VandeWalle, Olson, Marcil

UND fraternity reunites prominent trio from 1950s.

By Becky Jacobs/Grand Forks Herald

A Supreme Court justice, a governor and the head of media chain walk into a fraternity house.

No, this isn’t a joke.

North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, former Gov. Allen Olson and Forum Communications Chairman William Marcil attended UND together in the 1950s and were all fraternity brothers at Lambda Chi Alpha. The three were honored at a banquet held during Homecoming to mark fifty years in the current Lambda Chi Alpha house. 
“It’s a way for the group to highlight the history of the chapter and to recognize some of us,” Olson said. “It just happened that the three of us had made a fairly significant mark in North Dakota.”

Back in their college days, they said they had no idea that they would aspire to such prominent roles in North Dakota as governor, chief justice and the head of the state’s biggest media company.

“It’s always disconcerting to say, wait, how’d they get there?” VandeWalle joked.

The three men laugh about themselves 60 years ago and their memories as fraternity brothers. Marcil was often found in the living room of the fraternity reading a newspaper. And VandeWalle remembers a photo of himself dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood costume, dancing in the Flickertail Follies at the Central High School auditorium.

“The unique thing about this with the fraternal system is all these people grew up and spent their early formative years as fraternity members,” said Duane Littlejohn, who helped plan the banquet.

“But how often does it happen that three very important people in business, law and government would be living in the same frat?”

Campus memories
However, the three men didn’t live in the same house Lambda Chi Alpha has now. The fraternity used to have a three-story house at 303 Oxford St. That house was torn down in the early 1960s.

Some of the trio’s old hangouts are gone, too. Marcil and VandeWalle remember going to the Belmont and Riviera, which were bars in downtown Grand Forks. Olson said they were all “hockey freaks” and went to hockey games when the games were held at “the Barn.” Olson said the players didn’t wear helmets back then, and even though they played inside a shelter, it felt like they were playing outside. And VandeWalle said he always visits the law school when he’s back at UND.

Olson said what partly bonded the three of them in college was that they were all from small towns. VandeWalle is from Noonan, Marcil from Sherwood and Olson from Sarles, all in North Dakota. Because they were from small towns, they were able to become actively involved in their high schools and continued to be involved at UND, he said.

“The membership of Lambda Chi Alpha when we were there had a small-town flavor,” Olson said.

VandeWalle attended UND from 1951 to 1958, majoring in accounting in his undergraduate studies before attending law school. Olson attended from 1956 to 1963, majoring in business and public administration before also going to law school. Marcil attended from 1954 to 1958, majoring in business administration.

“It seemed at that time that everybody was dedicated to making something of themselves,” Littlejohn said, who was also a member of the fraternity in the 1950s. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean riches, but that means that they wanted to be a success.”

But Littlejohn said the building the men lived in was a “really dilapidated old house.”

“People asked, ‘Why do you have to paint the house every year?’ To keep it standing,” Littlejohn joked.

VandeWalle said he has “fond memories” of the fraternity and attending football games in Fargo with his fraternity brothers. Olson lived in the house all four years of his studies, and he said he “had the best years of my life at the University of North Dakota.”

But it was also “a different time then.”

In the 1950s, the fraternity had a TV only tuned into one station. They held a formal dinner every Monday night before the fraternity meeting where everybody was expected to wear suits. And Littlejohn said they had a spring formal where they dressed up in “prom attire” and danced to live band music.

Long friendships
After graduation, VandeWalle, Olson and Marcil remained close friends their whole lives.

“In a small state like North Dakota, people see each other frequently,” Olson said. “There are opportunities frequently to continue friendships and acquaintances.”

They even worked together. When Olson was attorney general in North Dakota, VandeWalle was the first assistant attorney general.

“It was fun to have him,” VandeWalle said, but he also said he “tried not to emphasize the fact that we were fraternity brothers.”

Marcil’s newspapers covered VandeWalle’s and Olson’s progress in their careers, as Marcil’s company grew. Marcil said VandeWalle and Olson didn’t get special treatment in his newspapers’ reporting, but he enjoyed watching them in their careers.

The three refer to each other in much more casual way than their official titles. Vandewalle is “Gerry,” Marcil is “Bill” and Allen is “Al.”

And they are quick to compliment each other. Olson commented that “there was no doubt that Bill Marcil was going to be successful in whatever he did.” VandeWalle noted that “you could tell [Olson and Marcil] were leaders.” And Marcil said he always “thought that Allen Olson would get into politics.”

Even though the three rose to big careers in the state, with VandeWalle and Marcil even receiving the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, Littlejohn said that “when they get back to the fraternity, they are the same guys that they were back in 1956.”