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"There for Each Other"

by Steve Charles
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Steve Charles—What brings a group of Wabash Phi Delt brothers together every 10 years? Why this particular group—guys who were in the house between 1971-1974? Why always at the home of Judy and Ed Pitkin ’71, and not on campus?

Those three questions had been on my mind since Mike Dill ’71 had invited me to take a few photographs and get a taste of Phi Delt brotherhood at this informal reunion in mid-July at Ed and Judy’s home near Geist Reservoir outside Indianapolis. I temporarily shelved them when I arrived and replaced them with another question: Where the hell were these guys?

The cars, with license plates from Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, were there. Thirty men from sixteen states had shown up, I’d find out later. But they weren’t in the front yard, or in any of the front rooms. And when I read the note posted on the front door telling all Phi Delts to "come around back" and went looking for the back yard, there wasn’t one. Nor could I hear any Phi Delts. (I was not led to believe this would be a quiet event.)

Rounding the west end of the house I realized that Judy and Ed’s house wasn’t near Geist; it was on Geist. And a brief 45-degree descent down the steps brought me a panoramic view of the lake and into the heart of the celebration. Wabash men, many with their wives, talking, laughing, catching up and enjoying one another in a festival of friendship. (Click here and here for photo albums from the gathering.)

Mike Dill and Judy and Ed welcomed me, showing me some of the paraphernalia from past reunions that was spread out on the Pitkin’s pool table. There were group photos from the 1988 and 1998 gatherings. There was a copy of Mike Dill’s invite for the 1977 gathering (which was held at the Pitkin’s Westside Indianapolis apartment house—I’m still trying to imagine this gregarious, fun-loving group, then in their mid-20s, all jammed into an apartment. "Somebody call the manager.")

New arrivals greeted Mike, Judy, and Ed as I peppered them with questions.

"I was in a sorority, our son graduated from IU, and our two girls went to school in Colorado, but none of us has a bond like what these guys have," Judy Pitkin told me. "My daughters have five or six classmates they stay in touch with, but they’ve got cell phones, facebook and myspace, and email. These guys didn’t have those, and they’re still together."

"Part of what helped us is that we started doing this right after college, and kept on going," said Mike, who has been organizing and sending invites for the event since its inception. "And Indianapolis is a nice central location. When you think of all the people who fly in—we’ve got 15 or 16 states here, and Joe Lavalle ’71 even flew in from Tokyo last time—easy access helps."

I asked whether common careers or business interests brings the group together; Mike pointed out the range of occupations represented. They run the gamut. As does the level of material success. As do political leanings. And several of the evening’s guests attended Wabash for only a year or so. This bond is not about how much time you spent with each other, but how you spent it.

"Ed says that this is a Phi Delt function, too," Judy said.

"Wabash was the foundation, but the Phi Delt house brought us together, and has kept us together," Ed said.

Mike introduced me to Cathy Flink. She and husband, Steve Flink ’72, were married when he was a junior at Wabash.

"We’ve been married for 37 years," Cathy said. "Steve and I have known each other since we were 10. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love him. When he was at Wabash, we’d get together once a month. We did the old-fashioned love letter thing. He’d have to stand in line at the fraternity phone to call me.

"There were a handful of married students at that time, in 1971," Cathy said. "I worked a couple of part-time jobs, and I would babysit Dr. Aus Brooks’ kids when they were little."

When I asked Cathy why this group has stayed in touch, she said, "They just had a wonderful chemistry from the beginning. You could see it, even back then."

Dan Loftus ’72 believes part of that chemistry was the product of pledgeship.

"It weeded out guys who weren’t ready to be close friends and dedicated to each other," Dan said. "Our pledgeship created a tremendous amount of loyalty within the pledge class, and, after pledgeship was over, among the actives in different classes.

"These were guys who were ready not just to make friends, but to be friends; to be there for each other."

Dan’s wife, Carla, added: "For us, Wabash is a family. We’re part of that family. And those of us who are wives feel that, too. We were embraced by the guys, and brought into that family, and we feel as much loyalty as they do."

For at least two of the guys, this was their first time back in 37 years.

"It’s great to see these guys again," Ken Cole ’72 told me as he arrived. He seemed not just happy, but proud to be among them again.

Mike Heazlitt ’73 was also back among the brothers for the first time in 37 years, and the stories he was telling rekindled their memories.

"I’d forgotten all about that," said Allen Matthews ’71, aka Polar Bear, when Heazlitt finished a story. Classmate Steve "Mercury" Morris ’73 added another chapter for Matthews.

"I’d forgotten all about that" was the second most common phrase of the evening behind "Great to see you."

"Some of the guys came in last night, and we’re sitting out on the patio, and a story comes up," Mike Dill told me. "Each guy remembered a different facet of the story. Maybe no one remembers the whole story. Pretty soon you begin to piece it all together. It’s a lot of fun.

"Everyone brings his own piece of the story."

I’m still not sure I can say exactly what it is about these particular guys that brings them together, when other who were good friends do not gather for such reunions. It could be as simple as having folks like Judy and Ed Pitkin to have the party, someone as determined and organized as Mike Dill to send the invites, and great relationships to celebrate.

And stories that tell of the days, good and bad, somber or hilarious, when you were there for one another.

Steve Weliever ’71 recalled an oral presentation he had to give to front of legendary Professor Ben Rogge in order to graduate. A group of his Phi Delt brothers showed up.

"To heckle or support?" I asked Tim Hewitt ’72, who remembers the day well.

"Probably a little of both," Hewitt smiled. He recalls laughing out loud when Weliever mispronounced the "Danube River".

"He called it ‘the Blue Danubey.’" Hewitt howls, then asks Weliever, "You remember that?"

"How can I forget it," he says, shaking his head.

He also can’t forget that those same Phi Delt brothers—many at this gathering today—were there for him when he needed them. To keep things in perspective. To remind him that passing or failing a presentation, or Ben Rogge’s class, wasn’t going to change who he was. He was defined by something deeper. He was their friend and brother.

Dan Loftus’ words keep playing over and over in my head. "These were guys who were ready not just to make friends, but to be friends; to be there for each other."

Leaving Judy and Ed’s house Saturday evening, I felt honored to be in the presence of men who hadn’t forsaken the friendships of their college days. I remembered reading only a week earlier that Aristotle had placed such importance on the cultivation of friendship: "Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods."

I had come to Judy and Ed Pitkin’s house with three questions. I left with only two: Why don’t all of us give friendships such priority? Why don’t we get together like this more often?