Phi Kappa Sigma

We have received the following letter from brother Tom Cooper ’47.

August 24, 2021

Keith T. Kallberg, President
Alumni Association of
Alpha Mu Chapter of the
Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity at MIT

Dear Keith,

Many thanks for your inspiring July, 2021, letter, as I hasten to write this delayed response by August 31. I am also very appreciative of the copies of 530 AM, the reporting about the 2021 initiates, and the survival of Alpha Mu through the pandemic, which I feel is due, in no small measure, to your efforts. The news about the new class of Phi Kaps was most welcome and reminiscent of my own experience.

I arrived in Boston in the fall of 1941 after two years at a rather sheltered prep school in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and two years younger than contemporaries. That was 80 years ago, and with that background, I still regard my pledge to Phi Kappa Sigma as a sort of miracle. I use the term “miracle” advisedly because, in the spring of 1941, I had been interviewed as a candidate for an MIT scholarship by an alumni committee which included a Phi Kap from the twenties. The interview went very well, but it has always been my surmise that there was a connection between the Phi Kap at the interview, my attending “rush week” at Alpha Mu in the fall, and the subsequent invitation to pledge Phi Kappa Sigma. Without the good fortune of having Alpha Mu as a home-away-from-home and the support of brothers, I doubt that I would have made the grade at MIT or returned after the wartime interruption.

As I reflect on more recent historic events (January 6, 9/11, JFK assassination, etc.), I still remember exactly where I was on the afternoon of Sunday, December 7, 1941: after Sunday dinner, playing bridge in the Chapter Room, second floor, front, and everyone throwing down their cards to a chorus of “Oh s-t” when the news of Pearl Harbor came through. The prospect of a peaceful, uninterrupted time at MIT had suddenly become something quite different.

I guess I’m one of the last (if not the last) members of the 12 1942 initiates. We all left for some type of military service; all survived and all (with one exception) returned to Alpha Mu and to MIT to graduate in the late forties.

I began summer-time employment with the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1942 as a block operator (controlling train movements) at Rahway, New Jersey, left MIT to serve three years in the US Navy, returned to graduate in Course I in 1947, continued with the PRR in management, survived two mergers and a bankruptcy, and retired in 1990 after 48 years of continuous service.

For the Alpha Mu archives, I’m enclosing my original copy of a letter that Jim Brayton circulated to brothers during the World War II years; it’s undated, but a close reading suggests that it was written very late in 1944, possibly around Christmas time. I’ve made a copy for myself, but I think this original has a better chance of preservation if it’s in Boston. Jim was class of 1945 (accelerated to 2/45), so he would have been a senior at the time this was written.

Thank you again for your good work on behalf of Alpha Mu, and please tell the new Phi Kaps of my hope that their years at Alpha Mu and MIT will mean as much to them as they have to me.

Fraternally yours,
John Thomas Cooper

By Ruben “Rubes” Peinado ’18

Graduating almost one year ago from the hallowed halls of Skullhouse has given me a chance to test the waters of adulthood. Working as a mechatronics engineer for Beyond Meat in my new home of Los Angeles, California, although exciting, has proven difficult at points.

As a first-generation student at MIT, I encountered my share of struggles, and it was no different in the new, unfamiliar environment of working in my career field. I found it difficult to adjust to the expectations, responsibilities, and nuances that came with my new position in life. Unaware of how to navigate the landscape of professionalism with a job that had no formal mechanical engineering department, I found myself lost and stressed about how to ask for help and guidance for fear of looking incompetent. A lack of professional guidance, coupled with the fact that I’m one of the very few Hispanics working in a technical role, resulted in me struggling pretty heavily with imposter syndrome. Furthermore, I struggled to find direction as to how I should be using my resources, energy, and newfound ample free time now that I’d accomplished my lifelong goal of graduating college.

Although the transition to post-college life has not been the easiest, the advice, guidance, and support from the brothers in the area have alleviated the transition. Rooming with another Skull, Isaac Garza ’17, has been a great experience as he has been an incredible friend and great source of knowledge for anything adult. The other Phi Kaps in the area—Hugo Zul ‘17, Erik Rodriguez ‘17, Alejandro Garcia ‘17, Alonzo Lopez ‘18, and Derek J. Johnson ’15— have also provided a great support network and assure that I am not alone in the transition in life. It continues to be an amazing experience to live so close to them and see each other frequently amidst our busy schedules and many activities. Seeing them pursue new goals and achievements continues to be a source of inspiration to what I want to strive for in my life and helps orient me toward new directions, experiences, and ambitions.

Our Californian hub of Phi Kaps has been a great meet-up point for other Phi Kaps to come visit. In my one year here, we’ve been graced with the presence of Andres Alvarez ‘17, Rosemond
Dorleans ‘17, Tzerchyuan (Patrick) Wong ‘18, Wesley Runnels ‘18, Paul Kalebu ‘17, Remy Bassett-Audain ‘20, Tony Terrasa ‘21, Felix Chavez ‘21, and John Cloutier ’06. Tony even got to live with us for his internship here in the summer, and it was a great time to have him!

Since I’ve moved to L.A., I feel that I have gotten my roots at my work. I have finished large projects as the lone engineer working on them, I’ve learned how to weld, use a 5-axis CNC, and try mechanisms that I’d never touched before. Over time, I have become more comfortable in the workplace and we’ve developed a stronger mechanical engineering department, although still small! As for now, I am still tweaking my schedule to develop my interests in rock climbing, drawing, skateboarding, and creation of cool projects around the house.

I miss the Institute for its plethora of resources where I could follow or discover my passions, and for having my friends in a very convenient and cozy place at 530 Beacon. However, even though I couldn’t take the Institute with me, Skullhome has followed me to my next chapter of life.

The brotherhood continues strongly outside of the Institute.

by Albert D. Ehrenfried
reprinted from University of Maine: Class of 1944 in World War II, 2001

This is a war story of sorts. It involves hundreds of war heroes coming home from Europe immediately after D-Day, the role of the US Coast Guard in operating fast passenger liners in an efficient shuttle service, and the yearning for shipboard entertainment as a fitting welcome for the troops and a way to fill the time of an Atlantic crossing.

It also involves two University of Maine classmates who held the highest of security clearances to perform critical electronics work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Radiation Laboratory, the leading Allied center for radar research.

The two, Al Ehrenfried and Harry Thomas, had been partners long before joining the staff at MIT. They had both enrolled in the class of 1944 at the University of Maine in Orono, both had elected the demanding engineering physics program as a major, under Professor Clarence E. Bennett, both had assisted in the physics labs to alleviate the manpower shortage, and both had chosen the accelerated program that had them graduate early in December of 1943.

Another common theme in their lives: they were both jazz musicians who joined together to lead “The Maine Bears,” the campus dance band that played the major college social events, broadcasted from Bangor radio stations, and opened dance halls in Dover-Foxcroft and other surrounding towns in the spring. When they both got appointments to “Rad Lab” at MIT, they moved together into the Phi Kappa Sigma house (Al’s fraternity) located on Beacon Street, directly across the Charles River from MIT.
Top-secret radar development work was demanding, but jazz continued to serve as a pleasant relief, and these two young men from Maine (Lewiston and Farmington) found themselves playing shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best known musicians in the world, Al on string bass and Harry on trumpet and piano. Nighttime gigs were plentiful, and the two got to play at many Boston jazz venues, ranging from infamous Scollay Square, to downtown hotels and the many smoke-filled jazz clubs. They also met great musicians coming through town, including servicemen on shore leave, looking for a place to jam.

Aland Harry met one such group of US Coast Guardsmen from the USS Wakefield, a high-speed passenger liner converted to bring thousands of troops home from the European theater, where the war was winding down. Every couple of weeks, Wakefield musicians would hook up with Al and Harry, often at the Beacon Street fraternity house, sometimes with shipmates, and play jazz into the night. On one such occasion, the drummer, “Red” Frey, said it was too bad the group couldn’t stick together. And then he asked, in a moment of seeming insanity, why didn’t Harry and I come on board the Wakefield for a trip, and greatly augment the ship’s band! We were stunned by the proposal and let the matter drop.

By the time the Coast Guardsmen returned from their next voyage, Red’s nutty idea had taken shape: an elite “in group” had been organized on board ship, including high ranking non-coms (and perhaps even higher), and they had worked out a detailed plan for Harry and me to sail to Le Havre and back as members of the ship’s jazz band. The plan, they said, was foolproof, and the only question was how soon could we come on board. Harry and I were as nutty as they were. We arranged two-week vacations at the Lab and were set for Plan X on the next arrival of the huge, once luxury Wakefield.

It was a dark night, June 10, 1945, one month after V-E Day. The crew had arranged to have a string bass on board, and Harry was to play principally piano, so we had no instruments to bring. A distraction of the deck officer, normally located at the top of the gangplank, was arranged (or maybe he was in on the plan?). We came on board and were assigned bunks. Our support group was everywhere we turned: in the chow line, at bunk check, during duty hours and at leisure time in the evenings.

We rehearsed daily in the band room, where personnel of nearly all ranks came to listen; and we were featured entertainment for the ship’s crew out on deck about every day. At Le Havre, we didn’t risk going ashore, but we got to see the extensive damage and the sunken ships that marked this important debarkation port. The war was still on in the Pacific, and troops were slated for reassignment, little knowing that two atomic bombs would fall within two months and V-J Day would occur a month later, on September 2.

Troops were crowded on board the Wakefield, which was fitted to carry thousands and all their gear. The more spacious decks were filled every day, and every day, our jazz band held forth with tunes that drew thunderous applause. The plan had indeed gone like clockwork, that is until the captain of the Wakefield invited our band to give a private concert to the Army generals on board! Never had this prospect occurred to us; we were being sabotaged by our success. No way could we put the top Navy and Coast Guard brass in such an embarrassing position. The Army would almost certainly find out that they had been given special entertainment by two stowaways!

Coast Guard bandsmen and voyage collaborators on board the USS Wakefield in Le Havre, France, June 1945, awaiting a new load of European veterans to shuttle back to America. Ship band members Harry Thomas and AI Ehrenfried are in middle row.

Two days before arriving in Boston, Harry, Red Frey and I were seized and put in the Wakefield brig, a noisy location in the bottom of the ship, next to the engines and the ship’s laundry. Upon arrival in Boston, Harry and I were turned over to the FBI, to an agent named Joe Smith(?). Boston papers carried small news items declaring us “the first stowaways out of Boston since the war began,” and accusing us of “secreting ourselves to obtain a free ride”. Hardly true; we had worked hard during our passage.

The FBI interrogated us, made a few checks and released us. They had looked into security issues and found that Harry and I held higher security clearances than anyone else on board ship. Joe Smith said he viewed our venture as “a lark,” and said it was the first time he had heard of “stowaways” performing public jazz concerts in front of an audience of hundreds. He had trouble concealing the smile on his face.

A couple of minor incidents followed. Back at Rad Lab, a new man showed up out of the blue, and was assigned to me. I’m sure he was a security agent. We got along fine and conversed on many subjects, and he promptly disappeared. A year later, I had joined the Army and had been assigned to do signal-corps research on the acoustic detection of nuclear detonations originating anywhere throughout the world. Security was tighter than usual because Sen. Joe McCarthy was rampaging about supposedly finding communists everywhere. I was called to the adjutant general’s office at Ft. Monmouth headquarters. I presumed I was being looked into, but quite the contrary. They said a couple of people in my program were under surveillance, and would I assist them in the investigation. I said, “Of course, but why did you select me?” They said my personnel file was thicker than any they had seen, and they knew more about me than anyone else on the base!

© A. D. Ehrenfried, June 28, 2000