BETA, BETA BON TON, SIGMA PHI EPSILON

I can’t begin to tell you how honored I was to be asked to do this blog for the inaugural alumni web page. This page is a sign of just how dedicated, energetic and organized are the men of our newly reorganized and restructured alumni association. I am proud to be of any help I can.

It is tempting for an event like this to haul out all the bells and whistles and make a display of the first blog, but it seems more appropriate to continue with the print column that was a part of the former alumni newsletter, at least for the time being. It gives me an opportunity to let you know how important and exciting this reorganization of the chapter and the alumni would have been to my generation of Sig-Eps. I say “would have been” because there are no more than two or three of us left. So, let’s take a walk down memory lane.

It was fall of 1950 in Morgantown. Fraternities and sororities ruled the WVU campus. They occupied all the major student government offices, boosted homecoming spirit with house decorations and floats, won all the Mother’s Day’s Sings, dominated intra-mural sports, and even put on a vaudeville show of their own to entertain the town and campus (some of the skits and original music were worthy of SNL).

The power and prestige of any single fraternity depended on two things: location and the house. The house had to be on the hill or along fraternity row, the higher up the better, and the house had to look like a Hollywood mansion. Sorry to say, the Sig-Ep house didn’t measure up in any way. It was located at 118 Willey Street in the business district and well down from “the hill”. The structure was a rundown wooden Victorian middle class house badly in need of paint and repair, and I confess, the first time I visited it I walked away and started looking up the hill. God forbid, I might have become a KA, a Beta, or (lord help me) even a Sigma Chi. The only thing that saved me was a long talk I had with the Sig-Ep president. He was from my home town and was a couple of years ahead of me in school, and I respected him. He convinced me that the chapter didn’t intend this to be their permanent home and that I could be a part of the group making plans. As he put it, they were tired of crying in their beer over the situation they were in and wanted to do something about it. I joined.

Well, the situation was worse than I thought. The location and the house were definitely working against us. While the houses on the hill had memberships of 80 to 100 and routinely pledged 25 to 30 men per year, we had a membership of around 25 and pledged 8 to 12. We were isolated and pretty much ignored. Our entire alumni association consisted of a housing corporation, 12 businessmen from around the state who had each contributed a thousand dollars to buy the house in 1948, because the fraternity had lost its original house during WWII. They did not have meetings but addressed concerns through mail or the telephone. Our only contact with them was through Ed Camp, a local banker and alumni treasurer. A local physician, Dr. Edgar Heiskell, was furnishing money and materials for repairs and improvements to the house. Pre-WWII alumni had dispersed over the country and data concerning their whereabouts had been lost.

Still, as only young college students can, we remained determined not to give up. By the time I was president, we had put together a proposal through Ed Camp to the housing board which included sketches of a two storey addition to the front that provided additional bedrooms, a Georgian facade and some cosmetic improvements to the interior. We asked for money to hire an architect to draw up plans and blueprints and permission to put together a proposal to banks for loans. However, Ed said even without more accurate drawings, he didn’t feel the property was valuable enough to secure a large enough loan and the housing board would not be willing to attempt a fund raising effort. So, we were back to crying in our beer and hating fraternity row. Come graduation, it was all behind us and the draft or ROTC was shipping us off to Korea.

By 1959, I was back in Morgantown and teaching at WVU and learned that a group of alums were meeting to reorganize the housing corporation and start an effort to build a new house. I went and joined. The new group was headed by Stan Romanoski as president and Jordan Pappas, a local CPA, as secretary/treasurer. Stan was a charismatic coach whose earlier experiences coaching throughout the state had given him a great reputation and visibility. His many contacts and image had made him the obvious choice to lead a fund raising drive. I was asked to become the faculty advisor and ex-officio member of the board.

Rue Lazelle, a local contractor who had been in the house during my time, furnished a set of drawings and blue prints of a modern style house built to fit our small 50 by 85 lot which the board accepted and used in the literature of the campaign. My job was to be the communicator: to write the propaganda (brochures, letters, pledge cards, etc.) and keep in contact with organizers working in the field while Stan co-ordinated all our efforts and travelled constantly to group meetings and individual alumni homes to “seal the deal.” I had kept in touch with the brothers who had been with me in the house, and when they heard about all this, there was a big spike in enthusiasm and all wanted to know if they could be of help in their areas.

My second duty was to work with the undergraduate chapter and get them energized about the new house and to build a larger, stronger chapter to move in. This proved to be the toughest task of all. The chapter was down to eight men and the men felt it would be impossible to mount an effective rush. Beyond that, they felt that the location would still leave them a second tier fraternity, even with a shiny new house. The energy and commitment just was not there. The situation became worse when the city threatened to condemn the old house and we were forced to move the chapter into an even worse rental house on North Willey Street. My pledge brothers were starting to feel pretty low. There were constant letters and phone calls:

“What’s happening? Are we going to lose the house? Is there anything more I can do?”

Then, the unexpected happened. The president of WVU contacted the board and said the university was interested in acquiring all the property along Willey Street across from the Mineral Industries Building. A couple of weeks later, we brokered our postage stamp sized lot into an even trade for a half-acre at 709 North High. After that, things changed dramatically. We had a new set of plans drawn for a larger, more traditional fraternity house and hired a professional fund raising corporation who gave us the tech support and organizational expertise we needed. Money started coming in faster, but we still fell short of our goal. A few co-signatures on a bank loan made up the rest. In 1964, we broke ground. We held a banquet to celebrate at which a member of the National Board of Directors spoke and called it The Miracle of Morgantown. Our board presented Stan with a plaque which I am sure most of you have seen over the door to the formal room. It reads: “Because of him, this house is here.” We were at the top of fraternity row. Guys from my time flocked in for the banquet and for several homecomings after that, and always there would be someone who just dropped into town and wanted to walk through the house one more time. The glow of achievement never dimmed.

Suddenly, we realized that we had the biggest fraternity house and nobody to put in it. Eight men had dwindled down to two and then one, and for the first of two times, the house was leased out to WVU as a dormitory. National was considering pulling the charter and rechartering when we had enough men to occupy the house. I argued for continuity of the charter given that we were the sixth oldest and only two years younger then the founding chapter at Richmond. Fortunately, they agreed and our one man, Joe Gillespie, stood as the entire chapter.

National sent a resident advisor to form a new chapter that fall. He put together a small colony of men anchored by Mun Kostka, Art King, and Ivan Pinnell. He did a superb job of educating them as they quickly recruited more from within the dormitory, and in a short time had 60 quality men, enough to fill the house and move in. The numbers quickly grew and in no time the chapter was king of the hill, all due to excellent leadership in the chapter. But, I think you may know this part already.

Twenty years later, on the day the mortgage was burned, the board asked that a new board be formed. It is the one most living alums have known until now: Tim “Big Man” Williams, Andy Fusco, Ivan Pinnell, Curt Shinn, Jeff Ray, Rusty Davis, Mun Kostka and I. They weathered some ups and downs but maintained the high status of the fraternity up until that fateful homecoming fire that put us into a downward spiral.

Meanwhile, that little band from the ’50’s slowly thinned out until now I am the lone representative left to thank you for all that you did and are continuing to do for Sigma Phi Epsilon.

Sorry for the long history lesson, but there are so many events and people that are about to pass out of human memory, and I felt they needed to be recorded somewhere.

Someone once said that the things which cause us to sacrifice the most are the things we love the most. These men have sacrificed time away from family and duties, personal income, and even advancement, in pursuit of a selfless goal. Our new board is already making its own sacrifices, but they are facing them eagerly and with a great deal of energy as they set goals that will lead us to an even greater Sigma Phi Epsilon. In that, the love shines through.

BETA, BETA BON TON, SIGMA PHI EPSILON

HFF,

Ave 

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