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The Gathering of Old Snakes and Bonds of Lasting Brotherhood

It was a tragedy that hit the heart of Gamma Alpha Chapter over five decades ago and bonded the brothers at Georgia Tech from that day forward.

On March 26, 1966, four brothers returning to Atlanta from an auto race in Florida were struck head-on by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 75 near Gainesville.

Dick Clotworthy, Jack Gage, and Judge Peebles were killed instantly. The sole survivor, Gerry Widegren, suffered serious injuries. Although he was able to return to school in the spring of 1967 after a lengthy hospital stay, Widegren would never fully recover from his injuries.

Although years have passed and many young men have since joined the Gamma Alpha Chapter, the tragedy remains a part of chapter history, imparting lessons of the enduring bonds of brotherhood.

The initiates in the Spring 1966 class installed the Rock of Gamma Alpha on the grounds of their chapter house containing a plaque in remembrance of the three brothers who had died. When a new chapter house opened in 2007, the Rock was re-installed.

The Commitment to Connections

Brother David Bassett graduated from Georgia Tech in 1968 and had roomed with Clotworthy his sophomore year. The tragedy during his time in college drew the chapter tightly together, but as the years passed, contact with the brothers of that era grew less frequent.

“Some returned to homecoming every year… some occasionally…and many not at all,” said Bassett. “A few close friends talked or met frequently, but there was no meaningful contact of the group as a whole.”

In the fall of 2003, while attending the funeral of a close friend and Gamma Alpha Chapter brother George Fauerbach, Bassett thought, “We pledge brothers need to get back together before it’s too late!”

He reached out to chapter brothers Jim Meyer, Freddy Link, and John Thigpen. Quickly a plan was formed to invite members from their candidate class to a weekend reunion in May 2004 at a friend’s beach house in Florida.

Initially, only Bassett, Meyer, and Thigpen could attend. Then Jack Painter, two years their senior, called and asked if they would mind an “old fart” crashing their party.

“The four of us had a great weekend,” Bassett recalled. “And as a result, the decision was made to open the event to all of that era who wanted to attend.”

Six weeks later, Jack Painter died of a heart attack. The importance of staying in touch became even more relevant.

“The next year, 20 brothers showed up for the 2nd annual ‘Gathering of Old Snakes,’” said Bassett, who handles logistics for the event, and Meyer, communication and finances. “ A tradition of renewing friendships, drinking a lot of beer, and telling a lot of stories, some of them true, was firmly established.”

To commemorate the life of Jack Painter, attendees at the second Gathering traveled to St. Petersburg to create a garden in Painter’s honor at a prep school for disadvantaged kids he helped found.

This began a tradition of “giving back” on Saturday mornings during the Gathering weekend. The effort continues today through a variety of community projects each year, including Habitat for Humanity builds and preparing meal kits for area shelters.

As the 20th year of The Gathering of Old Snakes approaches, Bassett said the traditional weekend events continue - although the quantity of beer may be reduced, and the definition of a late-night gradually shortened.

“Still, between 20 to 35 brothers joyfully make the annual trek to Florida,” Bassett said.

Brothers Helping Brothers

In the early years of the Gathering, Gerry Widegren began attending. At that point in his life, he had serious mobility issues related to the accident decades ago, but that did not stop Widegren from fully participating.

His Sigma Nu brothers ensured he was an integral part of the weekend, even carrying him in his chair through the soft sand to the beach for sunset photos.

“His booming voice of laughter at a joke or joy of winning at poker or bridge could be heard throughout the beach house,” Bassett recalls. “His indomitable spirit, positive attitude, and trust in God became an inspiration to the group.”

The COVID-19 pandemic not only caused the cancellation of the 2020 Gathering but also took a toll on Widegren’s health. After contracting the virus, he spent several months in intensive care before returning to his retirement center.

The extended illness had weakened him to the point that round-the-clock care was needed – something Gerry’s budget could not afford.

Using an email list of 80+ contacts developed over the summer Gathering years and other outreach, Brother caregivers Bruce Cook and Tom Whiten sent out a call to assist

Widegren. In less than a week, funds were raised to fully cover Widegren’s care for at least a year.

However, the physical toll was too strong for even Gerry’s resilient spirit, and he joined Dick, Judge, and Jack in Chapter Eternal on March 12, 2022, two weeks to the day of the 56th anniversary of the fateful accident.

A memorial service for Gerry at last spring‘s Gathering evolved into a discussion on how to honor Widegren and add to the story of all four brothers involved in the accident. A group of brothers volunteered to complete two projects.

“First, to add Gerry’s name in a plaque, and second, to add two other plaques during a rededication at the Fall Homecoming,” explained Bassett. “One plaque would tell the story of the accident, and the other the lessons that Gerry taught us.”

Andy Mckenna took on obtaining the plaques and installing them on the Rock of Gamma Alpha. Bassett, McKenna, Mike Iversen, and Steve Menke labored over the wording to ensure it told the right story. Menke also took on communication and reservations, along with Steve Baldwin, to coordinate a dinner and local transportation, while Tom Cauble provided game tickets, and Rick Fuchs arranged lodging.

On October 7, 2022, on a beautiful, sunny Atlanta day, over 50 Alumni and spouses, accompanied by the entire active chapter, listened attentively as McKenna, Bassett, Menke, Iversen, Theo Harness, Cook, and Whitten told the stories of the past half-century of the Gamma Alpha Chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity.

The Four Brothers Fund

The tragedy in 1966 left a lasting impact on the Sigma Nu brothers of Georgia Tech, but also lessons to be taken away and lived.

“The first is that life is fleeting and unpredictable, so cherish what you have, enjoy the fellowship, and build strong bonds with your fellow brothers,” Bassett said.

The second lesson was in the way Widegren lived his life, how he handled adversity, loved his brothers, and was loved in return.

The momentum from the memorial committee spurred the group of brothers to look for other ways to support the Gamma Alpha Chapter.

After discussions with the collegiate chapter and the house corporation, they learned of the dire need for repairs and maintenance at the chapter house.

Soon, the Four Brothers Fund for repairs and maintenance was created. A call was sent out to the email list used to generate support for Widegren, and by Homecoming day, over $60,000 was pledged.

Despite the passage of decades from when many of the brothers had been active, the commitment to Sigma Nu and each other was solid.

“McKenna, Iversen, Menke, and all at the Gathering agreed that Brotherhood is far more than four years at school,” Bassett said. “Brotherhood is a lifetime.”

If you would like to recreate “The Gathering of Old Snakes” with pledge brothers from your time at Georgia Tech, Dave Basset would be glad to assist you. Reach out to him at dhb944t@yahoo.com.

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9 North Lewis Street, P.O. Box 1869, Lexington, Virginia 24450
Phone: (540) 463-1869 | Fax: (540) 463-1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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