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DKE breaks ground on Habitat house in former president's memory

Davis Willingham speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Courtland Smith. DTH/Margaret Cheatham Williams
Davis Willingham speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Courtland Smith. DTH/Margaret Cheatham Williams

For the members of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and their families, Sunday was a day to begin rebuilding lives and laying a new foundation for leadership and a needy family.

The ceremony brought about 150 fraternity members, family, alumni and members of the UNC community to symbolically break ground on the Courtland Benjamin Smith Memorial House, a Habitat for Humanity house in honor of their late president.

“We feel very fortunate to have these young men as our friends,” said Courtland Smith’s emotional father, Pharr Smith, as he spoke to the crowd. “And we know Courtland was — and would be today — very proud to be one of them.”

While he spoke to the crowd, most of whom were young men standing solemnly in navy blazers, he recalled meeting members of the fraternity, many for the first time, when they traveled to the Smiths’ home in Houston in the days after his son’s tragic death, full of kind words and heartfelt sincerity.

Courtland Smith, who was the president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, was killed by a police officer near Greensboro on the morning of Aug. 23, according to police. Smith had been driving drunk and called 911, asking for help.

Fraternity members said they not only lost a friend when Courtland Smith died, but they also lost a leader who was exceptionally well-regarded in the fraternity system and across campus.

As a result of an investigation into alcohol violations at the fraternity house the night Smith died, Delta Kappa Epsilon volunteered to spend its yearly social budget on the project.

Including the social budget, the fraternity has raised more than $64,000 for the project, which will cost at least $75,000 to complete. A partnership with Bank of America Corp. footed $25,000 of the bill — a donation facilitated by a freshman fraternity member with family ties to Hugh McColl, former chairman and CEO of that bank.

Incoming DKE President Davis Willingham said the fraternity likely will exceed its commitment to raise $75,000, and has set a new goal of $100,000, which it plans to meet with philanthropy events.

UNC administrators, alumni and the national Delta Kappa Epsilon organization have expressed that the project represents a positive direction for the fraternity, which is working to improve its image.

The house — off of Purefoy Drive in the Rogers Road community — will go to Lion and Zar Ree Wei, ages 42 and 39, Burmese immigrants working as UNC housekeepers. Until the house is completed, they will continue to live in a two-bedroom apartment with their six children, ages 15, 14, 11, 8, 6 and 2.

“The fact that six children will be able to sleep in a comfortable house instead of an apartment, I’m sure that would have meant a lot to Courtland,” said fraternity member Billy Armfield. “It’s very true to what he would have wanted.”

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