By: Past Supreme Master Jon Pierce (Vanderbilt, 1986)
It’s 1983 and I’m cruising down the highway with a full head of hair, a 28-inch waist and my fraternity brother, Brad Degler, as we head to New Orleans to attend my first-ever AEPi convention. My sophomore year at Vanderbilt University starts in a few weeks and I just moved my stuff into the Alpha Epsilon Pi chapter house to begin my tenure as Tau Chapter’s rush chairman. One of the seniors in our chapter, Andy “Coach” Cohen, is finishing his term as Undergraduate Supreme Governor for AEPi International and he has told me stories of the people I would meet, the things I could learn and the incredible memories I would make at AEPi convention.
Boy, was he right.
We finally make it to New Orleans (Brad’s car kept overheating towards the end of the drive from Nashville so we could drive 10-20 miles and then pull over to wait until it cooled off a bit and then get back on the road to make it another 20 miles closer. As you can imagine, this made the drive quite a bit longer but also, strangely, more memorable and appropriate) and we pull into the Fairmont Hotel just off of Bourbon Street and enter the lobby where I’m greeted with two sights I will never forget.
Andy Cohen introduces me to a guy who looked startingly like Andre the Giant and tells him that, “this (me) is the future of Tau chapter.” The Andre the Giant lookalike shakes my hand and says in the strangest Boston accent ever, “Howareya?” Thus begins a 40-year friendship with Andy Borans, one of my fraternity mentors and frequent target of my jokes and pranks.
The other sight in the Fairmont lobby? Cooties. Lots and lots of old men running around with funny hats (If you know, you know) who seemed to be just as amazed that their hotel was going to be occupied by a group of Jewish college men as we were that they voluntarily went by the name of the cooties.
That first convention opened my eyes to the scope of AEPi. I went out and had an amazing time with brothers from across the country (I’m not sure if we even had active Canadian chapters at that time) some of whom remain my friends to this day. I also had a chance to meet with some older brothers who helped me become the leader in my chapter that we needed at the time. I was never shy but walking into a room full of guys you had never met before was daunting until you realized the immediate connections and bonds that we had because of our love for AEPi.
There are many more stories from that first convention but, trust me, this is not the right venue for them. Suffice it to say, I was promised a memorable time and I definitely got one. Somehow, a picture was taken of a group of us at Pat O’Brien’s (a famous/infamous establishment on Bourbon Street) and it ended up on the cover of The Lion a few weeks later. I don’t remember much from that night, but I can still name several of the people in that photo.
A year later, convention was held in Nashville where my chapter at Vanderbilt was the host. Somewhere along the way, our Regional Governor, Gil Bubis, told me to drive these two old guys who were about to go on to the Supreme Board of Governors to a local store to rent tuxedos for the Saturday night banquet. Those two men who squeezed into the back seat of my Honda Civic were Marc Katz and Richard Stein, both of whom went on to become Supreme Master and great friends of mine. My kids still refer to Brother Stein as Uncle Richard and I consider him a part of my family. I met him and became friendly with him because of an AEPi convention.
That’s just one example of the friends I’ve made and the impact that AEPi’s convention has had on me. And, I’m just one voice of hundreds. I know many other alumni brothers who feel the same way and have similar experiences.
I’ve probably attended about 33 of the subsequent 38 conventions since 1983 (two were cancelled due to COVID but I did attend virtually), some as an undergraduate, some as an AEPi employee, some as an AEPi volunteer, twice as AEPi’s Supreme Master (International President) and, most recently, as an alta kocher. I’ve been to two other AEPi conventions in New Orleans since that first one and, no, I can’t publicly tell those stories because some of the statutes of limitations are still not up. (Thankfully, cell phone videos weren’t a thing back then).
I’ve never once regretted dragging my family to spend our summer vacation with, as my kids used to call them, “the boys.” Each year, I get a chance to renew my friendships with my fraternity brothers and talk about our great organization with a new crop of undergraduate brothers. I’ve sat under the stars playing snaps, told fraternity yarns much more interesting than this one in innumerable hotel lobbies and bars and have created a lifetime of memories full of indelible characters, poignant moments and celebrations with my closest friends. At every convention something happens that reminds me of why I volunteer for our organization. From seeing our brothers commit to donating $1 million to Jewish and Israeli philanthropies, to watching when a brother who was a Gift of Life donor met the person whose life was saved by his donation, to seeing brothers from around the world applaud and welcome our Israeli brothers into AEPi, to being in the room when the “light bulb goes on” for younger brothers and they, too, see the scope and impact of AEPi beyond their campus. Being with hundreds of emerging leaders for the Jewish community is empowering, invigorating and inspiring.
Go to convention! If not this year, go to convention next summer in South Florida! As an alumnus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other alumni who are dedicated to helping AEPi grow and helping us develop the future leaders of the Jewish community. As an undergrad, you’ll get to meet other brothers from around the globe and hang out with old farts (like me and my friends) and realize that while we are older, we make fun of each other and rely on each other the same way that you do as a student. And, our chapter meetings are just as boring!
A few weeks ago, I realized that 40 years had passed since that first convention with the cooties and now I’m heading back to New Orleans. Because of some family commitments, my wife and I won’t make it there until Saturday afternoon. A friend asked me, “Why bother going at that point?” It was a good question that I didn’t have a good answer for until I started thinking about writing this piece for the AEPi website.
I’m never getting that full head of hair back. The 28-inch waist jeans are not likely to make a reappearance in my closet. I’m not sure I could survive another “attack of the cooties” or consecutive late nights on Bourbon Street. But, after 40 years, my passion for AEPi still burns just as strong and I can’t wait to get to #AEPi110 to celebrate with my brothers.
Does anyone know if Pat O’Brien’s has an early bird special?