It’s hard to know why the banisters are always sticky.
The wooden railings are covered with a noxious combination of substances from Gatorade to grain alcohol, a small taste of the shenanigans that happen inside the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity house — many of which would give any mother a migraine.
But the fraternity’s chief secret-keeper isn’t a special room full of guarded mysteries – she’s a vivacious 63-year-old West Virginian.
Donna Land is one of a handful of fraternity housemothers who live with upward of 50 sometimes-drunk college-aged men.
She has lived at the fraternity house for the past four years after her two children moved out of Gainesville.
Land’s daughter, Summer, said she’s glad her mother is keeping busy and thought Land’s experience working at a nursery was the best preparation for the job.
“They never sleep, and you never know when someone is going to vomit,” Summer said.
But Land loves her boys too much to make a fuss.
“Sometimes it’s loud and sometimes it’s late, but I really enjoy it,” she said, smiling.
She’s the only parent in the house, something she’s familiar with after raising two children on her own. She credits her upbringing in the Southeast with helping her learn to live on her own.
It’s hard not to notice some of Land’s Southern traits. Her soft, Appalachian voice floats into a conversation like the smell of magnolia in spring. The quirks stem from Land’s upbringing in the small coal-mining town of Bluefield, W. Va.
She got her first brush with Greek life when she went to the Massey Business College in Atlanta, now named the Art Institute of Atlanta. She dated a Kappa Sigma up the road at Georgia Technical University and noticed an older woman around the house.
“I’d see this old woman walking around,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘Why is she here?’”
She laughed. “And now it’s full circle.”
Land also found love in college and married Steve Land. The two moved back to Bluefield, W. Va., and Donna gave birth to her son soon after. She was beginning to form a family. Everything was perfect, until one summer day.
Steve went to South Carolina without Land, and he decided to go for an early morning swim. He was carried out to sea by a powerful rip current.
Donna never saw her husband again but had her hands full with one young child and another on the way. There was almost no time to grieve — between raising two newborns into adults, she carried the weight of two parents.
“My husband died in June, my son turned 2 in July and my daughter was born in August,” Land said. “It was just shocking.”
But when her children graduated from high school and went out of state for college, Land began to feel a void in her life.
It was time for a change — which drifted Land’s way after she learned that an acquaintance got a job as Chi Phi’s house mom at UF.
Land jumped at the next chance to apply for a housemother opening. The job seems like Land’s second wind. She beams a calm serenity, twanged with an infectious love of fun.
Land’s main responsibilities are ordering food, preparing for fire inspections, hosting the Game Day barbecues, putting up decorations for the annual Christmas dinner and sending invitations out for Founder’s Day weekend.
“She loves putting on these big things and meeting all the families,” Land’s daughter said.
Her apartment doesn’t have any trouble with the creaky doors and rickety floors that seem to dominate the interior of the house.
She has a living room about the size of three parking spaces with a small, attached kitchen and pantry. A hallway leads to a bathroom, which leads into her bedroom. Light streams through six windows that face the courtyard of the fraternity.
Some of her favorite memories with the fraternity happened on that patch of weedy pavement. One of her favorite fraternity parties is Alpha Tau Omega’s Volcano, which happens once every Fall. The men build a 30- to 40-foot tall volcano in the courtyard, complete with a built-in bar.
“I love the energy, I love the exuberance, and I love the creativity that goes into building the volcano,” Land said. “It’s such a bonding thing, they really have a good time out there. It’s so cool.”
She has an appreciation for rowdiness and debauchery rarely seen in a woman her age, but she refuses to tell some of her favorite stories about the fraternity.
“Well the best one’s I wouldn’t tell — I used to say that they pay me for my silence,” Land joked.
She rarely ventures upstairs to where the men live — half out of respect for their space and half out of fear of what she’ll find.
She also enjoys the more quiet times she shares with the brothers, like eating dinner with the new brothers. Land feels a special connection with the men she’s tasked with watching over. She said she would never dare to breathe a bad word about any of her boys.
“Oh no, I’ve got my boys’ back all the time,” she said. “We support each other.”
Outside of the brotherhood, Land has found a sisterhood of her own. Every week, the fraternity housemothers and the sorority housemothers will get together on different days to get dinner or go out on the town.
They commiserate, laugh, tell stories about their kids and get a much-needed break from 20-year-olds. Though her son and daughter live across the globe, Land said she feels like loved ones always surround her.
Summer Land said she’s grateful that her mother had the chance to start fresh.
“It’s a really good thing for her,” she said. “With my brother in San Francisco and me in Australia, this is the perfect thing to keep her occupied all day.”
The brothers at Alpha Tau Omega house have a tradition that also makes Land feel more like part of a family.
“They all call me mom,” she said. “It’s especially fun for me because my real children call me Donna.”
Contact Shelby Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donna Land, 63, is housemother for the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. After her two children moved out of their Gainesville home, she decided to become “mom” to more than 70 men.