American Culture

Scattered thoughts on the death of a fraternity brother: RIP, Jose

Earlier this week I received the distressing news that one of my fraternity brothers, Jose Fernandez, was dead.

Jose – aka Joe – was in my pledge class, a small group that somehow earned a reputation for … underachievement? To be sure, we had our share of fuck-ups. But we also proved, when all was said and done, that were a pretty tight group. And now, even though I hadn’t seen Jose in decades, I find myself feeling his loss more deeply than you might expect.

Part of me thinks I should tell you about Jose, describe him somehow. His intensity, for instance – not only would he be the first to tell you to fuck off if you needed it, he’d do it even if you didn’t need it. The son of Cuban immigrants, he managed to be fluent in neither English or Spanish – I told him he was alingual, and he told me to fuck off. We elected him treasurer – not sure what the hell we were thinking – and his financial management style boiled down to “left pocket fraterny money, right pocket Joe money.” No, I’m not making that up. And yes, we made merciless fun of him because we were college-aged boys and that’s just how it is. He took our best shots and gave it right back. That’s what friends do.

All of us who knew Jose had stories – wonderful, marvelous, hysterical stories. The stuff that lends the texture to the golden-hued memories we all make of our glorious youth.

But honestly, I’m not a good-enough writer to convey even the barest sense of the guy, and if any of my fellow Theta Chis are reading this they can testify to it. He was fun, funny, intense, in every way an original.

At that age I don’t think most of us realized the toll that regular living can take on a person, but by now we’ve probably all had more up close and personal exposure to mortality than we like to think about. I know this is true for me, at least. I’ve had people close to me die. I’ve known people whose bodies stopped working. Heck, I am somebody whose body has let him down (or perhaps I have that backward).

When I saw the news on our Facebook group the other day my first reaction was that it had to be his heart. I had no idea that there was a history of heart disease in his family, but I recall telling some of my brothers even back then that I had never seen Jose with a relaxed muscle in his body. I think he was probably wound tight as a banjo string even when he was passed out. Even when he was happy, he seemed to radiate stress. Over time, few things are as fatal as stress.

Honestly, I’m not sure I have a huge point here, other than to say that Joe was one of the great things about my years at Wake Forest. Something about the college experience forges bonds that never quite go away, and this is especially true in a fraternity environment. You live together, you eat together, you party together. I know a lot of folks are cynical about “frats,” and I won’t lie – I have seen chapters that seem to exist for no reason other than to perpetuate the stereotype and give the rest of us a bad name.

And yet, I can see one of my brothers after not talking for years and it’s like we never missed a day.

Whether you were a Greek or not, whether you went to college or not, I hope you have these kinds of memories of your youth to reflect on.

RIP Jose. Our lives were immensely richer for having known you.

And the rest of you, take care of yourselves.

Θηρόποσα Χείρ

Jose Fernandez, front row, second from right.

8 replies »

  1. Sam, I can’t recall (either) if you and I have met, but I graduated as a Wake Forest Theta Chi in 1971 and never left. I worked at Wake in alumni relations and development until retiring this past June. At various times I was an adviser to the brotherhood.

    Being a decade plus older than your group, I’ve lost several brothers of my era. I’ve been honored to give a eulogy for two, and presided at one of their services.

    I’m writing to express appreciation for your post and your efforts to capture the uniqueness of your brother Joe and your relationship with him. I also want you and the other guys who were close to him to understand that you may find yourselves grieving the loss of Joe to a greater degree than you would expect.

    When I lost my first pledge brother, I was very surprised by the level of grief. I had only seen him a few times since our Wake days, and because he had to work all the time to pay for college, we never saw him much around the fraternity house. I talked with a Christian counselor friend about my grief, and he explained that the loss of a peer is one of the greatest griefs you can experience. Part of the reason is that it puts you in touch with your own mortality in profound way.

    I encourage you and the other brothers who were close to Joe to expect to go through the entire cycle of grief. I hope you will share your feelings with your fellow brothers and your loved ones.

    I think all of us who were initiated into the fraternity recall the initiation ceremony and the part of it where we are guided to the wake of a deceased brother who had entered the Chapter Eternal. It seemed kind of silly at the time (I played the deceased brother part a few times over the years, and got a good laugh from it).

    But after losing some of my friends, I realized that part of the ceremony wasn’t written for an 18 or 19 year old brother, but for that brother 25 plus years later. It doesn’t seem silly after you’ve been the pall bearer for your friend.

    May you guys find new, deeper purposes for your friendships and for your investments in your brotherhood.

    Bob Mills

    • Hi Bob, and thanks for the perspective. (We have met, but it was in the early ’80s.)

      I hadn’t even thought about that stage of the initiation (and probably shouldn’t be talking about it, huh?) but you’re absolutely right. I think it makes sense now in a way it couldn’t possibly have registered on a 19 year-old kid.

      There have been so many times through the years where I’ve heard “YOU were in a fraternity?!” Apparently I’m not the fraternity type, although we went out of way to violate that whole “type” thing with the first diversity mission I ever encountered in my life. I doubt I have ever done a very good job explaining the value of it. Sure, we liked to party. Who didn’t? But it was so very much more than that, and Jose’s death shines a very bright light on what is best about the brotherhood.

      Θηρόποσα Χείρ

  2. To my Brothers of Theta Chi, Brother Sam, Brother Bob: Senior year at Wake Forest, I had the amazing opportunity to be in Maya Angelou’s class. She spoke of our shared humanity, bringing reality to Pro Humanitate. As a senior you are reflective of this at some level, between beers, chasing girls, parties, and class, but she brought it to reality when she spoke so eloquently and shared the idea and ideal of one of her maxim’s of life: that each person we meet that we carry a part of that person, as intangible as it might be, with us forward through life. I know that when I came to Wake, a stranger in a strange land, 3,000 miles from home, one of a half dozen from the West Coast on a campus of 3,000, that I needed to find a home away from home. My father counseled me at winter break on choosing a fraternity. He spoke eloquently of his days at Delta Upsilon at W&L, not following his father’s legacy as a Phi Gam, or choosing the path into what might appear to the outside as the best known or most popular fraternity, but seekng a Brotherhood of men, of friends, of compadres you will walk your life with. I had overheard him on the phone for decades talking once or twice a year to these best friends, Howard, Ox, Dom, Boone, and many others. They were his brothers, literally and figuratively. He was an only child. Spent years in boarding schools. When we met these men, they were legends, Uncles, loyal, steadfast, friends. George Adams lived next door, my R.A.’s roommate, Nelson Squires. I had visited Theta Chi. Diversity, north, south, white black, Christian and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Punk and Born Again. Loud, brash, colorful, Cuban, Redneck, Yankee, Rocker, Journalist, Gay, Straight, Drunk and Sober. Unity through Diversity. A lot like my hometown, Los Angeles, 3,000 miles away on I-40. Joe Fernandez was just like the men I’d grown up with, L.A. the destination for millions of Cold War Refugees from around the globe, a United Nations in our schools, both public and my Catholic School, Notre Dame. Joe Fernandez could have been my classmate at Notre Dame. Cuban, first generation, fighting for his place in America, like so many of my L.A. classmates, on the move, at Wake, where the number of Hispanics were close to the number of Californians. He never stopped. He couldn’t afford to. And loyal, loyal, passionate friend who loved every day God gave him. La Dolce Vita, Carpe Diem, however you want to phrase it, Jose Fernandez made your day better when you were with him. We were suite mates my sophomore year, with Bob Morrison, Glenn Ayers, Mike Burket, George Adams, Ted Best, Rodney Bowen (my big brother), and Jerome Holmes. We were all fortunate to make it out of that year with our grades intact. But we had a hell of a year. A blur. A Band of Brothers. Theta Chi. Joe there is a empty chair at the card table but your spirit will continue to burn bright in all of us with the feisty, Cuban love of life you shared with us every day of your life. I am sorry Joe that you did not have a chance to meet my children, but I’ll make sure they know about you and my Brothers of Theta Chi. Thank you for being my friend, Joe Fernandez. Thank you for being my friend and brother, I will miss you, Su amigo, Jeb Stuart Rosebrook ’85

    • Thanks Stuart. You go a long way here to articulating some of what has been escaping me. I don’t know that I’m nearly as good a person as I want or need to be, but I can say without question that I’m a better person than I’d be otherwise for having been a Theta Chi and for having had Jose as a friend. I think most of us can say that, can’t we?

  3. I don’t have anything to say that others haven’t said more eloquently. What amazes me is that, though I haven’t seen Joe in over 30 years, I can recall him like it was yesterday and I was more griefstricken by his death than I have been by the deaths of people I had contact with on a daily basis much more recently. There is something about college friendships, especially fraternity friendships, that binds us together in ways that can’t be explained. It makes me happy that so many of you had kept in contact with Joe over the years, and seeing your remembrances of him has been great. So long, Joe.

    • Thanks, Kurt. I think a lot of us are struggling right now to put into words what we’re feeling. I know I am. And I know what you mean about it seeming like yesterday. I can just about guarantee that if I had bumped into Jose on the street the day before he died we’d have picked up like we hadn’t missed a day. That’s been my experience when I’ve reconnected with other brothers after long periods.

      I’m not sure I buy the whole cloud/silver lining cliche, but his passing has pulled my attention back in the direction of a community that was once just about my whole life and it has reminded me of things I don’t think about often enough.

      I hope you and the rest of the brotherhood are doing well.

  4. “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
    ― Georgia O’Keeffe