Peggy Lee called a North Dakota State University fraternity guy 'the first love of my life'
In her Fargo days, superstar Peggy Lee fell in love with the man who was later killed in WWII. Years later, she was deeply moved when his fraternity remembered.
FARGO — North Dakota Native and singing superstar Peggy Lee was an award-winning artist, but an award from a North Dakota State University fraternity in 1975 had her “misty-eyed.”
The story begins earlier that year with one brother's chance conversation with a member of NDSU’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Mother’s Club. The Mother’s Club, which included mothers of active and alumni members of the fraternity, met at the chapter house three to four times a year.
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Curt Stofferahn, who was a member of SAE in 1975, said they were a great help to the chapter, raising money and helping with projects. And they were oh so proper.
“We had to make sure the house was picked up and clean and we were on our best behavior,” Stofferahn said. “We loved having them there, but they were very formal. They had a tea service and cookies. But they were also a lot of fun.”
One day at one of those tea and cookie parties, Stofferahn asked a woman named Ada Sweeney what her connection was to the fraternity.
“She said, ‘Well my son Hugh was an SAE in the ‘40s. He died in the war,’” Stofferahn recalled.
After digging a little deeper, Stofferahn learned that her son, Hugh Sweeney, had been an active member of the fraternity, as well as working as a paperboy and in the mailroom of The Fargo Forum, before being called into active duty in World War II in 1942. He was killed in action east of New Guinea in February 1944.
It turns out before his death, Hugh was Peggy Lee's boyfriend. Hugh and his fraternity brothers starting hanging out at the Powers Hotel just to watch her sing.
“One alumni told me that Peggy knew all the SAE songs and she would stand around the piano as one of the brothers would play there at the intermission at the Powers coffee shop. She’d sing with all of them. It was great,” he said.
With that memory in mind, Stofferahn had an idea. Graduation was coming up and Lee was set to get an honorary doctorate at NDSU and would be receiving North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award. Why not get his fraternity in on the action?
“In addition to being the editor of the newsletter, I was the public relations chair, so always seizing opportunity to put the chapter in good light, I said, 'Well, hey guys, let's make Peggy Lee an honorary Little Sister,'" he said.
After initially "scoffing at" his idea, the brothers agreed. They worked with the NDSU Alumni Association to get squeezed into Lee’s very tight schedule. They met her in an alumni lounge where she was awarded with a certificate and a pin recognizing her as an SAE Little Sister.
“Then we gave her the Little Sister handshake. This is quite a ritual,” Stofferahn said with a laugh. "But I think she was thrilled when these young, handsome men were lined up to give her the Little Sister handshake and a kiss on the cheek.”
Stofferahn said she loved every minute of it and even got a little misty-eyed. Later that night at a concert in Fargo, she talked about how much she loved her state of North Dakota and how honored she was to receive the honorary doctorate and be inducted into the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty clear it was the honor from the fraternity that tugged the most at her heartstrings. Stofferahn remembers what she said onstage that night.
“She said, ‘What meant the most to me today was I was made an honorary Little Sister of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. When I was here singing at WDAY and then at the Powers, the SAEs would come down and have their Cokes. The first love of my life was an SAE.’ She had so many fond memories,” Stofferahn said.
Following that chapter with Lee, Stofferahn went to graduate school and later had a long career as a sociology professor. While at the University of North Dakota he was a prominent adviser with the SAE chapter there. He is now a professor emeritus, retiring from UND in 2017.
But after all these years, Stofferahn can still remember the day he met a legend and had the honor to call her "Little Sister."
“She was authentic. She was genuine. She was real. There was nothing pretentious about her," he said. "You would expect someone with her degree of fame to be pretentious, but she was just as warm and friendly as they come.”