|August 13, 2010|
Fraternal ties foster regular visits to Centerville
It started in college in the early 1950s. Then it became a Christmas party in Connecticut. But for a number of years now, it’s also a summer tradition on Shallow Pond in Centerville.
It’s the semi-annual get-together of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, mostly from the Class of l954, with a few ‘53s, ‘55s and 56s mixed in. Their hosts are Judy and Don (Academy of Lifelong Learning”) Bell, who live on the shores of the pond.
The Bells had their house renovated in 2005 so they could accommodate big occasions like the “Sig Ep” reunion and Judy’s classes on travel and her “really good Red Hat parties.” Of the vast array of food that was available at last week’s Sig Ep party, she said, “Everybody knows what my kitchen is like.”
The friendships began in a big old house at 9 Chestnut St. near the Amherst campus. About 40 people lived in it. “What a firetrap that was!” exclaimed Don Audette, who said that the fraternity still exists, but in a new house at a new location.
Many of the brothers met their wives at U-Mass, which means that there have been decades of couples’ friendships as well as the fraternity bonds. Roy Fogelgren of Hyannis, one of the Sig Eps, wrote in an e-mail that among the 12 brothers who remain in close touch, there are “at least 27 children, 50 grandchildren” and “?? Great grandchildren.”
At the party, Fogelgren joked that over the years the topics of conversation at the Christmas and summer parties have changed. “First it was jobs,” he said, “then children, then travels, and now, health.” He listed “brain surgery, cancer, heart problems, knee and hip replacements, and back surgery” among the concerns the brothers have had. “We have kept the medical field in clover.”
As with any gathering of college buddies, this one included reminiscences of high jinks: the skit that involved the destruction of a piano; the house’s two dogs, Lucky and Pegis (Sig Ep backwards); the running joke of a fictitious pledge named “Joe Crosby;” the get-up of white shirts and red suspenders; the award-winning ice sculptures, including a star with eyes that rolled around, thanks to a repurposed neon beer sign.
“I don’t know how any of them graduated,” said Pat McMahon, who met her husband Bob back then and said that she considers herself “one of the posse.”
“Well, one way that we did,” Fogelgren reminded her, “is that Don Bell got us all through chemistry.”
The fraternity continues to be “a fabulous support group,” said Pat McMahon. “We’re held together by humor,” added Audette, to which McMahon replied, “You relish your life more if you laugh about it.”
Not everything was fun and games for this post-war crew. Many freshmen when they started in 1950 were combat veterans, and the Korean conflict was looming. In fact, the fraternity had been deactivated during World War II and had only started to function again in 1949. Their charter from the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization had a clause that excluded African-Americans and Jews, Bell said. “But,” he continued, “there were some guys we liked” that were of those ethnicities. So they welcomed the young men as friends, and, when the charter changed in about 1959, said Bell, “we pledged them.”
One thing that attracted him to Sig Ep, Fogelgren said, was that “no one here was born with a silver spoon in his mouth” and yet they all made something of their lives, with careers in engineering, business, insurance, government, and teaching. Together, they have racked up hundreds of years of marriage; about five have been together 49 years or more.
Judy Bell said that although she keeps the living room of her spacious home quiet during the party to provide “someplace for the ladies to talk,” it’s rare for it to be used that way. “Everybody stuck together” around the kitchen table, she said in a telephone interview after the event. “It’s a very touchy-feely group.”
“Yes,” her husband agreed from another phone. “I only had a sister growing up. “But these guys are my real brothers.”