and what we want to be. You ask a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and it is in college—hopefully before graduation—that you start to figure out what that may be.
This move into higher education is a choice not everyone gets to have and Henry’s family was not born into wealth. The shift to adulthood is going into high gear because we are moving outside the umbrella our parents provide. Our father’s time in college was such a step. Many of his Durham friends say they lost touch with him after high school graduation. He didn’t know a soul at North Carolina State College, and so the journey begins.
So leaving the safety of the wings of the parents it is time to fly the coop. Off we go to find out about the world, and to make friends and perhaps fall in love.
For some, picking a major determines what subjects we study. For others, taking classes helps us figure out what we want to study, and the major comes later. Our father knew his major from the outset – mechanical engineering. Many find life-long friends in college and Henry was no exception. The people he met at North Carolina State became to be part of his close circle.
But college is more than that. We join a cause because of what we believe. We join a club to have fun. We join a sports team for the physical challenge and the camaraderie. All of these things contribute to who we are and who we become. In the 1950s, joining a fraternity was the thing to do, and our father was no exception. He pledged with Sigma Pi. This was where he made the friends that would stay with him beyond college. Henry joined Sigma Pi.
He was starting to spread his wings.
Gerald Hurst, Sigma Pi brother
Interviewed in Wilmington, NC on December 8, 2012
Meeting Gerald, Grady and Garland was exciting because they were men who knew Henry in this formative time and could offer some clues as to what he was like. It was also poignant because it gave us the first glimpse of how he would have aged, and what he might look like today.
Gerald says – We would have met at the fraternity. There was a process of what they call smokers. You would invite students to come on Friday and Saturday nights to socialize. It’s a process where you met people you are comfortable with. You make a decision that you want to join that particular group. Henry, just like me, we would have been attendees at the smokers.
We would have gone in and shook hands. “I’m Henry Pickett from Durham.” In the process, the brothers, the current members look at you and decide whether they like you and whether they want to extend you an invitation to join. In the course of pledge week, you might have visited 5 or 6 or 7 fraternities, and so you would go in and depending on the warm and fuzzy welcome you get, whether you could strike up a conversation, whether you identify with them. Could be some other place. Somebody may not have been attentive. When you walk into a store and the clerk is not responsive, it leaves an impression.
When you were a pledge, the pledge period was like, what do you call it, a probationary period. It went on for a month, month and a half. During that time, I guess you were under scrutiny or probation or whatever I don’t know. There was a lot of hazing that goes back historically. So part of the process was that every pledge carried a paddle. You had to carry it every day. You had to have it with you. A brother could tell you to grab your ankles and they would swat the hell out of you with that paddle. For anything. There was one guy. He was sadistic. It got so bad that I and Waylon Curry – he was president and I was vice president – took him aside and said “look you’re overdoin the damn paddle.” He was just terrible. “You’re gonna cut that out or we are gonna kick you outa here.” So he backed off.
Hell week is at the end. Now hell week was hell week. You had to wear a burlap shirt, which was rough course. It was coarse and smelly. The whole week you had to wear that thing. Before lunch and supper you had to eat a raw onion. They had a template. And the onion could not pass through that template. I don’t like onions; I don’t even put them on hot dogs so for me it was torture. I had a cup tacked under the table. So I would pretend that I had dropped part of the onion and I would reach down and put some in there. I would cheat any way I could.
Finally on Friday, the last day, there were a bunch of shenanigans. It culminates in them taking you out in pairs, 10-15 miles from Raleigh on some nowhere road where you didn’t know where the hell you were. They would carry a big cooking pot filled with hot water with about 4 bottles of syrup, Karo syrup, cooking syrup, whatever. They would have a box of corn flakes, 3 or 4 eggs, a box of flour.
They would let you out. It was December. It was cold. You’d get out of the car and they’d say, “alright strip off,” so you’d strip off. They’d take that damn syrup and then they’d sprinkle you with corn flakes and flour. You better get that sack on because what would happen is the syrup would start to solidify and it would get very sticky. Get the sack on and the pants. It was miserable. They’d drive off and leave you. Didn’t know where the hell you where.
We went to the first house and it was a black family and we knocked on the door. It was like 1 o’clock in the morning. I can hear that old man now, “Git away from here, you better git away from here.’” So we went to the next house. And apparently he had been through it before. “You boys from State College?” I had sealed a 5-dollar bill. You weren’t supposed to do that. I said, “Sir, I’ve got 5 dollars. If you’ll take us to Raleigh I’ll give you 5 dollars.” He said, “You guys are a damn mess.” But that wasn’t the only thing. “I have a problem the right headlight is out. You hold the flashlight up in place of the headlamp.”
As luck would have it, the cops stopped us. He leaned in the window. “You boys look a mess. I’m going to have to run you in.” I said, “Officer you don’t have any reason to run us in. All I want to do is to get to State and get in the shower.” He laughed like hell and said, “Get outta here.”
Grady Sykes, Sigma Pi brother
Interviewed in Raleigh, NC on February 25, 2013
I was from Charlotte. Growing up I had childhood asthma. So my dad had a dream for me to go to college, probably because I couldn’t do manual labor. I was the first in my family to come even close. It was totally new, didn’t know what to expect. I thought about pledging for a fraternity but I wasn’t sure what that was.
I looked through a number of options. The first one that I visited was Sigma Pi. I think it was a Sunday afternoon. I drove up in a little Studebaker. I parked the car at the bottom of the hill; I wasn’t sure what to do. I knocked on the door and your dad was first one to greet me. He made me feel like something special. It was my first recollection of your dad and it has stuck with me for a long time.
Your dad studied mechanical engineering. We didn’t have a lot of classes together. I remember he was a little on the serious side. I do remember one time when he let his hair down though. I can’t remember the occasion, but it was an excuse to have a keg party. I had a lab in the afternoon. I came in and heard all this commotion in the rec room. They had apparently drunk so much beer they were throwing it at each other and I saw your dad right there in the middle of it. That is one of the few times I remember he let his hair down.
He ran for president of the Inter Fraternity Council and won. He had envisioned that we should have a fraternity row. Your dad had the idea could put them together, nicer looking, have an influence on social activities. He pushed that. Not sure how long after we graduated. Maybe in the 60s but it did happen. He graduated in ‘56. Your dad made that happen.
1953 Sigma Pi brother Garland Pass
Garland Pass, Sigma Pi brother
Interviewed in Avon, CT on March 23, 2013
We joined the fraternity at the same time. I think there were 4-6 of us. We got to know each other as pledges at Sigma Pi. The house was arranged so that the second floor was the study rooms – 4 or 5 and each held about 4 people. Not all members lived at fraternity – some lived in dorms or apartments. For those who lived there, we studied on the second floor. We slept on the third floor. Gerald, Henry and I shared a study room and maybe one other person. Gerald was already there when we arrived.
Henry was mechanical engineer, as was Gerald. It was completely different from engineering classes in architecture. We did more structural engineering to design buildings. We only saw each other after class. I certainly knew what I wanted and I think they did too.
One of my memories is we ate peanut butter sandwiches. One of the members, Paul something, worked for Skippy. Every so often, he would bring a large case of Skippy peanut butter. It was pretty traditional to take a break, go to the kitchen and fix a sandwich. Most people think of peanut butter and jelly but there is a savory side of peanut butter – peanut butter and mayonnaise. Some called it a ‘grease and glue’ sandwich, which is pretty descriptive.
Henry was very clever. I remember during hazing week, one evening we had to go one a scavenger hunt. One of the things we had to find was a dandelion, which had long since blossomed and gone. Henry very cleverly found a magazine with a picture of a lion. He wrote “dandy” on top for a “dandy lion.”
Hazing was part of the experience. We had to eat a raw onion, wear an undershirt made of a burlap bag. I don’t recall the karo syrup. I do remember 3-4 of us got dropped off together. Stopped a car and thumbed a way back. A car came by. It was isolated but I guess not too isolated.
I had a painting hanging in the study room. For some reason, Henry had a gun in the dorm. He was playing around with it, and shot a big hole in it. Then he bought the painting. I remember I was perhaps studying outside the dorm. When I came in they had left the painting there on the wall. They were taking bets as to what my first expression would be. They had taken a pool. But I don’t remember what I said.