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Michael Daly is the first American-born in his family. He attended 16 grammar schools. He graduated Yale University. He started journalism at Flatbush Life. He has published one novel, "Under Ground." He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.

Email: mailto:mdaly@edit.nydailynews.com

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COLUMNIST ARCHIVE

He took stand
when Lott sat

Trent Lott
A half-century later, John Zongrone still wonders where he got the precocious gumption to rise before his fraternity's national convention and declare his chapter could not remain part of an organization that admitted only those who were Christian and white.

"I look back, I'm thinking, 'I was 19 years old,'" Zongrone said Friday.

This kid from the State Teacher's College in Albany stood his ground as the 1952 gathering of Kappa Delta Rho erupted into boos and jeers. He would describe the moment as "kind of scary."

"It was uncomfortable, let's put it that way," Zongrone would say.

That fall, Zongrone's chapter had initiated five pledges who had written "Jewish" in the space marked "religion" on their applications. The five included a concentration camp survivor named Kurt Rosenbaum.

"He had tattoos on his arm," Zongrone would recall. "Numbers."

The applications had been duly submitted to national headquarters. All five were rejected.

"They said, 'We can't do this,'" Zongrone would remember. "We said, 'What do you mean we can't do this?'"

The national organization proved to have an unwritten gentlemen's agreement barring all save white Christians.

"It could have been blacks, it could have been whatever," Zongrone would later say.

Zongrone had grown up happily in the demographic jumble of the lower East Side, and he was repulsed by such an agreement. The rest of the Albany chapter joined him in a unanimous agreement of their own, one befitting actual gentlemen.

On June 21, 1952, Zongrone stood before the convention at the Theta chapter house at Purdue University in Indiana. He declared that his chapter would secede unless the convention passed a constitutional amendment admitting members "without discrimination for race, creed or color."

In the ensuing tumult, Zongrone was ruled out of order because he was making a threat. His reply was pure New York.

"We're not threatening you," Zongrone would recall saying. "It's just what we're going to do."

The amendment was defeated by a vote of 84 to 47. The convention did pass a "suggestion" that membership be explicitly restricted to "those who believe in the Christian faith and whose social and cultural background is that of the white race."

After Zongrone returned home, Kappa Delta Rho's national president flew to Albany in a chartered plane. The pledge with the tattooed forearm and three other Jewish pledges waited outside the frat house as the national president sought to persuade the chapter not to quit.

"We heard this hullabaloo from inside, a lot of noise, a lot of shouting," one of the pledges, Stuart Macnofsky, would remember. "I recall two suitcases being thrown out on the lawn. They were followed shortly after by this guy."

On Sept. 29, 1952, the 62 members of the Albany chapter voted unanimously to resign from the national organization.

"At the time, I didn't think we were making history," Zongrone was later quoted as saying. "We were just doing what we thought was right."

That same day, Zongrone and his comrades founded a new fraternity, Alpha Pi Alpha, open to those of all races and religions. The State University of New York was inspired to order all fraternities on its 33 campuses to sever ties to any discriminatory organization.

Setting the stage

Nine years later, the Northern chapters of another fraternity sought to open membership to all. The Northerners of Sigma Nu were defeated at its national convention by segregationists who prominently included the head of the Ole Miss chapter, Trent Lott.

Lott went on to become the Senate majority leader, a height that only measured his fall after he spoke at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party as if he were addressing the 1961 convention of Sigma Nu.

Zongrone went into the insurance business. He reached in October a higher height from which there is no falling when he attended a 50th reunion of Alpha Pi Alpha at what is now called the University at Albany. He was joined by 18 of 61 who had joined him in the stand against prejudice.

"You have no idea of the feeling of these guys," Zongrone would recall. "They were in tears. Just thinking about it makes me well up. The young people kept saying, 'You led the way. You did this for us.' You couldn't buy that feeling."

This weekend, as Lott sits in shame in Mississippi, Zongrone is attending a holiday family gathering in upstate New York, able to look back to when he was 19 with the quiet, unassuming pride of the truly great ones.

"It was the right thing to do," he said.

Originally published on December 22, 2002

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