Sigma Phi Epsilon
Pictured left to right are Tom Donohue, David Blashford, Sam Femia, Dave Steele, John Robertson, Bob Nichols, Dr. Marty Roth (special guest for photo), Jeff Robertson, Steve Kawash, Randy McCollum, Francis McNeill, Chuck Smith, Paul Turner, Joe Natalie, Tom Moriarty, and Rob Pumo
The men of Sigma Phi Epsilon share a bond that has remained strong long past their college experience. The Morris Harvey College chapter of the fraternity began at the suggestion of a beloved professor and although there is not currently an active chapter on campus, the brothers continue to have an impact on the university and its future students.
The origin story includes six original founders of the organization and one professor. Joseph Robertson, Frank Mathews, Mark Robinson, Fred Rapp, Jim Arthur, and Rocky Bowers were in Dr. Fred Barkey’s history class when he posed the question, “Why aren’t you boys in a fraternity?” When they did not have a solid answer, he suggested, “maybe you should start your own.” The idea was born and Dr. Barkey became the first faculty adviser to this group of young men.
The founding members first had to petition Morris Harvey College to form a local chapter, or colony, with the original name Sigma Epsilon Phi. The petition was approved in the Spring of 1965. By the end of Spring 1967, membership had grown to twenty-five brothers and Frank Mathews was named the first president.
The Sig Eps had their first appearance in the “Harveyan” yearbook in 1967. It includes photos of the first officers and this insert, “These young men were officially united in the Spring of 1965 by a common desire to meet the challenges of an ever-expanding college’s needs. Months went by and the organization grew stronger as the men became more diligent in the fulfillment of their purpose. A petition was filed and recognition by Morris Harvey (College) was achieved, making Sigma Epsilon Phi a local fraternity. Now the hopes of these young men extend toward nationalizing their chapter. Plans for this are in the workings and should be realized in the near future. At that time, aided by the national organization, Sigma Phi Epsilon will be devoted full-time to its initial goal of service.” Notice that Phi and Epsilon are in opposite order when the chapter moves from local to national status.
In the fall of 1968, the group’s second president, Greg Ayers, took office. Greg was responsible for leading the group through the process of petitioning to become a chapter of the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization. Brothers of the Marshall University and West Virginia Tech College Sig Ep chapters visited and helped guide the new chapter through the petition process. Greg then took the petition, which he still has a handwritten copy of today, to the Sigma Phi Epsilon headquarters in Richmond, VA in the fall of 1969.
The brothers were accepted as the 201st chapter of the national organization on January 10, 1970. Their official names changed to Sigma Phi Epsilon, West Virginia Zeta chapter. Representatives from the Richmond office came for Charter Night, a dinner and dance celebration held at the Daniel Boone Hotel in downtown Charleston.
The brotherhood saw steady growth through the 1970s. They enjoyed social events such as the Penguin Ball held in the Cloud Room at Yeager Airport and gatherings at Pine Manor, where two fraternity brothers lived. “The Anchor was the place to be on Thursday nights for beer and pizza,” said John Robertson, Sig Ep brother-class of ’74, who returned as the fraternity’s faculty advisor while working on his master’s degree. During that time, he also served as the District Governor for five of the SPE West Virginia chapters.
They competed annually in intramurals on the MHC campus and the Marshall University Sig Ep’s basketball tournament. They participated in May Sing during Greek Week, raced chariots at the old Watt Powell Park, and entered floats in the Homecoming parade. Greg Ayers remembers one Homecoming float in 1968, “We built a cash register that read ‘MHC cashes in on greatness’ and a giant eagle would lean over to touch the keys of the cash register as the cash drawer came out. I laid on my back to move the eagle the whole parade.”
The fun continued through the late 1970s and early 1980s as the group sponsored annual events like Grape n’ Grain and Southern Jam, which were open for the whole campus to attend. The 1985-86 school year Grape Escape weekend was complete with an air band contest.
Those years also included fraternity presidents like Steve Kawash, Phil Morabito, and Rob Pumo. Steve and Rob were later inducted into the UC Alumni Hall of Fame and Phil has served as a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. Just a small example of the successes the brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon have accomplished.
The brothers remained true to their original goal of service and through the years completed clean up projects at the Sunrise Museum, worked with the Red Cross, and one year adopted a little brother from Northeast Brazil.
A special part of the brotherhood was the Golden Hearts of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the women’s auxiliary of the fraternity. The ladies of this group were chosen to support and participate in activities with the fraternity. They helped with the rush process, fund raising, new pledges, and presented the Brother of the Month award. They promoted the rapport between the brothers and in turn, found true friendships. Joe Robertson, a founding member, married his Golden Heart sweetheart, Mary (Marty) Frazier Robertson. They now live here in Charleston and hold season tickets to the Golden Eagle basketball games.
The 1975 and 1976 “Harveyan” yearbooks have this mantra as part of the caption under the Sig Ep photo, “Sigma Phi Epsilon is tomorrow’s fraternity for today’s man. Times have changed and so have we. We are looking to the future. Responsibility, integrity, community service, lasting friendship, and brotherhood – that’s what it’s all about.” For many of the Sig Eps, the lasting friendship and brotherhood is still what it is all about.
Before the pandemic, you could find brothers gathered monthly at the Smokehouse on the west side of Charleston. Frank Mathews, Greg Ayers, Joe Robertson, John Robertson, Dick Williams, Pete Mezaros, and Bill Grizzell have made it a priority to stay connected. Dr. Frank Barkey, who encouraged the start of the fraternity, makes an appearance every now and then, too. “Being part of this fraternity is one of the best decisions I ever made while at Morris Harvey, besides meeting my wife of course, and I am ready for our monthly meals to resume,” said Greg Ayers.
David Blashford remembers time spent in the Coffee Tavern, painting the drainpipe with the Greek letters, and most of all, “being together then AND now.” He is part of a group of brothers that join a monthly Zoom call and annual golf outing. The Zoom call is coordinated by Phil Morabito, class of ’79 and former Sig Ep president now living in Houston, TX. The golf outing is organized by Steve Kawash, class of ’78, also a former president. This year’s event attracted twenty-five brothers from eleven states.
There have been two all-class Sig Ep reunions, one in 2004 and one in 2010. The reunion of 2004 hosted over sixty brothers and their spouses. They reunited for an event on campus and a dinner-dance event at the Charleston Civic Center. Three of the original founders were in attendance.
Sadly, of the six founding members, only five are still living to tell of the beginning. Mark Robinson was simultaneously a full-time student at Morris Harvey College and full-time employee at Columbia Gas. While at work, he suffered what is believed to be a heart attack and died. He would have been a graduate with the class of 1969. A tribute from his brothers reads, “A self-made man living life to the fullest, Mark possessed an effervescent personality which made his presence always felt by those around him.”
The group continues its legacy by giving back to the university. This past February, the Sig Eps collectively gave over $15,000 to our annual Give Day. Those funds are being used to refurbish the Boat House into an outdoor recreation center for students. In June, some of the brothers were able to visit campus and see the updates as part of their 2021 reunion. The university is grateful for their continued support.