The untold story of the audacious move
that saved the Sigma Chi Fraternity at WSU
When the Pro Consul lit the candles, the flames glistened in the eyes of the Consul, just as they have at every chapter meeting in the 100 years of Sigma Chi at WSU. It’s literally and figuratively keeping the flame alive.
But this chapter meeting in 2002 was different. It wasn’t even supposed to happen.
When it came time for the Good of the Order, the number of active brothers had shrunk to just two. And they were running the meeting; Consul Nick Birklid and Pro Consul Kenzie Hansell. That was it. And this chapter meeting was held in a tiny locked room Birklid found at the CUB because there was no Sigma Chi house. The old house was soon to be demolished and the house next door wasn’t available then.
The Beta Upsilon chapter was collapsing. “We were the only two left,” said Birklid. Yet they were determined to perform the ritual anyway. “We went through it all,” said Hansell. “I was there for a reason. And so was Nick.”
This is the untold story of how Beta Upsilon of Sigma Chi almost died. What saved it was an audacious move that was perhaps the most consequential act in chapter history, described below.
Birklid and Hansell knew it was on their shoulders to save the chapter. And, with no one to run for office, Birklid and Hansell had to re-elect themselves.
Smack in the middle of these dark days came a new, young Chapter Advisor - a graduate student named Wade Barringer, who’d joined Beta Upsilon in 1993 but stayed on campus for his PhD studies. “He was huge - instrumental” in keeping this flickering flame from going out, said Hansell. They took drastic actions by parting ways with a number of brothers over grades, dues and drugs – and, with some exceptions, were no longer active brothers or left school entirely. Barringer worked to preserve recognition with the WSU Interfraternity Council and Sigma Chi national headquarters.
During rush, all they had was a table. No house. No sorority parties. No Sweetheart Ball. But they did have The Jordan Standard. So, through sheer face to face engagement, Birklid and Hansell managed to sign two pledges in the Fall of 2003: Karl Koehler and Chris Gilham. The following year, Koehler, now Consul, and Gilham pledged three; Cliff Woodsin Haack, Jay DeNoma and Blake Helgerson – none of whom were interested in a normal fraternity. “When I got it in,” said Cliff, “there wasn’t a house. I joined Sigma Chi for the brotherhood. Awesome people, I couldn’t say no.”
Haack eventually took his turn at that lonely rush table. “I will never forget that. They were making fun of me. But I was mad enough to stand there,” he said. “We never gave up.” It was as if “we were re-seeding a new chapter on campus,” said Helgerson.
“I’ll give tons of credit to Nick,” said Hansell who was busy at that time with Cougar football. But Hansell had his own deeply personal imperative. He is one of 11 Sigs in his family, seven of them from WSU. Hansell’s grandfather had been a WSU Sig. His father Tyler. His uncle. His older brother TJ. And Kenzie knew his younger brother Luke, the last of the Hansell boys, was just four years away from coming to WSU. Keeping the chapter afloat was a powerful, personal motivation for him so that Luke could experience everything that so many in his family had.
The sole pledge in Spring 2004 was Adam Gunter, who wrote about the Jordan Standard in his brotherhood essay:
“As long as we can keep good attitudes, fairness and decency, our brotherhood will stay strong. I am only a pledge right now...but with the high values and standards that our founders have set for Sigma Chi, I have no doubt in my mind that our chapter will make some of the best brothers ever.”
Gunter became Consul the very next year. But no one knew how to hold a chapter meeting. Writing in the national Sigma Chi Fraternity review that year, Adam said: “Since we are such a small and new chapter, we will need to find out exactly how a functional chapter of Sigma Chi runs.” Note how he used the word “new.”
The new recruits had only heard about the falling out with troubled brothers a year or two earlier. They considered themselves a fresh start. “We ran Sigma Chi out of Stephenson South,” said Denoma. “Let’s find quality over quantity” to avoid more turmoil.
“You talk to people about Sigma Chi and what it is and what it means to you,” said Hansell. “And all it takes is one, then two. Then those two get four. And then the four get eight.” But it wasn’t easy.
The boarded-up house was finally demolished in 2004, putting finality on their plight. Desperate, Barringer sent an urgent – almost panicked - email to alumni brothers, pleading for a campaign to build a new chapter house. “Please read: It may be the last one” said his email in January of 2004, like a dispatch from the front lines of a distant war zone. A heroic effort was, in fact, in the works raising substantial amounts of money and commitments spearheaded by alums Larry Culver, Bobby Thompson, Terry Snow and others. But an economic downturn and a change within the fundraising firm put the effort on hold. Further, the chapter’s controversy and turmoil were still fresh in the minds of alums. Rather than see a call for action, a few simply viewed the chapter as a lost cause. Denoma and Helgerson said the new guys were being “lumped in” with the past. Denoma remembers thinking, “We’re not them!” Not getting the new house they’d so dearly hoped for was a profound blow to the few remaining undergrads.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
To understand how this came to be, look back in time. The old colonial house was built in the early 1930’s. The rear addition was permitted in the 1960’s as “temporary.” By the 1970’s, the whole thing was in decline. By 2000, the boiler had ruptured (Birklid grabbed someone’s boots and scrambled through the flood to save ritual gear). Insects were raining on beds at night. Everything was breaking. Floors were sagging. As repairs fell behind, disrespect for the structure increased.
Morale was dropping during the tattered final years of the old house. Once condemned and boarded up in 2002, members were forced to scatter around Pullman.
But did the structure bring down the structure of the brotherhood? Or did the dropping morale cause the decline of the structure?
“The fabric of the brotherhood was nearly gone,” said Birklid. Many were no longer active. Finances had imploded.
When the SAE’s got kicked off campus, seven brothers and pledges moved there in the Fall of 2003 hoping to stay together.
And that’s where the fateful meeting occurred.
THE CRUCIAL VOTE AND THE AUDACIOUS MOVE
Hopelessness was in the air. During the dreary Christmas season when the slow Palouse breeze makes it seem colder than it is, the remnants of the brothers on campus, 20-30 of them, gathered in the SAE basement to vote. The only item on the agenda was whether to turn in the Charter and end the Beta Upsilon Chapter of Sigma Chi at WSU.
Everyone in that room said their piece. Most saw no way out. “The majority actually voted to give up the Charter,” said Birklid.
“I just remember losing it and saying, ‘I don’t care. We’re going ahead anyway’,” vowed Birklid. ”I’ll be damned if we’re going to lose this Chapter while I’m here. It was that responsibility of keeping something going that’s bigger than any of us sitting in that room.”
That’s when Birklid and Hansell decided they were going to ignore the legitimate vote to turn in the Charter. It was a bold move in clear violation of the vote. But they felt it was the right thing to do.
There was a core of Sigs who wanted to keep things alive. To this day, Birklid can list the few brothers who paid their live out fees to try to keep the chapter solvent.
Membership, having hit bottom, slowly inched up. “It grew and it grew and it grew,” Hansell said. By 2004, there were seven members. That same year, House Corporation President Howie Neill negotiated to buy the house next door, affectionately known as “the Castleberry house” in honor of the late political science professor Paul Castleberry and his wife who were the beloved neighbors for years. Beta Upsilon finally had a home again – small, but important. GPA averages rose, membership rose, accolades and reputation rose.
Then, in 2007, Hansell achieved his goal. His younger brother Luke got to WSU and became a Sig. All the Hansell boys attended his emotional initiation to not only celebrate Luke, but to recognize that Beta Upsilon had survived.
In the following years, more leaders stepped up to navigate slow, steady success guided by the moral compass of The Jordan Standard. It was a deep bench of leaders, including – but not limited to - Consuls Birklid, Koehler, Haack, Chase Jackson, Helgerson, Jason Lane, Nate Hyres, Jay Girard, Brad Wilgus, Nate Hegerberg, Trevor Clarkson, Maxwell Thon, Amedeo Gallucci, Isaac Griepp, Brady Johnson, Michael Birmingham, Garrett Gluck, and now Stephen Bone
With the $5.5 million Centennial Chapter House rising next door, the chapter pledged 28 quality men in 2019, reaching 56 undergraduate brothers - as big as at nearly any point in our 100-year history. Despite the limitations of the tiny house, the chapter has been winning awards, averaging a high GPA, earned a finalist certificate for the national Peterson Significant Chapter and became respected on Greek Row. It’s everything alums could want.
“I am extremely proud,” says Birklid. “It’s been impressive.”
Birklid was Groomsman at Hansell’s wedding and Hansell was Birklid's Best Man. “I’m thankful for Nick, forever,” said Hansell.
Barringer said, “We owe these guys.”
“We never gave up!” said Haack.
“Sigma Chi means a great deal to us,” said Denoma, one of those three crucial pledges in 2004, “and our role in keeping it alive at Washington State University is one of our greatest accomplishments.”
Many Sigs from throughout the 2000’s have said their struggle has been overlooked and that their inability to donate large sums makes them feel a bit separated from the rest. Indeed, they say they cannot even relate to what it was like living in a regular sized fraternity house. To be clear, they deserve our gratitude for keeping the flame alive and slowly returning the chapter to strength – unbroken for 100 years, an impressive feat for any fraternity anywhere.
On August 8th, 2020, at the dawn of our second century at WSU, alums from the 2000’s will get a chance to walk through the new chapter house and know they helped make it happen.
TOP: Chapter Advisor Wade Barringer, Consul Nick Birklid and Pro Consul Kenzie Hansell. In 2003, Birkid and Hansell held a two-man chapter meeting and insisted on going through ritual to keep the flame alive. ABOVE: In 2004, this photo was nearly the entire chapter active membership, a "fresh" group of recruits who pledged when we had no house.
Chris Gilham, a key member of the "fresh start" pictured in the 2004 house photo above.
2003: Not long after this photo was taken, Pro Consul Kenzie Hansell (left) and Consul Nick Birklid held a two-man chapter meeting complete with ritual to keep the flame alive.