Throughout the morning, Sue Overton's boysall 68 of themstraggle into the kitchen of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman (pop. 95,694). Plugged into iPods and chatting on cell phones, the young men fill their cereal bowls and zap sausage biscuits in the microwave oven before grabbing their books and heading to class.
"Good morning, sunshine," Overton says, teasing sophomore Matt Graves, 19, who looks barely awake as he fills a glass with orange juice.
Overton, 74, lives in the 80-year-old fraternity house with the rambunctious boys, part of a century-long tradition of motherly women providing food, supervision and round-the-clock support to students at fraternity and sorority houses across the nation.
Since 1997, Overton has mothered more than a thousand young men, and last fall she welcomed a full house of students back to the three-story limestone Beta Theta Pi house.
"She becomes Mom once we're here in Norman," says senior Eric Combs, 22, of Shawnee, Okla., as he loops an arm around Overton.
From her first-floor apartment off the living room, Overton oversees the comings and goings in the house, manages household repairs and upkeep, offers motherly advice and encouragement, and plans social events and meals with the help of a full-time cook and a full-time housekeeper. Acting as a stand-in mom, she instructs the young men in table manners, offers jitterbug lessons, sews ripped jeans, cheers at basketball games and bakes their favorite cupcakes with candy sprinkles.
"They like sprinkles just like the little boys," Overton says with a laugh.
Mind your manners
Living up to her nickname of Mom-O, Overton expects good behavior from her spirited charges and breaks out her etiquette books each fall for another round of lessons. She teaches the young men everything from how to properly answer the telephone to how to dress professionally.
"The most important thing I try to teach them is a respect for adults and the women they're involved with," Overton says. "That's lacking today and it bothers me."
Having a housemother around keeps the boisterous boys on their toes. "There's not a lot of unpleasant language," she says. "They do a pretty good job of policing themselves."
Overton found her calling as a housemother soon after her husband, Claudell, died in 1996. With their four children grown, she faced an empty, quiet house.
Today, silence is never a problem. "Sometimes I sleep with the TV going because it drowns them out," Overton says. If someone is overly rowdy on a school night, then Overton exercises another motherly duty when called upon by Beta Theta Pi chapter President T.J Hutchings, 22.
"Any problems, I try to resolve them," Hutchings says, "and if I need help, I'll get Mom-O. Her door is always open."
A big part of mothering is keeping the bunch fed. Overton purchases the food, plans daily menus and knows what her young men like to eat; chicken-fried steak is their favorite.
During finals week, she spoils them by serving pizza at midnight. That kind of thoughtfulness earned Overton the Beta Theta Pi Housemother of the Year award last year.
About 1,700 housemothers, or house directors, live in fraternity and sorority houses across the nation, a position that was well established by the 1920s as Greek organizations began providing housing on college campuses, says Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Mid-American Greek Council Association in Fort Collins, Colo.
While today's housemothers deal with more paperwork and regulations than their predecessors, their role as maternal mentors hasn't changed.
"I kind of take the place of their other mother. I'm a shoulder," says Mina Neet, 68, housemother for 19 years at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house at Washington State University in Pullman (pop. 24,675).
Neet supervises the day-to-day activities of the house as well as tending to the emotions of 58 young women under her wing. "There's a lot of love here. Sometimes I see someone who's looking so down and I'll say, 'Do you need a hug?'"
Kiley Anderson, 19, recalls knocking on Neet's door one night when she was under the weather. "I was coughing and she made me some chamomile tea and chicken soup," says Anderson, of Camas, Wash. "You feel almost homesick sometimes, and it's nice to have her here."
Anderson and her sorority sisters are comforted knowing they can confide in Neet. "She's heard every story in the book about boys and boyfriends," the sophomore says. "Every tiny thing we have questions about, she answers."
Neet, a native of Scotland who worked as a children's governess before moving to the United States in 1979, teaches etiquette and practical skills, too. She remembers one upset young woman who asked for help with a household chore.
"She said, 'I'm supposed to be mopping the floor, but can't get it clean,"' Neet recalls. "I said, 'Let's go and see.' She was using a dry mop."
Neet patiently gave her a lesson in Pine-Sol.
Chores and more
While their mothers back home might nag them to clean their rooms, the 32 young men at FarmHouse fraternity at South Dakota State University in Brookings (pop. 18,504) don't get nagged from housemother Deb DeBates.
They get fined.
"It's a dollar for a dirty room, then it goes up incrementally by $5," says DeBates, 57, who has been housemother since 1992, and teaches family and consumer sciences education at the university. The young men are fined a quarter for cussing, with contributions helping fund house supplies and repairs.
The fraternity brothers do chores, including buying groceries, helping the cook prepare the evening meal and cleaning up. They have dinner ready at 6 p.m. when DeBates arrives home.
"She aids in our transition from living under our parents to living on our own," says student Austin Bishop, 21, of Hermosa, S.D. "She's helped me with resumes and to get ready for job fairs. She proofreads my papers."
DeBates says the job has its funny moments, such as when one young man, new to cooking, baked a watermelon for lunch. During her first month on the job, one freshman picked up his soup bowl and drank from it. "I thought, 'Oh, my, I've got my work cut out for me.'"
But she joins right in when the young men push aside the furniture to practice their Western swing dance steps. "It's just a lot of fun," she says. "There's always activity going on."
And in May, as the academic year draws to a close, DeBates and the other housemothers wipe away tears as they hug and say goodbye to another group of graduates.
Some of those students stay in touch with their housemothers long after graduation. "I get wedding invitations, birth announcements and Mother's Day cards," DeBates says.