Men of SIGnificance
House corporations deal with a dynamic group of clients. Undergraduate brothers in various stages of maturity present ongoing challenges in chapter house maintenance and rent collection. At times, the challenges for the directors of a house corporation can seem more cumbersome than the reward. At times like these, it’s important to review and reflect on the main reason Sigma Chi exists in the first place: to grow men of SIGnificance.
Most young brothers want to make their mark in the world. There are many ways to get noticed. There are many bad ways. Prisons are full of them. And there are good ways. Consider the case of Oliver Smoot.
Oliver attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s. Like many young men, he pledged a fraternity. As one of his pledge duties, he was required to measure the Harvard Bridge which connects Boston to Cambridge. For many college kids, the trek across the Harvard Bridge in winter was a cold and windy ordeal. So, the thinking went, knowing how much farther it was to go would be useful information. The twist on this task was that Smoot was to measure the bridge with his body. Smoot was chosen because, at 5' 7", he was the shortest man in the pledge class and the job would be hardest for him.
So, Oliver and several pledge brothers set about the task. He would lie down, a chalk mark was made and then he’d get up, move forward and repeat the process. Every ten body lengths, a painted mark was made. Since the bridge is over 2000 feet long, the exercise soon grew tiring so his pledge brothers began carrying him from one position to the next.
When all was said and done, the tally was 364.4 body lengths. One of the fraternity brothers named the measurement a “smoot” in Oliver’s honor and ecause the term sounded scientific. While this prank seemed senseless and immature, something about it struck a cord with the locals. It had two components of a classic MIT prank: a hint of science and a low level of vandalism.
But keeping the smoot alive took the cooperation of strange bedfellows. As part of an annual ritual, the fraternity brothers repaint the smoot marks. And during a 1990s bridge renovation, the government contractor agreed to score the sidewalk every 5' 7" in honor of Smoot instead of the traditional six feet. The legend has been passed on now for 50 years.
But it doesn’t end there. Oliver was a dedicated student and eventually earned a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree followed by a Juris Doctorus (JD) law degree. His long and distinguished career included serving as Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Both organizations deal with, in part, establishing standards in measurement.
And there’s still more. Google, the internet’s largest search engine, includes the “smoot” as a unit of measurement in its Google Earth measurement tool. [Download Google Earth at http://earth.google.com Launch the program and go Tools>Ruler>Line tab. Use the drop down menu and voilà!]
So what does this mean to Sigma Chi?
• What started as a prank of a few captured the imagination of many. Each of us is born with special talents. Discovering and using them for others is what we were made for.
• The smoot reminds that the world really is a random place no matter how we like to categorize, define and contain it. The foot, the yard, the mile and the smoot are all arbitrary measurements. There is comfort is knowing that randomness is still honored.
• Humor is vital in making sense of an incomprehensible world.
• There is little in life we truly control. Those that understand that maintain a sense of humility which keeps the ups and downs of life in perspective.
• No matter what greatness we achieve, we need others to help do it. Smoot’s pledge brothers carried him in an effort that made him a legend.
• We are all called on to serve. Instead of spectating, Smoot’s pledge brothers stepped in and lent him a helping hand.
• Be careful how you measure your life. Piling up trophies, money and goods is self serving. Use the talent and treasures you’re given for others. That’s the true measure of a successful life.
When random acts of immaturity by active members cause frustration, anger and despair, take heart. Seemingly meaningless events can produce profound impacts. Many of these young brothers will achieve greatness beyond their and your wildest dreams. Think back to your days as an undergrad and the mistakes you made. You turned out pretty well. What’s the point? The point is Smoot.