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The Fall

When alumnus Mike Wheeler (UC Davis) returned to Davis, Calif., in 1991, he found his chapter hanging on by a thread. It was a stark difference from Cal State San Bernardino, where he had assisted in the successful colonization and chartering process of the Lambda Chi Chapter.

The Zeta Xi (UC Davis) Chapter house had deteriorated, with members treating it as a cheap place to live and party. The chapter’s GPA had plummeted, bills to vendors were left unpaid, and relationships with the University were quickly evaporating.

“I joined Jeff Moore and Kim Stephenson on our meager Alumni Advisory Board to assist, but it was too late,” reflected Wheeler on the situation at the time. “The University was about to sanction us for aberrant behavior, the city was about to sanction us for neighbor complaints, and vendors were ready to sue us for outstanding bills.”

The alumni met to discuss the hardest decision any alumnus has to make. Was Zeta Xi (UC Davis) Chapter salvageable? Could it be saved? The answer was a sobering one. No.

“We, as alumni, made the decision instead of waiting for the University or the Fraternity to make it for us,” says Mike. “We were failing to live up to the values of Sigma Nu, and that was unacceptable.”

After the closure in 1992, the alumni leased the chapter house to another fraternity, hopeful that they’d be recolonized in a few years. But that was not to be. By 1994 the alumni had decided to sell the chapter house.

“Our primary mission is to sustain and pass the baton to the next generation. I was incredibly sad to see the chapter close, but the members' behavior during and after the closure justified our decision,” Wheeler remembered.

And that was the end of Zeta Xi Chapter…

THE HOPE

…until one day in September of 2007 when an email from the Fraternity’s Director of Expansion, Chris Healy (Fresno State), arrived for Wheeler.

“Chris sent me a letter and invited me to attend an interest meeting at UC Davis where he was also meeting with University representatives,” says Wheeler. “I was immediately impressed by Chris. He had a presence about him, and he exhibited confidence that gave me confidence after 16 years.”

For Healy, the project also hit close to home. “Zeta Xi had been involved with the recolonization of my own chapter, Zeta Kappa (Fresno State), back in the late ’80s. They had served as a Big Brother chapter of sorts. For me, this was a chance to bring it full circle.”

It was also a daunting task.

“The chapter had been closed for 16 years, by far the longest of any recolonization project I saw come to fruition,” remembered Healy.

When Healy asked Wheeler to serve as the Alumni Advisory Board Chairman, Wheeler agreed on two conditions. The first was that they would do things the right way and become one of the best chapters in the country. The second was that Healy would stick with him on the project until they were a Rock Chapter, the Fraternity’s highest level of chapter performance and distinction.

With the recolonization project decided upon and an AAB Chairman in place, the next step was to fill out the AAB. That wasn’t an easy task given the nature of the chapter’s closure, the fractured relationships leading up to it, and alumni communication dormant.

“We had almost no communications during those 16 years,” remembers Wheeler. “No one maintained a database of contacts.”

So, they worked with what they had. The initial AAB included six Zeta Xi alumni and an additional six alumni from other Sigma Nu chapters.

“Those six adopted alumni brothers were huge early contributors to our team, and we could not have done it without them. It showed me that someone’s love for Sigma Nu is not limited to just their chapter.”

With an Alumni Advisory Board in place, the Fraternity’s recruitment team arrived on-site to begin recruitment in February of 2008. Healy was joined by fellow Headquarters staff Jacob Welshans (Indiana) and Andrew Meeks (Kent State). This included living on campus and meeting as many men as possible to begin finding the refounding fathers of Zeta Xi.

Those first few months produced a candidate class of 28 men to lead the way for a new Zeta Xi Chapter. Chris Dyer’s grandfather was an alumnus from Nu (Kansas) Chapter, so he had some idea of what Sigma Nu was.

Adrian House had no idea and only attended a recruitment event because a high school friend mentioned it to him while at the campus gym. That recruitment event took him to the Memorial Union on campus, where he saw a presentation from Healy, Welshans, and Meeks. “After a discussion about the history and the vision they had for a renewed chapter on campus, an alumnus, who was sitting quietly cross-legged on a table in the back, rose to captivate the room,” House recalls. “He spoke of what it takes to be a leader, how joining Sigma Nu was the best decision he ever made, and how it was our time to rise to the challenge in rebuilding the legacy of Sigma Nu on campus.”

That alumnus was none other than Mike Wheeler.

“I was sold. I left that meeting energized and excited for the journey ahead.”

THE RISE

The early months of the Zeta Xi recolonization weren’t easy. Like any Sigma Nu expansion project, the task wasn’t just finding warm bodies to pay dues and wear letters. It was to create a Rock Chapter that could sustain its operations over time. Becoming a Rock Chapter is a difficult task for any chapter, but especially difficult for a group of men who build everything from the ground up.

The initial members were not only students committed to their academic careers but also worked part-time jobs outside of the classroom. The leadership would be asked to commit an additional ten hours of work each week on top of their existing responsibilities.

“It was super hard,” Wheeler remembers. “Harder than I imagined. Particularly to do it at a high level. It could have gone wrong or sideways in twenty different ways.”

“It felt daunting, but it never felt like work when we started,” remembers refounding father, Nick Markwith. “We all had a vision of what we wanted a fraternity to be, and that mission drove us to be close. While we didn’t necessarily all want the same things, we knew we wanted more than what was at UC Davis at that time. That mission, the goal of becoming a higher fraternity, helped us become close and form a brotherhood.”

That initial vision was critical for those months and would play an integral role in the chapter’s long-term success. The alumni engaged themselves early on in helping the initial members craft a vision that they could own.

“We helped them draft a chapter vision of what we wanted to be like when we grew up,” says Wheeler. “We used the criteria for becoming a Rock Chapter as our benchmark for success, and that became our driving mission that everyone bought into.”

The men answered the call and sprinted off into that exciting dark place that clouds the future. It is in that place where fears collide with dreams, and on the other side lies achievement. It is where every man finds himself stretched and realizes within himself the potential that had been hidden, waiting to be unleashed.

In May of 2009, the men of the Zeta Xi recolonization walked onto a stage and accepted their charter from then-Regent Joe Gilman (Morehead State). They had hit every benchmark asked of them, if not exceeded them, in a quick timeframe of nine months.

But the hardest part of climbing a mountain is not falling off once you reach the summit. Mike Wheeler celebrated with the collegiate members but knew that the real work had only just begun.

SUCCESS INSTITUTE

Zeta Xi’s story has less to do with their resurgence and more to do with their continued focus on excellence after rechartering.

One major tool in that sustained level of performance has been the chapter’s vision that they created while still a colony. It describes in detail what the chapter aspires to in each area of chapter operations, from campus involvement to social activities. At the bottom is a quote that reads, “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” Directly beneath the quote rests an area for every chapter member to sign their name, demonstrating that it is a vision crafted and owned by the chapter.

That vision is then printed off as a poster and brought to each chapter meeting, and read aloud as a reminder of what should be guiding their decisions.

Wheeler is quick to emphasize that the chapter’s vision belongs to the collegiate members and thus requires constant reinforcement and revision as seniors graduate and new candidates come in.

“I tell each group that the refounding fathers and recent alumni have reached their mountaintop,” he shares. “And that we are mountain climbers and will continue to climb higher mountains. They can’t rest on the last group’s laurels. Now, it’s their time to define their mountain and get climbing.”

This means an annual vision retreat that the alumni help facilitate. During this half-day retreat on campus, the chapter discusses their vision as a whole before breaking out into smaller groups to conduct a critical self-assessment and identity the specific steps needed to get where they want to go.

“We want to be a success institute,” Wheeler explains. “Every member, regardless of age or title, is empowered to be a part of our success as a chapter, and it requires every member to achieve that success.”

Former Commander Spencer Crist elaborates on this. “Using the vision retreat helps us set our goals and really opens the room up to new ideas. It also establishes a clear understanding from the beginning of what we expect from everyone. This isn’t a vision just for the alumni or the Executive Board. This is a vision for Zeta Xi Chapter.”

And the proof of that is evident in the chapter’s performance. Since rechartering in 2009, the chapter has been awarded Rock Chapter five times, including most recently in 2021. To drive the point home even further, Zeta Xi was one of six fraternity chapters across the country to be awarded the North America Interfraternity Conference’s Chapter Award of Distinction in 2020. This distinction recognized Zeta Xi as not just one of the best Sigma Nu chapters in the nation but also one of the best fraternity chapters nationwide.

Having a clear vision of excellence and its expectations can also make recruitment for the chapter more focused.

“We make sure our standards are never dropped,” explains Nathan Clark, a recent alumnus of the chapter. “As a group of men, we don’t want to be average. We explain that during recruitment to every potential new member too. We want them to understand that what we expect from them as a candidate is no different than what we expect from a brother.”

And while those high expectations can sometimes put off certain recruits, it’s a challenge worth undertaking, according to Mike Wheeler.

“We have high standards, and we don’t apologize for them,” Wheeler says. “We’re not for everyone at UC Davis, and that’s fine. Better men are attracted to this higher standard, and it separates us from the other fraternity options on campus.”

Adrian House offers perhaps the best explanation for Zeta Xi’s “secret formula” for their sustained excellence since their rechartering.

“Our success came down to the people,” he says. “Forget the house or the other tangibles. We succeeded because we had the best people. A growing group of men who fought for our values, who excelled in their scholastics with honor and integrity, who developed leadership skills, and went on to do great things. I’m proud to have worked next to such incredible individuals; I’m proud to call myself a Sigma Nu.”

FULL CIRCLE

Mike Wheeler smiled as Past Regent Joe Gilman (Morehead State) spoke at the chapter’s 10-year rechartering anniversary in the spring of 2019. He stood off to the side and swelled with pride as he scanned the room and saw the faces of refounding fathers, alumni, former Headquarters staff, and current officers and members. They all had played a large and small role in answering his hopes and prayers years ago in 2008. They had envisioned exactly this successful outcome when they first started this journey 11 years earlier. But Wheeler’s focus, in typical Zeta Xi fashion, was on the future.

“When they write our story 20 years from now, I want what we have accomplished during that time to be greater than all that we have done before,” he says.

And it’s a story Zeta Xi is already writing.

 

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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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