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For over two decades, Epsilon Epsilon Chapter at Oklahoma State University has built a tradition of excellence, one pilgrimage to the Fraternity’s Headquarters in Lexington, Virginia, at a time. 

21 Years. 800 Members. 45,000 miles. 8 Rock Chapters.  

For the past 21 years, Epsilon Epsilon Chapter at Oklahoma State University has traveled to Lexington, Virginia, from Stillwater, Oklahoma, for the chapter’s annual pilgrimage and candidate class retreat. 40 or so members, a mixture of mostly new candidates, chapter officers, and dedicated alumni advisors, make the journey each year.  

The journey begins in Stillwater, with members loading onto a chartered bus and hitting the road for the 20-hour journey that will take them to the site of the Fraternity’s founding. The chapter remains in Lexington for approximately 36 hours, enjoying a night’s rest in the Fraternity’s onsite lodging, tours of the Fraternity’s Headquarters, the town of Lexington, Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Institute, facilitated LEAD sessions from a Fraternity staff member, and a candidate pinning ceremony, all before the chapter loads back up for the 20-hour return trip home. 

You’d be forgiven for shuddering at the thought of roughly 40 hours in a cramped charter bus. The journey is not for the faint of heart. But for Epsilon Epsilon Chapter, after two decades, over 800 members, more than 45,000 miles traveled, and a revival of chapter excellence with 8 Rock Chapters earned over the same period, the annual pilgrimage has been well worth it.   

The Origin Story 

The idea for the first pilgrimage began in the late 90s as the collegiate members and alumni worked through operational challenges. Facing potential disciplinary action from the university, the chapter alumni turned to the Fraternity for assistance in establishing an alumni advisory board. 

“In the past, we just had the House Corporation Board that rarely met with the active members outside of matters concerning the house. That was basically all the house corporation board did.,” says Neil Gilpin, Epsilon Epsilon’s Chapter Advisor, describing the limited engagement the house corporation had with the collegiate chapter at the time. 

With the Fraternity’s help, Epsilon Epsilon assembled a team of advisors including Gilpin and Greg Tontz, another long-time volunteer for the chapter. 

Before long, the alumni had helped to stabilize the chapter's operations and began to look for opportunities to help the chapter improve. 

A pilgrimage came to mind. 

“I had worked for the Fraternity in the late '80s and early '90s, knew that the Carriage House was there, and got in touch with Brad about possibly having a pilgrimage.,” shared Tontz, speaking about Brad Beacham (Texas Christian), the Fraternity’s Executive Director.  

The Carriage House, originally a horse carriage house and stable, was purchased by the Fraternity in 1987 as part of a large expansion of the headquarters property. Soon after, the Carriage House was remodeled with lodging and meeting space for up to 40 collegiate members – a perfect space to house Epsilon Epsilon Chapter for a retreat.       

Following the chapter’s January 2002 gathering for officer training, Epsilon Epsilon scheduled its first pilgrimage to Lexington for that fall. 

Building the Tradition 

Though a few elements of the Epsilon Epsilon Chapter pilgrimage have changed since the first trip,  Gilpin and Tontz shared that a focus on building camaraderie and a connection to the site of the Fraternity’s founding has continued to remain a core focus of the experience. 

“I think Greg getting the cadet-led tour at VMI and them having one meal in the mess hall is just another impactful part of the experience.” Says Gilpin, highlighting one of the elements of each trip. 

“You cannot capture the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls in a picture compared to seeing it in person. Well, this is the exact same thing. You can read the history of Sigma Nu, but in Lexington, you get to actually feel it. You get to go out on the Parade Ground and stand exactly where our founders stood.” 

The Epsilon Epsilon advisors also understand that even the long hours on the bus serve an important purpose. 

“Who's not up for a road trip when you're in college?!” says Tontz.  

Gilpin adds, “They've only been in school together for two weeks. It's a great time to get to know your pledge brothers. We often hear, ‘I didn't even know my pledge brother at all or anything about him and now I get back from the trip and he's my best friend. It's crazy.’” 

Rhylan Wright, a sophomore member of the chapter, shared that the long road trip was his favorite part of the experience. “I had some incredible conversations with my pledge brothers and really took the time to get to know them on a deeper level.” 

But the chapter candidates aren’t the only ones making the most of the time in transit. 

“I know Neil and I take the time most years to interview each one of the guys on the bus.,” Tontz shares as he describes the close relationships he and Gilpin have built with brothers through the trip.  

Gilpin shares that he feels appreciative of the opportunity. 

“I hear all the time people saying, ‘thank you for the time you commit.’ My answer to that is that I'm the one who benefits from the time I'm investing in Sigma Nu. So, no need to thank me. As Greg was saying, we take 40 candidates on the trip every year. And we've done it all these years. I've gotten to know more Epsilon Epsilon brothers than anybody.” 

The Chapter Impact 

As impressive of a tradition as the chapter pilgrimage has been, the eight Rock Chapter awards, the Fraternity's highest recognition of chapter performance, the chapter has earned over the same period is an equally incredible feat. Ask a member of the chapter, and they’ll point to the pilgrimage experience as a major contributor to the culture of excellence the chapter has established. 

“I firmly believe that our annual pilgrimage to Lexington is the most crucial element of our candidate program. After navigating through rush and accepting a bid, you understand that Sigma Nu is a commendable fraternity, with high expectations for members from Epsilon Epsilon.,” shares Dare Lovett IV, a senior member of the chapter and the outgoing chapter Commander.  “However, seeing how much more there is to our organization outside of Stillwater and hearing about it directly from the dedicated members on staff significantly reinforces your decision to continue the candidate program. The pilgrimage inspires you to strive for excellence in everything you do, and to represent the Fraternity positively by upholding our standards as a proud 13-time Rock Chapter.” 

Lovett also credits the pilgrimage experience for inspiring him to pursue the chapter's Eminent Commander position.  

“Although I couldn't participate in the pilgrimage as a candidate due to COVID, I seized the opportunity to embark on the pilgrimage along with our Marshals during my junior year,” he said. “This experience reinforced my existing admiration for our national organization and its high level of operation. The trip also instilled in me a desire to contribute to the local chapter that had already given me so much as a student. After the pilgrimage, I made the decision to run for Commander, which I can 100% say has been the most rewarding decision I have ever made.” 

Gilpin shares that the impact of the pilgrimage program has not stopped with just the collegiate chapter but has transformed the chapter’s culture of alumni engagement. 

“I think we're doing a better job of getting younger alumni involved or alumni involved earlier in their lifetime than in the past. The brotherhood is expanding to be a multi-generational brotherhood. That's gotten way better.” 

The Road Ahead 

With the 20th anniversary of the chapter’s first pilgrimage in the rearview mirror, the chapter seems more committed than ever to continue investing in the cherished chapter tradition.  

“They know how impactful the trip is to the candidates and to get them off on the right foot.,” says Gilpin. “They have said before, more than once, ‘if we had a budget issue where we were running short on funds, hey, we got one less party this year, the pilgrimage is going to happen, period.’ For kids between the ages of 18 and 22 to say that tells you it's important.” 

The chapter also proudly points to the recent opening of the new Spears Family Epsilon Epsilon Center for Excellence as a source of renewed excitement for future pilgrimages.  

“That building, it’s a total game changer,” says Tontz. 

The building, named in honor of Epsilon Epsilon alumnus Dr. Bill Spears, his wife Candye, and the almost 300 brothers of the Epsilon Epsilon Chapter, whose gifts made the construction of the building possible, more than doubles the Headquarters’ capacity to provide lodging and meeting space for collegiate and alumni brothers. 

In keeping with tradition, the chapter is already set to return to Lexington for their next pilgrimage, Labor Day weekend, this fall.


© 2015-2022 Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc.
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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