By: Blake Yeaman, Cal ’78
When I arrived at the University of California-Berkeley in 1976, I knew little about fraternities, and nothing about Phi Kappa Psi. I wasn’t interested in Greek life.
California Gamma was a ghost… the once-standout chapter had been inactive for five years, having fallen in the wake of a tidal wave of anti-Greek sentiment rippling across the nation. I was the last person to have guessed that I would be approached to help revive the group to its rightful place.
In many ways, Berkeley was the epicenter of the cultural revolution. A lot was changing. Greeks were out of favor among their host institutions. Fewer members were joining. Those clad in beads and bell-bottoms seemed unrecognizable to many among the previous generations of alumni brothers. You could not wear your letters around campus without retaliation from the faculty. Berkeley went from 52 fraternities down to 15 in the 60s. It almost looked like Greeks might never come back to the Cal campus. The Cal Gamma chapter had built three houses in Berkeley, and after 72 years, had no physical assets in 1971.
But that Spring of ‘76, national chapter consultants arrived on campus and sought out young men with a reputation for leadership. They approached me and shared with me the proud history of Phi Kappa Psi and Cal Gamma. I was impressed — the chapter had been continually active from 1899 until ’71.
I liked what I heard about Phi Psi’s real values. And the Cal Gamma alumni were strongly behind the renewal. Soon, with a tight group of nine of committed undergraduates, our alumni got us into a rental house for Fall and were on our way.
For me, the astounding advantage of Greek life came in the long lasting close friendships I gained over the next few years. I have hundreds of men to whom I’m very close, even now. They’re of all ages and from different schools. Many I’m now close with I never even met until well after college.
Looking back, I realize how fraternal living afforded us the opportunity to put into practice the kinds of skills and techniques we only read about in the classroom. There was plenty of learning and book-reading going on, but I was able to apply those things in a deep-seated way because of Phi Psi. For me, that undergraduate experience was foundational to later being able to go out and start my own business. I understood the power of putting a team together and approaching problems. I had learned how to leverage others’ strengths and manage at the organizational level.
For 15 years, our chapter flourished. And then … like history repeating itself, a lull in Greek life forced the brothers off-campus again in 1991. And suddenly I found myself on the alumni side of the rechartering challenge.
Over the next decade, Dud Daniel and other national Phi Psi staff and volunteers worked hard to help us. We moved from one rented house to another, and it seems we lacked some fundamental continuity that grounds truly great chapters. I really felt like having not owned our own house played a big role in our inability to sustain excellence.
It was in 2001 that I stood up and addressed fellow alumni during our chapter’s legendary Big Game Luncheon. I made an impassioned plea for an unprecedented renaissance for the California Gamma Chapter we all knew and loved — with the long-term goal of purchasing a new, permanent home.
It was then that I also turned greater attention to the role of the national Phi Kappa Psi organization in our comeback.
Attending the American Leadership Academy in 2006, five other Cal Gamma alumni and I met with Jerry Nelson and Dick Ong. We came away understanding two key things that would empower us to bring our chapter back. First, that the national Phi Kappa Psi Foundation had a solution for tax-deductible giving for a chapter’s housing and chapter educational funds. And second, that the ALA itself was a powerful initiative that we could use to build a positive leadership culture in our chapter.
Five years later, thanks to sustained support from National and $3 million in gifts and pledges from alumni, an outstanding chapter house was purchased — a permanent location to weather future changes in Greek life at Cal. With a live-in capacity for 60+ members, ours is now the largest, and one of the nicest, properties on campus. It’s our tenth, and hopefully last, chapter home in Berkeley.
The time and treasure I give back as a Phi Psi volunteer, chapter donor, and national Foundation donor, stems from my appreciation for my own experience and the passion of my own chapter brothers, coupled with the exceptional commitment of the Fraternity’s Executive Council and Foundation Board of Trustees.
They are all just amazing, dedicated people, with unique experience and talents to offer, all committed to the same vision for Phi Kappa Psi’s greatness.
The work of the Fraternity and Foundation also merit my support because my own values closely mirror those of Phi Psi.
Beyond the friendships, the idea of giving to others, helping others, is very important to me. Today’s on-campus culture for fraternities is somewhat reminiscent of those days in the 1970s. Fraternities are under extraordinary scrutiny by their host universities and oversight by their national fraternity organizations. There is much greater administrative accountability expected of our chapter members. I stay involved at the local level and give to the National Fraternity and the Foundation because I believe the Phi Psi values and life experiences are so worth it.
And, I think it would be extremely hard to be a chapter officer today without very supportive alumni like California Gamma has been so fortunate to have.
Inspired by Blake’s story? Make a gift to the Foundation today to honor your Phi Psi experience and support our next generation of brothers.