The Ballad of Sherman Wu

In 1956, a Northwestern freshman made national news after his fellow pledges balked at having a Chinese frat brother.

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Sherman Wu was a 19 year old freshman at Northwestern University in 1956 when he became national news —and the subject of a Pete Seeger folk song —after the Psi Upsilon fraternity offered him membership, then retracted it because his fellow pledges complained about having an Asian frat brother.

Sun-Times file photo

When Hsiu Huang Wu was a little boy in China, he and his older brother would dig holes in their backyard, trying to reach America.

He would get here, eventually, in a big way — featured in Life magazine, lauded in song by Pete Seeger. But mostly forgotten today, which is why, this being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I thought I would share the story.

His father, K.C. Wu, was mayor of Shanghai after World War II, where he hosted visiting Chicago Tribune’s Robert McCormick on one of his round-the-world jaunts. An improbable friendship developed between the famously xenophobic publisher and the Chinese official.

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When it came time for Wu’s two daughters to go to college, McCormick suggested Northwestern, and the two teens lived with him while preparing for school. McCormick even threw Eileen Wu’s wedding at Cantigny and gave her away, standing in for the father of the bride, who had become governor of Formosa — now Taiwan.

After falling out with the nationalists, the elder Wu and his wife Edith fled to America, settling in the Georgian Hotel at Hinman and Davis in Evanston. Only his younger son, Hsiu Huang, remained behind. Gov. Wu accused Chiang Kai Shek of holding the boy hostage.

With McCormick’s help, the teen finally came here and began attending Evanston Township High School, where teachers so badly mangled pronunciation of “Hsiu Huang” that he decided to change his first name to “Sherman,” inspired by Sherman Avenue.

In the fall of 1956, Wu began his freshman year at Northwestern and went through the fraternity rush process. Two frats offered him membership, Acacia and Psi Upsilon. He accepted Psi U.

Which is when the trouble began.

Several of Wu’s fellow pledges refused to join the frat if he were included.

“They told me I would degrade the house because I’m Chinese,” Wu later explained after he was “depledged.” His presence might “make it more difficult to get dates from the sororities.”

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Document withdrawing Psi Upsilon’s pledging of Sherman Wu.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

“We felt he would be a detriment,” agreed chapter president Jack Lageschulte, of Barrington.

“I was very hurt and felt like crying,” Wu later wrote, “but didn’t want to show my emotional feeling in front of the persons who belonged to what seemed to me a bitterly ignorant and unworthy group.”

Daily Northwestern columnist Chuck Remsberg — who later covered the Our Lady of the Angels fire as a cub reporter — called Lageschulte.

“I guess you’d say a lot of it was because of his appearance — on his color,” Lageschulte told him, according to Remsberg’s notes in the NU Archives. “He’s got yellow skin. His eyes are slanted, and his hair is straight. I mean, somebody walks in our living room and right away they say, ‘Who’s that Chinese guy?’ It isn’t like having a boy who’s Jewish. A lot of times you can’t tell just by looking at a boy whether he’s Jewish.”

As publicity grew — Life magazine ran an article — NU president J. Roscoe Miller issued a statement washing the university’s hands:

“Northwestern is not obligated to impair the right of association or to proscribe the membership qualifications of student groups so long as they are not contrary to law.”

Complaint letters poured in.

“More distressing to me than the bad publicity, however was the official reaction to the incident,” John L. McKnight wrote from Evanston.

Wu took great comfort in these.

“First there was only hatred in my mind,” he wrote. “But after the newspapers and magazines publicised the incident, I received more than 300 letters from all over the United States saying that they wanted me to know what a real American felt about this.”

Folk singer Pete Seeger recorded ”The Ballad of Sherman Wu,” which begins:

“As I was out walking the streets of Northwestern/I spied a young freshman, dejected and blue/and so when I asked him, ‘Why are you dejected?’/He said ‘I’m Chinese and I can’t join Psi U ...’”

The dust eventually settled, Wu pledged a different frat. The episode didn’t put him off of NU — he earned three degrees there, including his doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science. He ended up a literal rocket scientist, designing control systems for spacecraft and working on the Apollo lunar landing module.

Wu died in 2010 — living long enough to see the Psi Upsilon chapter at Northwestern closed in 1999 “for multiple risk management violations and lack of standards.”

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