What to do about Bob

Submitted by jjcho on July 31, 2018 - 11:19pm

TL;DR: Bob McKinless '48 will be awarded the Order of Merit of Lambda Chi Alpha this Saturday. This is, in the parlance, kind of a big deal.

The year 1935 was a fairly momentous one for Omicron Zeta. If I may quote the minutes of March 14:

After a lengthy discussion on the milk situation in the house, Fowler moved, seconded by Wilcox, that the discussion be tabled. Carried. — Edward W. Shineman, Jr., H.G.

Well, I didn't say March 14 was representative. This was the year that featured the launch of the Omicron Oracle, on the ashes of the Omicron Alumni News; the imposition of a soon-to-be-repealed ban on dogs, the latest in the timeless struggle between pro-dog/anti-dog factions within the house; and the drama of the Willard Spicer case, our most infamous hazing incident.

I don't have time to write about any of those things today. I will, however, note that 1935 was also the year Lambda Chi Alpha's highest honor for "unusual, lengthy, and dedicated" alumni service, the Order of Merit, was created. The convention that September was the first time it was conferred on an Omicron initiate: Leon Brockway '08 O-36, one of the original members of Mug and Jug, who had nurtured ISWZA's finances through war and depression and ΣΑΜmy's default on 614 Stewart Ave. He was later the brother who donated funds to enclose the sun porch in the southwest corner of the house, creating what is now the library.

That was also the last time it was conferred on an Omicron.

Ed Hall '24, who had served in various roles for three decades, received it in 1954. He was a stalwart of the chapter and pillar of the community as a beloved local obstetrician. There is even a room dedicated to him at Cayuga Medical Center.

But he was a transfer from Auburn, so the Paedagogus says he belongs to Omega. Maybe it's just as well. He had spent the 2018 equivalent of over $55,000 to rehabilitate the house after World War II. A year later, we declined to bid his son, and after that, he stepped down as High Pi. That sequence strikes me as less than coincidental.

After Ed, it seems we never bothered to nominate anyone. This is not for a lack of excellent candidates. Frank Schaefer '29, Ed Moore '48, Duke Schneider '58, Steve Ashley '62, Henry McNulty '69, and perhaps two dozen others would qualify easily. As a chapter, though, the approval of Indianapolis has rarely featured on the priority list. As far back as 1928, the Traveling Secretary (i.e. ELC) complained that we "should have as much respect for the central office as other fraternities have." His successor in 1935 complained of our self-satisfaction, that "Omicron Zeta was in a rut and had been doing nothing in the past few years to get out of it. We must start now and increase our prestige in Cornell as well as in the General Fraternity."

Cue the 1935 equivalent of "whatevs, bro." But this isn't about Omicron's self-satisfaction as some kind of Moorhead Dairy Queen of Lambda Chi Alpha, it's about our efforts at volunteer recognition.

We haven't been especially good at it. In 1969, the alumni created an Honorary Board of Directors, to recognize long-term ISWZA volunteers by making them permanent directors. The list of honorary directors has many prominent names, from Cecil Robinson '21 down through Mike Agostin '92. This seems akin to presenting your housekeeper, after ten years of loyal service, with a new toilet brush.

In 1984, we created the Omicron Award, to recognize lifelong meritorious service. It was awarded exactly twice, effusively, to Bob McKinless '48 and Henry McNulty '69, and then forgotten. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, the board created a Distinguished Service Award and even had a plaque made up. So far as I can tell, this was never even publicized in the Oracle, although at least this plaque is still on display at the house.

To be sure, our volunteers don't volunteer for the recognition. We are trying to strengthen and preserve something that was important in our college careers, and which we think has something to contribute to the lives of Cornell students today. But volunteers in thankless jobs eventually weary of the thanklessness. And in a place as transient as a college campus, names disappear from memory faster than a water balloon can make it from The Pit to Chi Phi. This is emotionally taxing.

The building campaign finally happened. ISWZA had been discussing the need for a major renovation since 1994, with the Martecchini Report, before any of the undergraduates had been born. We realized that we needed to do a better job saying thanks, to prevent burnout among the volunteers, to give future generations perspective into the efforts required to keep the fraternity running—and to remind Indianapolis that Lambda Chi Alpha had a chapter at Cornell, and that it was not full of self-absorbed unremarkables.

I first nominated Bob McKinless '48 for the Order of Merit in 2012. There's hardly anyone on this list who doesn't know the name; I won't bore you further with the entire backstory as to why he was deserving of it. And it seemed appropriate to start with the volunteer who had volunteered the longest at that point, and who was still alive.

We did not receive so much as an acknowledgment that the nomination was received. But then, I'd never done this before, and as a chapter we hadn't done it anyone's memory. I tried again in 2014 and was met with equal silence. Brothers at other chapters who'd served on their house corp board for "only" ten years were being recognized, and Omicron, with a very strong alumni organization and culture—thanks in no small measure to Bob's efforts starting in the '70s—was being passed over. What was the deal?

In the meantime, the grand re-opening was coming in 2015, and we wanted to recognize that had gone into it over the last 21 years. So the question came, what to do about Bob? Against all expectations, Bob had remained actively interested in the house thirty years after we'd declared his apotheosis. He'd literally lived through 80% of Lambda Chi Alpha's entire history; he could be excused for taking a break. But he stayed on. And he wasn't just interested in the progress of the campaign or construction, but in the experience of the brothers. He still wanted to make connections with the younger generations going through, to make new friends and connect them with old ones.

Our solution was the same as the Cornell Club of Washington had chosen: when you've given someone all the awards, name the awards after him. And thus the revived Omicron Award is now the McKinless Award, with Doug Levens '92 its first recipient. Doug has served in roles ranging from alumni president to control board chair all the way up to short-order cook for the house over the last quarter-century, and it seemed fitting.

Resolution with the General Fraternity came unexpectedly. Last spring, as part of the terms of our probation, IHQ sent a distinguished former Grand High Zeta member, John Minasian (WPI '72), to observe Initiation. Doug and I talked with him on a wide range of topics. With his advice, we submitted another nomination, and at long last, the Grand High Zeta will give one of our own his overdue due.

Bob McKinless will be presented with the Order of Merit of Lambda Chi Alpha this Saturday, at the 57th General Assembly, after half a century of service to Omicron Zeta. If you're in Jacksonville, stop by and say hi. If not, he enjoys hearing from people, and this is as good an excuse as any.

To tell you how long it's been since an Omicron has been recognized like this, Bob was 8 in 1935. But at least now we can say an Omicron gets inducted more than once in a lifetime.

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Image icon Ed Hall Plaque