The Life Of A House Mom
Lanita “Lana” Cameron is having dinner with some 125 men this evening. A vivacious blonde, Cameron has no trouble commanding the attention of the men, who flirt with her shamelessly. One proclaims his love for her right there at the table.
But Cameron, 72, hardly notices the men’s charm. She’s too busy making sure everyone eats. Dinner is just one of her duties as house mom for the University of Missouri’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
“Everything that happens around here and you’re not sure what makes it work, it’s Mom working behind the scenes making it happen,” says Beta Theta Pi freshman Riley Askew.
Cameron’s official title at Beta Theta Pi is “house director,” a position found in almost all sorority and fraternity houses. Cameron’s specific duties include planning menus; shopping for groceries and household supplies; managing the help, which includes two cooks; hosting events from football Saturdays to family weekends; and in all other ways, making the Beta Theta Pi house a home.
A widow since the early 1990s, Cameron has been the house mom at Beta Theta Pi for eight years. Shawn Sahota, a Beta Theta Pi alum who now serves on the house corporation board, says the men in the house respect Cameron because she gives them her best, always.
“What Lana does to earn our respect is she doesn’t seek it out necessarily — she doesn’t go out of her way to do something to earn it — she’s just there whenever the guys need her,” Sahota says.
That, and she’s no pushover, he adds. “She knows when she can be our friend, and she knows when she needs to take command of a situation,” he explains. Then he chuckles. “She can certainly grab our attention when she needs it.”
Cameron shows that knack for taking control at dinner this evening. Although nothing happens requiring her intervention, it’s clear just from how she leads the noisy room that she can take charge in chaotic environments.
Midway through the meal, the house manager, senior David Helmerich, does lean over and tell Cameron a problem: Someone has tracked white paint from a project onto the basement carpet.
“We’ll go down and take a look after dinner,” Cameron reassures him, and when the meal is over, she and two of the house members head downstairs. The paint trail is long, extending down one hall and through the game room, but Cameron doesn’t get upset. She just gives instructions
“I think it’s not going to be nearly as hard as you think,” she tells the guys. “Don’t sweat it.”
This is not the first job that has required Cameron to keep cool and give orders. For 30 some years, she worked in St. Louis as a chef. Even today, the occupation of chef is dominated by men; the 2012 U.S. Department of Labor statistics report only about 18 percent of chefs and head cooks are women. So the fact that Cameron was a chef back in the ’60s says a lot about her determination — and her toughness.
Just how tough she was is revealed in a story she tells about one male cook who, like a lot of male cooks, didn’t like taking orders from a woman. One night, this particular cook grabbed Cameron by the throat, held her against the kitchen wall and, calling her an obscenity, threatened to slit her throat.
But Cameron wasn’t intimated. Using language to match her attacker’s, she told him coolly to go ahead but warned if he held her there two seconds longer, she was going to knee him.
As Cameron tells this story, she looks prepared to do battle once again. Her back is straight, and her blue eyes, piercing.
“If you weren’t tough, and you were a woman, it was not the place to be,” she says of her career. Then, suddenly, her rigidness melts and her voice softens. “I’m not tough, not here,” she says, and she pats her chest.
Just watching Cameron with the Beta Theta Pi men confirms she has a soft heart. Her fondness for the house members is clear from how she affectionately pats their backs to how she teases them and is teased in return.
“The boys have goals, and they have aspirations,” she says, sharing why she likes their company, “and I want to see them make it. I want to see them acquire that education and use it.”
That interest in the Beta Theta Pi members’ success — and how little interest she takes in receiving credit for her contributions — is something else that has impressed Sahota. He shares how his mother visited the house once when he was still a student, and Cameron told her all about how he had planned a phenomenal charity campaign — all, that is, except the part about him going to Cameron for ideas and advice.
“She takes pride and joy in seeing us succeed, and even if she helps us, she doesn’t want any credit or care if anybody knows,” Sahota says.
For Cameron, the rewards are elsewhere. She appreciates the chance her job gives her to use her skills, and she also likes the fact that it provides her the time and the income to travel. She’s been to China and to Europe several times in the last eight years, and she’s driven the East Coast and driven along the Gulf Coast and on to L.A.
Those aren’t bad rewards, she says, and then there’s that matter of living with 125 fine young men —
“I’m here because of how they treat me,” Cameron says. “They treat me very, very well.”