This story appears in the spring 2014 edition of THE TEKE Magazine.
For 43 years, Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity has had a pulse that beats alongside the footsteps of one man—a puffy-haired outspoken icon who defines three letters through his passion and resilience to be the very best. Dennis “Buckwheat” Perry is a fraternity household name and his path has shaped the lives of past, present, and future Tekes everywhere.
You have not lived until you have had some homemade cooking from Frater Buckwheat. His legendary Mac n’ cheese, Chicago dogs with chili, and his world renowned gumbo recipe have added levels of comfort to the TKE rush process for generations of Fraters. His attention to detail and ritualistic approach to rush has made him a legend in Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. Most members of TKE have a story about Buckwheat from their own eyes or from the words of another brother. Some are fortunate enough to know him on a personal and professional level. Regardless of how well you know him, you can’t ignore the fact that his experience with TKE is unlike any other fraternity story you have heard. Readers beware; Buckwheat Perry has some stories that are too good to ever forget.THE TEKE magazine sat down with the rush legend who shared a bit of his story that has gone through more than four decades of TKE history.
Daisy Duke shorts, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat that would make Willie Nelson (Nu-Xi) proud. That was the wardrobe chosen by a young agriculture major named Dennis Perry at the University of New Hampshire. Perry wanted to join a fraternity because of the TV character “Ricky Nelson” from the show The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Ricky, who joined a fraternity in the series, was a character who influenced Perry’s decision to join the fraternity lifestyle while living in New Hampshire. After choosing TKE over AGR and Lambda Chi, Dennis became an official Frater in the Bond when he initiated into the Alpha-Nu chapter in 1968.
A fire engine red 1945 Willis Jeep was his car of choice complete with a bathtub in the back trunk filled with ice and his favorite beverages. The nickname “Buckwheat” was given by a professor who was frustrated with the outbursts Frater Perry would have in class. A surrounding fraternity brother in the classroom laughed at the nickname and shared the name with the rest of the men in the chapter. The name Buckwheat would forever stick with Perry; however, the name Buckwheat in the late 1960s had a different meaning than it does today. “Believe it or not, I was not a good fraternity man while at New Hampshire. I look back on those years and all I wanted to do was live it up,” said Perry.
Dennis “Buckwheat” Perry is a fraternity household name and his path has shaped the lives of past, present, and future Tekes everywhere.
Buckwheat’s introduction to the professional staff of TKE occurred that following spring when he was introduced to now longtime friend and colleague, Frater Bruce B. Melchert (Beta-Theta). Two years as a collegiate member went by fast for Buckwheat as a courtship between Frater Buckwheat and the professional staff was created. In his last year as a collegiate, Buckwheat also served as a volunteer. He coordinated recruitment in the entire state of Kansas and eventually focused outside of the state when he communicated with the Big 8 schools that year (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State). His efforts drove results and his results turned heads; it wasn’t that much later when Buckwheat was interviewing to become a member of the professional staff for TKE.
During that time, Chapter Services Director T. J. Schmitz (Iota-Omicron) and Frater Bruce Ness (Delta-Psi) came up with a concept of having an International Rush Chairman through the professional staff. Buckwheat interviewed for a position at a hotel restaurant and was given an opportunity to prove that he was as good at rush as people said he was. During his interview, he told Frater Ness that he would rush any man in the restaurant in 15 minutes. After Ness pointed at a man, Buckwheat went toward him and 12 minutes later brought back Miles Standish (Alpha-Upsilon) who later pledged Tau Kappa Epsilon and ended up becoming a chapter president at Kansas State. Buckwheat got the job.
Buckwheat spent his first year on staff building chapters anywhere TKE needed him to. After six months on the road, he came back to Kansas City for staff training. “With my wardrobe, I did not quite fit in when I returned for training. I remember seeing Dockers and button-down shirts.” Buckwheat began the transition from his cut off sweatshirts and found his role of leadership within the professional staff. The first group he worked with was in South Dakota at Black Hills State University. After that, he traveled to Colorado State where he recruited the CSU football team to create a TKE chapter.
Buckwheat is a man who took pride in trial and error. In the fraternity world at that time, tradition was a difficult thing to change. Buckwheat was a true innovator of his time; he was the first TKE professional to run a rush ad in a newspaper and he set a record by chartering four groups on the same day at the same place. Having been an unsuccessful member at a small chapter in New Hampshire and finding his calling while at a large chapter in Kansas State, Buckwheat was a well-rounded staff member who could relate to and inspire any group across the nation.
In a trip to the West Coast, the new dressed for success styled Buckwheat met Frater Danny Thomas (Gamma-Nu). Buck’s mother was a huge fan of Frater Danny’s efforts with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and as an actor when he starred on the TV show Make Room for Daddy. Buckwheat’s family was not fond of him working for a fraternity. “My parents wanted me to get a real job and stop playing fraternity.” A month later, Buckwheat received a phone call from his mother who said she received a letter from Danny Thomas. The letter entailed a polite request that she allow her son Dennis to continue to work for the fraternity that Danny Thomas had so much love for. The kind heart of Frater Thomas was just enough to give Buckwheat the blessing needed to continue his path on staff.
Buckwheat also was fortunate to meet Frater and Past Grand Prytanis R.C. Williams (Alpha-Pi) who was the leader in expanding the Fraternity after World War II. As a young member on staff, Buckwheat was asked to visit Frater Williams at the retirement home where he was living. “I remember him wearing a three-piece suit with a library bookshelf in the background and a steak dinner on his lap.” Very few men have made Buckwheat feel intimidated over the years, but R.C. Williams is one of those men. He asked me, “How was Alpha? How was Beta? How was Gamma? And he went down the list of every TKE chapter.” The experience and pride in the Fraternity that R.C. showed Buckwheat on that day in 1973 proved that fraternal greatness is something that does not fade with time.
Through the mentorship of Bruce B. Melchert and T. J. Schmitz, Buckwheat continued to work as TKE’s top recruiter. The name “Buckwheat” became a fraternity name that every other organization began to recognize in the 1970s. Because Perry was always on the road with chapters, other organizations started to speculate that TKE used the name Buckwheat as the title of a secret rush task force. “They thought I was an illusion or a gimmick. They thought there were two or three men on staff that were called Buckwheat as an unofficial trademark for TKE.” Buckwheat went to a fraternity conference in his third year on staff and the other fraternities turned their heads and said, “He does exist.” By that time, it was a proven fact; Buckwheat Perry knew how to rush like none other.
Frater James T. Kane (Theta) is another man who influenced Buckwheat at a young age. “He once said to me, either you are the biggest screwball in the world or you are going to be TKE’s secret weapon.” According to Buckwheat, Frater Kane probably purchased more fraternity houses than any other member of TKE. Kane knew the National Founders and took credit for pledging T. J. Schmitz. Buckwheat developed a relationship with Kane and even rebuilt Kane’s Theta chapter back in the early 1980s. The pride Kane had in re-building chapters rubbed off on Buckwheat as he developed abilities to help struggling chapters and turn them into the best on campus. The mindset of fighting for every TKE chapter still remains with Frater Buckwheat today.
No sitdown with Buckwheat Perry would be complete without a story about Frater Ronald Reagan (Iota). During Reagan’s campaign for President in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an advance team that would arrive at campuses a few days prior to set the venue. They would contact Buckwheat so he could get a group of Tekes together at every site because it had a great impact on Frater Reagan’s morale. “He [Reagan] surrounded himself with Tekes. He felt comfortable with them. It became a fixture; anytime he would speak on a college campus, he would ask, ‘Where are my Tekes?’ His advance team would call me and say we need as many cherry shirts as you can get. It wasn’t hard getting a group of Tekes together to see Ronald Reagan.”
On one occasion, Buckwheat grabbed the shoulders of President Reagan to get his attention for a quick photograph. The back of Buckwheat’s neck was soon met by the gun of a Secret Service agent who quickly reminded Buck that you do not lay a hand on the President. After that altercation, Buckwheat finally posed for the picture with Frater Reagan as he looked up to Ronald and said, “What are the chances of me getting a rush party in the Rose Garden?” Frater Reagan, with a twinkle in his eye, replied, “Buckwheat, don’t push your luck,” as a grin was shown from ear to ear.
Guns are a common man’s fear but for Buckwheat Perry, his fear is hospitals. During a visit to a hospital in Rochester, New Hampshire, Perry had to undergo a surgery that placed him in a recovery room. “I remember two nurses running into my room. They were hysterical with 36 red carnations in their hands.” The carnations were delivered with a note that read, “Buckwheat, Get Well Soon. Ronald Reagan.” Buckwheat received a letter from the President of the United States because he was a Frater in the Bond. This moment is something that Perry would refer to as a prime example of what makes TKE great.
From the 40th President of the United States to the King of Rock & Roll, Buckwheat has had the most unique experience as a member of TKE. While visiting Memphis, Buckwheat approached the gate at Graceland and got on the intercom and said there were a couple of Fraternity brothers there to visit. Buck and another staff man were buzzed through and they met Frater Elvis Presley (Beta-Psi). They were given a guided tour by Elvis. “He was a very gracious man. We had a couple of cokes and he took us through his whole place.” Only Buckwheat Perry can share TKE stories that connect generations of people together.
Since Buckwheat has been on staff, there have been 22 Conclaves that have occurred in the United States and Canada, all of which Buckwheat remembers as if they were yesterday. “The 1975 Conclave at Lake Geneva was a great Conclave. Sophus C. Goth (Nu) addressed the Grand Chapter that year. To watch that man hypnotize the Grand Chapter was awesome to see.” During one Conclave event, Buck was awarded the Southern Order of Honor and the Grand Prytanis Award, which was a tremendous honor and rarity for a staff member of TKE. Buckwheat was present for the 75th Anniversary Conclave and he was leading the charge during the Centennial celebration Conclave in 1999. Dressed as George Patton, Buckwheat came through the mists and led a TKE parade down Illinois Street in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. He led the charge in no ordinary vehicle; he rode through downtown Indy in an armored personnel carrier that most would refer to as a tank.
“George Patton actually used that vehicle when he was in North Africa. We borrowed it from a museum for the occasion.” What will go down as one of the best photographs of TKE history, Buckwheat did indeed ride on top of a tank, and that tank waved the flag of cherry and grey all the way to Conclave that year.
One of Buckwheat’s favorite Conclave moments occurred in 2011 during the San Antonio Conclave when he received the Order of the Golden Eagle. Frater Lon Justice (Pi-Alpha) spoke about Buckwheat’s uniqueness of leadership and the reality that every man in that room has had their chapter impacted because of the efforts of Buckwheat Perry. Nat King Cole’s hit song “Unforgettable” blasted through the speakers as Buckwheat headed to the stage—a truly unforgettable moment for any person in that room who knew Frater Perry. If the award was not enough, the standing and roaring audience of collegiate and alumni Fraters added even more electricity to the occasion. “I got to go on stage with all of the remaining greats in the Fraternity. That cast of men are the true greats of TKE. It was a very humbling moment in my life.” In that instant on stage, Buckwheat was given the highest award possible for a member of TKE and he shared the moment and the stage with the men he refers to as his heroes. During his acceptance speech, he continued his legacy of always having a mindset for rush. “In the words of Bruce B. Melchert, ‘There is no problem that cannot be solved with 20 new men.’ Rush is your key to success.” It is fair to say that Conclave is an experience every Teke should have. When Buckwheat Perry speaks during one, it makes the event itself feel timeless; when Frater Buckwheat talks about TKE, it is a moment you will never forget.
His unorthodox routine makes Buckwheat a true original in the fraternity world. The first thing Buck does when he visits a campus is go to the local grocery store and look at the produce. “You can tell a lot about a community by their produce.” His luggage is a mini Walgreens drug store in which he has air fresheners, medicines, duct tape, travel supplies, and packets of sugar among other miscellaneous items. If Mary Poppins was a fraternity staff man, she would be Buckwheat Perry. He is a fraternity professional pioneer who has always treated Tau Kappa Epsilon as the most important organization in the world. Regardless of the setting, whether it be a fraternity house, a hotel room, or a messy apartment, Buckwheat makes any room feel like home because he recognizes that the Fraternity is a family.
Buckwheat’s 40th anniversary occurred a few years ago and it was a great surprise for Perry. One key person in attendance at that event was Buck’s Chapter Advisor when he was a collegiate back in 1969, Frater Bob Swenson (Alpha-Lambda). “The grey hairs that I put on that man’s head, and for him to come all the way out for that meant the most to me.” Frater Swenson and Frater Perry also caught up during the 2013 Conclave in Washington, D.C. “Bob is an example of the ultimate Teke volunteer. I have to credit my rush and my staying involved with TKE to Bob. He proves that a volunteer can impact an undergraduate’s life because he impacted mine. And he is still doing it today.” Other members of TKE have inspired Buckwheat. Some have taught him lifelong lessons, but the character and passion of Buckwheat brings every story and every lesson to life. Buckwheat Perry lives through the Fraternity.
People might wonder how a man of this caliber gets up in the morning. Buckwheat gets up every day and continues to serve TKE because he still gets excited about what a young chapter can create. “I love to sit down with a young group and use the analogy of painting a picture of what is a perfect fraternity on their campus.” Through his words, strangers can become united through a shared vision. Through his passion, a message can be transparent to any language and discourse. “What a great opportunity it is to strive for a perfect fraternity. And then to see the light bulb turn on in their eyes.” A feeling of inspiration in the eyes of young Tekes still motivates Buckwheat today. Every campus he visits, the spirit of Tau Kappa Epsilon comes with him and when he leaves a group, they are filled with that spirit for a lifetime.
He originally set out to work for TKE for one year. History has shown that was not the case for Frater Buckwheat. Since arriving on staff in 1972, there have been 161,833 men who have been initiated into Tau Kappa Epsilon, and more than 229 chapters have been installed on campuses across the United States and Canada.“Forty-three years ago still feels like yesterday. That is why I still feel like I am 19 years old.” The man with a vision to be the best still has the drive to be exactly that. During his 60th birthday, he made the goal that TKE will have 300 or more chapters in the near future. “Six years later, we still haven’t got there. But I haven’t retired either.” He is still motivated toward that goal and is relentless in bringing TKE to any man or any campus that has a group who is willing to better themselves.
“The Fraternity offers an opportunity to find the good in each of us. In my many years, I have seen that. I have seen Fraters who are complete strangers do random acts of kindness to one another because they are Tekes. Young people need to know that it is all right to care. As a fraternity, we cannot cure diseases or find world peace, but we can change a person’s life and for that reason, we have a purpose.”
Last year, at the age of 66, Buckwheat traveled more than 40,000 miles. With a suitcase that still holds the letters from Danny Thomas and Ronald Reagan, Buckwheat Perry is still rushing men for Tau Kappa Epsilon today. His legacy is something that has raised the bar for future fraternity men to strive toward. The most special part about this man’s legacy is that it still continues with every footstep and every mile Buckwheat travels in the future.
One man can connect six decades of Fraters together in a room and that man is Dennis “Buckwheat” Perry—the true definition of a legend.
This story appeared in the spring 14 edition of THE TEKE Magazine. Share your thoughts on Twitter (@TKE_Fraternity) and like us on Facebook.
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Founded on January 10, 1899, Tau Kappa Epsilon is one of the largest collegiate men’s social fraternities in North America with over 286,000 initiated members and 232 active chapters and colonies. TKE’s mission is to aid men in their mental, moral and social development for life. With nearly 12,000 collegiate members, Tau Kappa Epsilon contributes to the advancement of society through the personal growth of our members, and service to others. TKE builds Better Men for a Better World.
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