They Call Them the “Old Guard” - Howard Alter

 Howard R. Alter Jr. '41

Howard R. Alter Jr. '41

Howard R. Alter, Jr. '41The following story was written by David L. Westol, Beta Zeta/Michigan State ’73 for the NIC

Dave Westol was Theta Chi's National Vice-President and Executive Director 

There they sit at FEA meetings—the statesmen, the veterans, the men who led their organizations through some of the most tumultuous times in the history of Greek letter organizations…through the 1960s and 1970s—Viet Nam, fuel shortages, keggers, disco-- and the 1980s that brought increases in numbers but also many behavioral challenges.

The hair—if it remains--is white or grey now.  The posture is sometimes stooped. Some of them lean forward to hear, a hand cupped to an ear.  But the eyes remain bright, the gestures quick, the smiles genuine.

The Old Guard.  The names are synonymous with leadership, with interfraternalism, with awards, with hundreds of banquets and thousands of nights on the road.  Dud Daniel, Phi Kappa Psi.  George Spasyk, Lambda Chi Alpha.  Bill Schwartz, Sigma Alpha Mu.  George Beck, Pi Lambda Phi. Henry Poor, Psi Upsilon.  Robert Miller, Phi Delta Theta.  Durward Owen, Pi Kappa Phi.  And others, of course. I suspect that our FEA will never see the likes of the Old Guard again.  As with nearly all other things, our association—perhaps more accurately our organizations within the FEA - have changed and grown and progressed, but change has a price.

This year, there will be one more man missing from the Old Guard.  His name is Howard Alter, Jr.

Let me tell you about Howard.

He was born in 1918.  People often asked me, “How old is Howard?” and I would smile and say, “How old do you think he is?”   Some of us on the staff cheated—we looked up his birth year on his initiation form.  He was over ninety years old when he left us early in the morning on May 9th.

Howard joined Theta Chi at Pennsylvania State University after graduating from high school in 1936.  He served as chapter treasurer and president.  Once, when some of us were in State College for a Howard Alter Day, we found meeting minutes from the days when Howard was treasurer.  The chapter secretary had written that Howard had been elected treasurer and in the next sentence noted that the social budget had been, “cruelly cut”.  Even then his conservative ethos was at work.

He graduated with a degree in Architectural Engineering in 1941.  With World War II came service in the U.S. Navy—more specifically, with the Seabees—the navy’s version of engineers.  Howard served in the South Pacific in New Guinea and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander. 

After the war Howard returned to the Pittsburgh area and worked in the family business—the Hamilton-Alter Feed Store. 

More importantly to us, he became involved in the fraternity.  In 1955, he was appointed a Regional Counselor.  Fifty-four years later, his service to Theta Chi ended.  In between, he served on our governing board and as National President from 1962 to 1966…as Executive Director from January 1st, 1968 to July 1st, 1984…as Executive Director Emeritus from that time until his death… and on our national housing board and as president and on both foundations that existed in the fraternity at that time.

We will remember Howard for his service to Theta Chi.  But we will also remember Howard for his strong commitment to the interfraternity movement. 

He was honored by eight men’s national fraternities for his interfraternal service, including the Ralph D. “Dud” Daniel Award from Phi Kappa Psi.  That award—Howard was the first recipient of the award named in honor of his great friend Dud Daniel—meant so much to him.  Howard also received the Gold Medal from the North American Interfraternity Conference in 1993 and he took great pride in his service on the NIC board.  He treasured awards from Zeta Beta Tau, Lambda Chi AlphaSigma NuAlpha Kappa LambdaTau Kappa EpsilonKappa Delta Rhoand Alpha Chi Rho.  Each was significant in its own way to Howard.

As time passed I began to appreciate the interfraternal commitment that seemed to characterize everything that Howard did.  No matter where we were or for what event, Howard seemed to know nearly everyone from other fraternities…and they knew him.  Other executives attended our events and told us how lucky we were to have Howard.  It occurred to me that their friendship was based upon something deeper than coincidence or timing—that the FEA was truly a group of like-minded individuals who supported each other through difficult times.  They were a fraternity within the movement.

I met Howard for the first time at my chapter at Michigan State University on a pleasant May afternoon in the early 1970s.  I had recently been elected president of the IFC—a testimonial to the profound lack of capable candidates for the position—but like many undergraduates, I was full of myself and unflinchingly loyal to my chapter.  Howard, Dale Slivinske and our national president were visiting as part of a fraternity barnstorming trip of sorts.

I confidently told Howard that I thought our chapter was the best on campus.   In retrospect, I might as well have donned a steak suit and walked into a den of hungry lions.  “Well”, said Howard—a word that usually preceded a pronouncement accompanied by his stinging wit—“I don’t know if they teach reading at Michigan State…perhaps you’d like to see what Wilson Heller has to say about that”.  He handed me a copy of Heller’s newsletter that contained a ranking of the fraternities at MSU.  Our chapter was rated a distant fifth.  Howard then asked if paying one’s bills on time would contribute to a good rating and observed that my chapter owed the Grand Chapter “A considerable sum”.  Having brought me down several notches, he then said, “I’m glad to see you involved on the IFC, David”.

And that is how things usually were with Howard.  We remember the humor, the wit, and the lessons taught and also the kind word.

And beneath that curmudgeonly, conservative skin of a man who enjoyed saying, “Sooner or later you will vote Republican” beat the heart of…dare I write it…a liberal thinker, at least at times.  When our fraternity confronted the issue of the Caucasian Clause, I was told, Howard quietly worked behind the scenes to convince key leaders that the change had to be made, and then stepped forward to help lead the effort.  He was a strong supporter of Hilary “Hip” Holloway, Kappa Alpha Psi and the first African-American to serve on the NIC board.  When the women’s executives began their work to be included as full members in our FEA, Howard supported that change.  As FEA President Bonnie Wunsch pointed out in a recent letter to Howard, he made her feel welcome at her first meeting, introduced her to a number of people and acted as a big brother might.  And that was Howard.  Always a gentleman, always looking out for others.

I visited Howard in March of this year, only a few days after I sent out a message to a number of interfraternal friends about his situation and asking you to write to him if you could.

I arrived on a Friday and went to his room in a senior care facility.  And there was Howard, sitting in a wheelchair, watching the Golf channel, and holding forth on a variety of topics. 

He said that he had been to rehabilitation and he was having trouble squeezing things.  I suggested that he pretend the things were Democrats.  He laughed and we were off and running. 

We talked for over two hours—from the weather to the NCAA basketball tournament—I was able to trump him with the fact that his alma mater was playing the “Not Invited Tournament”—to the days in Trenton, New Jersey to the FEA and the upcoming NIC meeting.  As always, Howard had a keen interest in what was going on in the NIC.

His nephew, Bill Booth, brought a stack of mail from Howard’s home, and Howard fell silent as he began to open the letters and cards and read.  Many were from you, his fraternal brothers and sisters.  As he read, he coughed occasionally—a sign of emotion for Howard.  He handed us each letter—that was his code for “I want you to know what someone wrote but I don’t want you to know that it means a great deal to me”.  The words and phrases were special and meant much to Howard.

I last saw Howard on April 28th of this year.  The treatment for his cancer had failed and he decided to spend his final days at his beloved Stockland Farm—the old farmhouse where so many interfraternal friends had enjoyed drinks on the back porch.  I was returning from one trip and preparing for another when Carlton Bennett, a Past National President, called me and said, “Dave, he doesn’t have much time left”.  So I went to Pittsburgh.

Howard was in bed and breathing with an oxygen mask.  He was in and out, as they say—lucid moments followed by semi-consciousness.  I sat on his right side and began showing him photographs I had taken at the NICmeeting and describing the people in the photographs—Dud Daniel, George Spasyk, Hank Bauer, Jon Williamson, Jim Estes—and Howard reacted.  When someone in the room said, “Dave Westol is here”, Howard smiled around the mask and mumbled, “Of dubious character”…and that made the trip right there.  That was pure Howard Alter, Jr.

Howard will be buried in the Plum Creek cemetery near his church on Saturday, May 16th.  Many people will be there.  But I suspect that the prevailing emotion will be humor and not sadness.  The Howard stories—there are hundreds—will be told into the night.  And that is the way that Howard would have wanted it.

We in Theta Chi were blessed to have Howard as a brother.  Equally importantly, we were blessed that Howard believed in FEA and the greater good.  If a person is measured not by days or years or money earned or empires built but by the number of times that one helps others, Howard led a remarkable life.

My thanks to all who have read this lengthy message and to all who wrote to Howard.  You lifted his spirits and made him smile.  He left us quietly on that Saturday morning…something he rarely did in life.

David L. Westol

Beta Zeta/Michigan State ’73