Brief History of the Omicron Alumni Association

This history covers the activities of the Omicron Alumni Association. For the history of the Cornell chapter in general, see the History & Heritage section.

Early Days

The ISWZA Society enjoyed strong alumni participation and interest, and as an independent local was able to raise enough alumni funds to purchase the house at 614 Stewart Avenue in 1913 only a few years after its establishment. Alumni brothers kept in touch through “round robin” letters, where a brother would receive a letter full of news from the others, add his own, and send it off to the next brother.

By the time ISWZA was chartered as Omicron Zeta of Lambda Chi Alpha, this system was already unwieldy, as brothers moved and contact was lost, or they neglected to write the next brother in the chain in a timely manner, and simply as the number of alumni increased from eight to thirty to a hundred. In 1916, therefore, a loose body known as the Executive Board of the Alumni was formed, to centralize correspondence and to collect alumni dues. In November, it published the first issue of the first official newsletter, the Omicron Alumni News. A second issue was published in April 1917. It had three officers— Neil Preston '08 as designated Secretary-Treasurer, Leon Brockway '08 as assistant secretary and editor, and George Robinson '14 assistant editor— and correspondents who collected news from the classes. 

World War I and the Formation of the OAA

The chapter went on hiatus after the United States entered the First World War, as did the Omicron Alumni News and centralized alumni activities. ISWZA Fraternity, the house corporation, persisted, but was a legally separate entity preoccupied with the financial matters related to maintenance of the chapter house and its associated debts. After the war, an informal group known as the New York Omicron Alumni Association began to meet periodically for meals or drinks in New York City.

The active chapter sent a letter to the Executive Board shortly after World War I describing dire conditions in Ithaca, prompting visits from Robbie Rodrigues ’15 and other alumni brothers. Rodrigues made a report on the need for a stronger structure at a meeting of the New York Alumni at the Bristol Hotel on March 8, 1919, and discussion and correspondences followed between Rodriguez, Leon ’08 and George Brockway ’12, F. T. Comstock ’15, and Bob Bartholomew ’15. Draft articles of agreement and bylaws for a new Omicron Alumni Association of Lambda Chi Alpha were distributed and approved subsequently on March 29, 1919 at the Bristol Hotel, with 13 alumni and 4 actives in attendance. Leon Brockway ’08 was elected the first alumni president, George Robinson ’14 Vice-President, F. T. Comstock ’15 Secretary, and Neil Preston ’08 Treasurer.

The OAA gradually became moribund, however. Its last burst of activity came in 1927 with the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Mug and Jug. It continued to fund the alumni news, but ceased soon to recognize class correspondents, and after the Great Depression hit, it ceased even to solicit alumni dues. It existed largely on paper, with Ernst Fischer as its titular head. ISWZA continued to function, but remained solely interested in management of the property— funds it raised through bonds or gifts were put towards the operation and maintenance of the house, with none set aside for alumni communications, reunions, or other activities. The Omicron Alumni News, the chief link between the active chapter and the alumni, published its last issue in March 1932, leading with a desperate plea for contributions.

For three years, alumni could not even be certain that Omicron Zeta was still extant. Finally, in March 1935, the actives reached out to the alumni with a new publication, the Omicron Oracle, seeking a restoration of ties. Early the next year, an effort was made to revive the Omicron Alumni Association, led by Ed Hall ’24, president; Charles Robinson ’21 as treasurer, and undergraduate Alden “Dutch” Wakeman ’36, the alumni secretary. But the Second World War disrupted its activities again, and the organization went inactive, with the chapter shuttered and many brothers away in the service.

Postwar Rebuilding

Lambda Chi Alpha quickly rebuilt after World War II thanks to the efforts of Navy V-12 brothers like Dick Turner '46 and Tal Williams '47, and the question of an alumni association was again raised. At the June 12, 1948 alumni meeting, the functions of ISWZA Fraternity and of the Omicron Alumni Association were merged into a single organization, with the indefatigable Ed Hall '24 again at the helm.

The combined organization benefited from the energy of the postwar generation, notably Ed Moore '48 and Duke Schneider '58. The revived alumni association's greatest success was in the building campaign launched in October 1954 for a major renovation and expansion of the chapter house at Edgemoor, including the construction of the new dining room and bathrooms, and installation of a fire-rated stairwell. But despite the development of a regular cycle of campus events of interest to alumni— Homecoming, Fall Weekend, IFC Weekend, Spring Weekend, Reunion— direct interaction with the chapter remained limited.

The McKinless Spring

Nominally, the organization was led by between twelve and twenty alumni directors and the undergraduate president. In practice, however, the president and treasurer of ISWZA made most of the decisions for the organization, with little consultation with either the alumni or the actives. That relationship shifted dramatically starting in the late 1960s, through the notable efforts of Robert F. "Bob" McKinless '48. McKinless first came to campus in the spring of 1966 while driving high school students up for campus tours. He had not, in fact, planned to stop by the chapter house, but upon doing so on Sunday morning, he encountered Ralph Wilhelm ’67, the High Alpha, who introduced him to the actives. This began a half-century of renewed devotion to the chapter in which McKinless worked to improve relations between alumni and undergraduates. At his behest, in 1975, the full board began to meet semi-annually, with a spring meeting designed to allow greater interaction between active and alumni without the distracting hurly-burly of Homecoming activities.

Better organization and involvement on the part of the alumni contributed to greater numbers of graduating brothers who wanted to contribute back, leading to a renaissance of alumni activity, and launching longtime participation of such leaders as Henry McNulty '69, Bill Meli '70, Bob Woodworth ’71, Joe Willis ’72, Gary Dufel and Randy Rosenberg ’74, John Czelusniak and Bob Seiple ’75, Andre Martecchini ’78, Rick Meigs '80, and Tim Rogan '81. To accommodate this surge of interest, the ISWZA board was expanded from 5 alumni directors to 15. Communications also took a giant leap forward in 1981 as the Omicron Oracle, long an undergraduate-published newsletter, gained a new editor in Henry McNulty '69, then associate editor of the Hartford Courant. The newly invigorated organization gained a consistent voice (with a consistent publishing schedule), and a publication that would win numerous awards over the next quarter-century.

Frank Schaefer '29, who had been a world history teacher at Ithaca High School, retired in 1972, and the following year was appointed the new High Pi for the chapter. He would continue to lend his voice and unique perspective over the next two decades.

75th Anniversary and the Bruno Reforms

Management of the organization lay firmly in the reliable hands of the so-called "70s Mafia" throughout the 1980s. In 1988, the organization announced the Omicron 75 campaign, an effort to raise $75,000 for the chapter's 75th anniversary. In an effort to keep rents low as university tuition skyrocketed in the 1980s, the alumni funds were meager, and as the house aged, major repairs were an increasing burden on the budget. The main goal of the campaign was to raise funds to renovate the kitchen, install storm windows and other energy-saving measures, and make chimney repairs, but future needs were daunting. The cost to fully modernize the house was six to ten times the sum the 75th campaign had managed to raise.

On April 22, 1989, Omicron Zeta hosted a well-attended 75th anniversary gala keynoted by university Senior Vice-President Jay Morley (RPI '62), with Grand High Kappa Brad Peabody (Sewanee '71) also in attendance. But student life was changing rapidly, with the 21 drinking age law in effect, and substantial new regulations on campus and by national, and many of the younger alumni felt their voices were being excluded. The energetic Tom Bruno ’90 wrote to members of these classes urging their greater participation in alumni affairs, and was rewarded with a surge of volunteers, among them Dominic Delmolino ’90, Steve DelRosso ’91, and the ’92 trio of Mike Agostin, Doug Levens, and Sam Sankar. In 1995, after Scot Brown ’81 stepped down as alumni president, Bruno was elected to the position.

Hanging over their heads was the 1994 Martecchini Report, a study led by Andre Martecchini ’78 into the long-term viability of Edgemoor. The civil authorities were severely tightening their building code inspections, while new regulations intended to limit liability and reduce risks from alcohol-related incidents were forcing the active chapter to rethink its operations from the ground up. The piecemeal repairs and upgrades to Edgemoor could only go so far; the house would need a major renovation, or it would need to be sold. The search for volunteers for a major building campaign began in earnest.

New Century and the Centennial Campaign

But the directors realized that before a multimillion-dollar campaign could be launched, the alumni organization would need to become more effective. In 2000, Doug Levens ’92 was elected alumni president, and initiated a series of reforms aimed at improving participation and the quality of volunteers. Over the next decade, many operations were professionalized. Alumni House Manager Eric Schneider ’91 set a new standard for day-to-day maintenance. Alumni Treasurer Mike Filiatrault ’95 brought accounting standards and operations up to date, and pushed through a program to invest the organization's reserve funds through a new investment board. On the advising side, High Pis Trevor Connor ’95 and John Zelenka ’03 raised the bar to stratospheric heights in their involvement with and guidance of the active chapter.

In 2009, Sandy Gilbert ’63 was inspired to return to Cornell for Homecoming— but it wouldn't be enough to come alone. So he began contacting his class, then his cohort, and soon the whole decade of the 1960s was receiving phone calls and letters urging them to come back to the hill. That October, Omicron Zeta hosted its most successful Homecoming in decades. The goodwill evident in the attendees, and the newfound energy of the volunteers, demonstrated that the organization was in a strong position, and ready to embark on the next phase: the long-awaited major building campaign. Gilbert, Ralph Wilhelm ’67, and Doug Levens ’92 were named co-chairs of the Campaign for Omicron Zeta, officially launched at the chapter’s Centennial weekend in October 2013. With the help of consultant Greg McElroy, the Campaign has raised over $2 million for the much-needed renovation and expansion of the chapter house.

Recent History

In 2011, an additional alumni organization was added to the fold. The Edgemoor Leadership Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, was set up with a focus on leadership and life learning experiences. After a further review of the structure of the alumni, the Omicron Alumni Association was reconstituted as an independent organization from ISWZA Fraternity starting in the fall of 2016, and the alumni continue to work to raise its standards and improve Edgemoor and the fraternity.