By the time they’re 69 years old, most people on the verge of retirement are preparing to move to communities with the best beach access or the greenest golf courses.
Paul Burke went back to school.
Mr. Burke graduated with a degree in business from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1958. In March of this year, he left Daytona Beach, Fla., where he had a four-bedroom home and a swimming pool, to move into a set of apartments in the Lambda Chi Alpha house, which he shares with about a dozen college students.
“At first, the fraternity members were leery because they thought I was there to spy on them,” he said. “After living there for a while, they’re beginning to know me. I’m trying to fit in. I’m one of the guys.”
The historic, 5,600-square-foot house was undergoing a $325,000 renovation last year when Mr. Burke, who is the vice president of the fraternity’s house corporation, first entertained the notion of moving in.
Mr. Burke said he suggested to the other members of the corporation that he hire his own interior decorator to renovate the house and then move into the former apartments of longtime house mother Ida Mae “Dutch” Holland.
After such a significant financial investment for the renovations, the house corporation saw a benefit in having a “house daddy” around, even if the concept was a bit unorthodox, said Ray White, the Lambda Chi Alpha House Corp. treasurer.
“Regardless of which individual we choose, there was always the question of whether they could identify and get along with young people,” Mr. White said. “You’ve got to have an alumni who’s single and ... who can get along with them and be a friend, but who they know is in charge, ultimately.
“Let’s put it this way, we’d be hard pressed to find somebody among our alumni as qualified, as uniquely qualified, as he is to do this job.”
Although living beachside in Daytona Beach, Fla., might have seemed luxurious, it was lonely, Mr. Burke said. Being around people again has improved what once was a too-solitary life, he said.
“It’s like I’m in a big mausoleum; you walk through the house, and it echoes,” he said. “It’s nice to be around people without putting a burden on your family.
“In the fraternity house, I’m by myself, but I’m with ... nice, young people.”
Most of the time, Mr. Burke said he tries to stay out of the active members’ way.
“This is not to try and run the chapter or be involved in the day-to-day activities of the fraternity because the young men are completely capable of that themselves,” he said. “What I’m there for is a stabilizing effect.
“I’m someone who’s on the same level, age wise and maturity wise, as the neighbors, to buffer them.”
Mr. Burke doesn’t pay rent, but he said he does make financial donations to the fraternity as well as contributions to the renovation effort in the house. Recently, he used proceeds from a vending machine he installed to purchase a flat-screen TV for the rec room, he said.
He’s also helped with the neighbors. In recent months, Fort Wood residents have complained about disturbances from the fraternity houses, and Lambda Chi Alpha’s members say having an adult around has been helpful.
UTC senior Jason Charles Roberts, 23, is Lambda Chi Alpha’s high alpha and has been a member of the fraternity since 2004. Having Mr. Burke’s around has often helped defuse confrontations with other residents, he said.
“When there’s something that does come up or when there are issues with people in the neighborhood, he’s a liaison, a representative, from our alumni association,” Mr. Roberts said. “It’s much easier to legitimize things when there’s an adult in the house.”
Although Mr. Burke’s age makes moving into the house seem like the plot to a bad 1980s comedy, it demonstrates that one of the fraternity’s key ideals — lifelong membership — isn’t just smoke and mirrors, said Bill Staley, 23, who has been a member of Lambda Chi Alpha since 2006.
“It really is an inspiration,” Mr. Staley said. “It’s given fresh breath to our chapter and shows that, no matter how old you are and how life has treated you, you can always come back to have a home with Lambda Chi Alpha.”
This month, Mr. Burke has been working to separate himself from his business interests in Florida and said he will soon be able spend even more time at the house.
Mr. Burke hasn’t limited how long he’ll stay with the Lambda Chi Alphas, but he said he’ll remain as long as he feels welcome, useful and healthy.
The idea that a businessman who founded several successful companies, including Native Tan Sun Tan Lotions, would willingly uproot himself and move in with college students baffled both friends and family at first, but the experience has proven positive for all involved, Mr. Burke said.
“The first reaction was ‘Are you crazy?’ and I heard that so much, that I started asking myself that,” he said, laughing. “(But) once I moved in and got settled, they realized I’m there for a certain reason, and they appreciated that.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world for being that crazy.”
“Besides,” he added, “where else can an old fool like me go and feel young again?”
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...