Every two years, a valuable and unique opportunity comes around. Since 1903, members of Sigma Phi Epsilon, their families and friends have convened to determine the direction of our beloved Fraternity and set the precedents that keep us in the lead.
At these important biennial gatherings, old stories are told and new ones are created. Every good story has a hero; my first Conclave had several. As I look forward to attending Conclave this August in Orlando, I can’t help but think back to my very first Conclave in 2009, which also happened to be in the same city at the very same venue.
My first encounter with a SigEp hero came in an unexpected place — the hallway of the top floor of the Rosen Shingle Creek resort. I wanted to take the perfect photo to capture this magnificent resort and sought the highest spot I could reach. As I headed toward the window, a gentleman came out of his room, clutching an ice bucket. He saw me looking a little lost and asked me how my weekend was going.
He asked about my personal SigEp experience and what I was looking forward to about Conclave. He asked my name and my chapter (I didn’t catch his), and he shook my hand as we parted ways. His interest in my small slice of the SigEp world was a very simple demonstration of brotherly love at a very large event. The fact that he took the time to speak with me reinforced the positive feelings I was continually getting at Conclave, and it stuck with me throughout the weekend.
That evening, to my complete surprise, the man I had spoken with was invited to the Conclave stage as a special guest. During the presentation I would find out more about this man, Bill Tragos, Washington in St. Louis ’56, and his heroic legacy. As a delegate at the 1959 Conclave, he was part of the historic vote to remove all racial and religious restrictions on membership. He went on to become a SigEp Grand President, Citation recipient and member of the Order of the Golden Heart.
I spent the rest of the weekend learning, networking and generally having good time, feeling excited about our chapter’s plans for change. I was ready to consider the weekend a success, but there was still more in store for me. At the final Conclave dinner, where the accomplishments of brothers and SigEp are celebrated, I witnessed the transfer of leadership from one phenomenal brother to another and encountered two more SigEp heroes.
In a speech concluding his term as Grand Chapter President, Brother Steve Shanklin, Murray State ’70, spoke about the pain of losing his biological brother when he was just a teenager. Shanklin described how he joined SigEp, and it seemed like a cool way to be a part of campus life, but he didn’t think it would be anything special. He spoke of how he grew to love the brothers he had found in SigEp, and that when he went home at Thanksgiving, he told his parents, “You may never have another son to replace the one you’ve lost, but I’ve just gained a whole chapter of new brothers.”
I suddenly had another immediate connection with a SigEp hero. I went up to the stage after that dinner to thank him and to share my personal story about losing my brother when I was 16. I don’t know what I expected him to say in response; I just felt like sharing the impact he’d made on me with his words. He didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he showed me what the heart of Sigma Phi Epsilon meant by reaching out and giving me a hug. He let me go and said, “I’m glad to have you as a brother.” If nothing else had convinced me of the power of Sigma Phi Epsilon that weekend, that moment alone would have done it, and SigEp has been in my heart ever since.
My final glimpse of a SigEp hero at that Orlando Conclave came when Garry Kief, Southern California ’70, addressed us after becoming Grand Chapter President. As he spoke of drifting away from SigEp after graduation and coming back to find a Fraternity of diversity and inclusion, he inspired a vision in all of us in attendance. It’s a vision he continues to promote, always working to create an accepting environment for brothers of all stripes.
What were the results of meeting all these SigEp heroes in 2009? My chapter’s delegates took our ideas and new resources back to campus, realizing that we had the support necessary to make changes. In 2011, I was chosen to attend the Tragos Quest to Greece and was once again a beneficiary of Bill Tragos’ great capacity for brotherly love. At the 2013 Conclave, we won our first Buchanan Cup in our 62-year history, four years after inciting that positive change.
There are small heroic acts and there are great heroic acts. The magic of an event like Conclave is that it makes you realize you don’t have to perform great feats to be a SigEp hero. Whether you share a kind word, set a vision for others to follow, or just give a hug when it’s needed most, you too can be a SigEp hero when you embrace the true meaning of our brotherhood.
See you in Orlando!