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 Kurt Rosenbaum
 Class of 1953


 

Former Alpha Pi Alpha president John Zongrone with fraternity memorabilia.

By Paul Grondahl

For more than 40 years, Stuart Macnofsky, B.A.’54, carried a faded 1953 clipping from The New York Times in his wallet. The newspaper article traveled with Macnofsky, who became a Navy officer, through three years of active duty during the Korean War to San Diego, where he settled with his wife, Myra, and taught mathematics before retiring as a high school administrator.

The Times story described one of the most inspiring moments in Macnofsky’s life. It happened at the University, then called the New York State College for Teachers. As a fraternity pledge in the fall of 1952, Macnofsky, who is Jewish, was denied membership in the Albany chapter of Kappa Delta Rho (KDR), a prestigious national fraternity, because of his religion. But his fraternity-brother friends at the College for Teachers refused to accept the national’s strictures, made a stand on principle, resigned from KDR and formed their own local fraternity, Alpha Pi Alpha, so that they could admit Macnofsky and four other Jewish students.

“It was an extremely moving experience,” Macnofsky said. “These guys were going to the wall for us and supported us so completely that they’d rather have us in their fraternity than stick with the national and all the prestige that carried.”

Stuart Macnofsky, now retired and living in San Diego, still has his fraternity mug.

Macnofsky said he’ll never forget one moment in the fall of 1952, when the president of KDR’s national flew to Albany in a chartered plane to try to stop the chapter’s secession by describing the fraternity’s rationale for admitting only white, Christian males (African-Americans as well as Jews were excluded). KDR defended the practice at the time, saying it was founded as a Christian organization and had a duty to preserve that mission through its admission practices. On its application form at the time, KDR required a pledge to fill in a blank for race and religion.

KDR, based in Stockton, N.J., is still in operation. Its first two chapters were at Cornell University and Middlebury College. Albany was its third, and affiliated at the College for Teachers in 1915.

“I remember I was standing outside the frat house on Western Avenue with the three other Jewish guys, sort of awaiting our fate,” Macnofsky recalled. “We heard this big ruckus, a lot of yelling and commotion. The next thing we knew, the man’s luggage came flying out the front door and the fraternity president was hustled down the steps shortly after that.”

Macnofsky, Art Stone, Alvin Brown and Kurt Rosenbaum — a fifth Jewish student pledge, Robert Becker, had recently been called to active duty with the Navy — were called inside the frat house and told they were being admitted to the new local fraternity, Alpha Pi Alpha (APA). The membership voted to stick with its plan to quit KDR because of its discriminatory policies. (APA also later admitted black students who pledged.)

“It made me feel very good to have the Albany fraternity brothers stand up for me,” said Alvin Brown, M.S.’53, of Clifton Park, N.Y., a retired business teacher and administrator for a community college in New York City. “They were great guys and very supportive.”

That moment when a small band of 36 fraternity brothers stared down bigotry will be remembered and discussed at the 50th anniversary reunion of Alpha Pi Alpha at the University Oct. 18-20 during Homecoming Weekend.

Lee Upcraft, M.A.'60
Lee Upcraft, M.A.’60, is the fraternity’s historian.

“It’s a remarkable story. And the more I dig into it, the more impressed I am with how far ahead of their time these guys were for 1952, long before the civil rights movement and equal rights,” said Lee Upcraft, M.A.’60, of State College, Pa. Upcraft is a retired business professor and administrator at Penn State University who researches the history of Alpha Pi Alpha and publishes his findings on the frat’s Web site (http://www.alphapialpha.com/).

“I’ve interviewed several members from 1952 who said the stand they took was one of the most significant things they’ve ever done,” said Upcraft, who has become the group’s archivist because he wants to preserve the story for later generations. After 50 years, many of those involved have died, and frat members in the 1960s and ’70s were often not aware of their own history. Alpha Pi Alpha, which inducted more than 750 members in its 26 years, folded in 1978 due to declining membership, mirroring a national trend.

NY Times clipping

Their decision to quit the national and start their own frat wasn’t the end of the controversy, which was written up at the time in the Albany Times Union and Knickerbocker News and later The New York Times. John Zongrone, B.A.’54, of Voorheesville, N.Y., who owns a local insurance firm, was fraternity president at the time of the newsworthy events. Zongrone said he and his frat brothers waged an uphill battle. Some administrators and faculty members, including the frat’s faculty adviser, tried to talk Zongrone and his members out of resigning from the national.

Zongrone said KDR made a show of amending its discriminatory bylaws at its 1950 convention, but quickly adopted a “gentleman’s agreement” that continued the practice of banning blacks and Jews. The issue came to a head in the fall of 1952, when Zongrone submitted the names of the five Jewish students for membership. There was a war of words through angry correspondence between Zongrone and the national leading up to KDR’s big national convention in the winter of 1952 at Purdue University. The reception for Zongrone was chilly.

“It was very uncomfortable to have to stand to up in front of that large crowd and state my objections to the national’s policies and to inform them that we were resigning,” Zongrone recalled. “I got booed and heckled, and it got a little scary.”

Zongrone, a popular student who played varsity basketball and baseball, said he enjoyed strong support back on the Albany campus. After the New York Times covered the story, though, Zongrone received some hate mail.

Kurt Rosenbaum with fraternity brothers
The late Kurt Rosenbaum, wearing glasses, was a guiding force for the fraternity’s stand.

None of the criticism Zongrone and his other frat brothers faced, however, could compare with the experiences of the late Kurt Rosenbaum, Class of ’53, a Holocaust survivor and guiding force for the frat’s stand on principle. “He had a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm,” Macnofsky said of Rosenbaum, who was looked up to by the others because he was in his late 20s in 1952 and a powerful speaker with a strong German accent.

Rosenbaum was the motivating force,” Brown said. “He was a worldly person and very bright. He told us how he’d seen firsthand in Nazi Germany what happened when one race considers itself superior and persecutes people due to their religion. Some of the frat brothers were on the fence before that, but Rosenbaum got them off the fence in a hurry.”

Said Zongrone: “At the time, I didn’t think we were making history. But I guess we were. We weren’t out for recognition. We were just doing what we thought was right.”