Two decades of an annual brothers’ trip for members of Washington Epsilon transforms into a family affair
By Brian Lynn, Eastern Washington ’98
Our college years and ongoing membership in Phi Delta Theta has enriched our lives and given us all a foundation upon which to build our futures. Both institutions delivered experiences and relationships that helped form our worldview while providing friendships that serve as a support system and navigate life’s trials and tribulations after college.
But times change, and time changes all.
World views often shift with circumstances and perspectives as we age or advance up the corporate ladder; college relationships morph or slowly fall by the wayside as we continue to move forward in life.
For the men of Washington Epsilon at Eastern Washington University (EWU), however, an annual Memorial Day weekend camping trip has helped keep those relationships intact, despite the rigors and distractions of life throughout the rest of the year.
What was once a brothers’ only weekend for a few alumni has, as happens with all circumstances and relationships, transformed into a family affair that now occurs annually, including everyone from toddlers to the Washington Epsilon Founders who were on the first camping trips.
The Early Years
(when we were young, single, and poor)
In the mid-to-late 1990s, the Founders of Phi Delta Theta at EWU had recently graduated and wanted to reconnect over the long Memorial Day weekend. The alumni decided upon a camping trip, and a “Boys’ Weekend” was born.
It was a typical affair for men in their early 20s. Hikes, mountain biking, and fishing during the day. Talk of new jobs, blossoming careers, and impending relationships over beers around a campfire at night. College friendships renewed for another year over laughter as each alumnus began to find their way in the real world.
And then it happened. A jolting change to the brotherly dynamic.
Girlfriends began to tag along. In the opinion of some, it was perfectly fine. To others, this was tantamount to treason, and banishment was the appropriate punishment (or at least unrelenting heckling).
In time, women won out and the traditional weekend set aside for manly adventure became known simply as the Memorial Day Camping Trip, and girlfriends were welcome. Harmony was restored, and all was well.
But then it got worse.
Those girlfriends became wives!
In time, those wives began to birth offspring. As everyone knows, children present an entirely different set of circumstances. If the brothers’ only weekend wasn’t dead with girlfriends and wives present, it would surely perish with the arrival of diapers, formula, and Baby Bjorn carriers.
But the men of Washington Epsilon persevered and dragged their girlfriends, wives, and the subsequent broods into the Cascade Mountains every Memorial Day weekend. The group pitched tents on the cold, hard, wet ground and set up coolers of food, beer, and baby formula.
Balance was once again found.
However, not all was harmonious. Camping has a way of bringing out different stressors than those found in the city’s rat race while climbing the corporate ladder.
Friends, brothers even, don’t always see eye to eye. Spouses, especially those new to a group, don’t always appreciate a tradition—especially when it involves roughing it. More than once, the growing group of young Phi Delt alumni faced conflict head-on.
There was the infamous Marshmallow Incident of ’98, when two brothers, who shall remain nameless, took the tossing of marshmallows too far and ended up wrestling in the mud one dark and stormy night while everyone else took shelter, watching from under tarps strung between trees. Nearly twenty years later, the two must maintain a fair distance from each other during s’mores assemblage.
Much like a family outgrows their first home, the small campground that housed the dozen or so campers in the early years just didn’t work for all the new alumni that wanted to join in the weekend. The group required a bigger place with warmer, drier weather.
The Mid-Life Years
(married with children and aging)
Those early camping years were enjoyable in the same way that college was— nobody knew any different.
Now, more than 20 year later, the Memorial weekend camping trip is now known as Phi Camp. And, like those who have been around since the inception, a certain stability and level of comfort has come with middle age.
Like snowbirds, the camp has moved to a secret spot on the east side of the Cascade Mountains so as to increase the chance of sunny, warm weather. Where tents once littered campgrounds, now fewer do, as wives have put their feet down and brothers in their 40s find less enjoyment as they did in their 20s upon waking on the hard ground; an armada of trailers, RVs and fifth wheels the size of some of our college apartments now stand.
And then there’s the children. So. Many. Children.
Apparently, Phi Delts are a productive lot, as children now outnumber adults, and those babies holstered to their father’s chests during competitive games in the early years are now readying to graduate from high school (with several becoming legacies in Phi Delta Theta).
Phi Camp has taken on a middle-aged consistency. Brothers and wives from the 1990s to the 2010s congregate, laugh, and share. Children from newborns to high schoolers do the same, each age group of kids finding their own way and entertainment for what’s become a four-day weekend. Trailers, grills, and coolers are shared. If a stray child shows up at a picnic table or trailer, it gets fed and then scurries off with a group of peers until the next meal.
Annual traditions continue to evolve: games for young and old(er) alike; a potluck-dinner night; a bouncy castle, big-screen movie night and piñata for the kids; karaoke night at a brother’s trailer; a water fight instigated by children against unsuspecting parents; S’mores around the campfire (with proper supervision of children and specific brothers); the yearly kickball game that the youngest to oldest camper plays in. There’s even Phi Camp apparel each year.
One ritual, a throwback to chapter members’ school days at Washington Epsilon, takes place on Saturday night. A long walk by the brothers in which they take turns sharing with one another what’s going on in their lives – success or hardship, it matters not, everyone listens silently to whomever has the floor, offering support or congratulations afterwards.
It’s a bit of an ode to the brothers only weekend from which this family tradition has sprung. Those brotherly bonds have now connected families and different generations of Phi Delt alumni. What started with a few guys escaping for the weekend has turned into a camping clan of 100 or more brothers, wives and children gathering to celebrate the foundation and relationships they built as members of Phi Delta Theta and continue to nurture today.
Two founders shared their thoughts about what being a founder of Washington Epsilon means to them.
Comments from two founders:
“The defining and proud role of founding the Washington Epsilon Chapter of Phi Delta Theta provided many opportunities to me and the members of our interest group, emerging chapter, and chapter. The process to establish a chapter and come together as young men was both challenging and rewarding.”
Upon reflection, this quote rings true, “Nothing worth doing is easy.” Most importantly, what I’ve learned is that relationships made and maintained are priceless. Every year those who are able gather for Phi Camp each Memorial Day weekend.
Throughout the year we stay connected with family vacations, Seahawk games, skiing, golfing, mountain biking, hunting, and other spontaneous connections. When times get interesting, we know that we can call one another for support and advice. In sad times, we often share one another’s grief at the death of a loved one. Or even the closing of our beloved chapter.
Our sons and daughters are now entering college, and many are choosing to join a fraternity or sorority, including four legacy Phis at Eastern Washington University! We are truly blessed to have Washington Epsilon as part of our lives.”
–Kevin Dull Bond #1, Eastern Washington, ’93
“I could write reams about the impact of the Washington Epsilon Chapter on me in the thirty years since we joined together and embraced the principles of Friendship, Sound Learning, and Rectitude. New research has shown that our happiness levels in life are related to our relationships, not money or health even, but friendships. Even when I moved to a different state, through the many life events that have transpired in our lives, the founders maintain contact. And the legacy continues through our children. And sadly, three founders have entered the Chapter Grand.
We continue to find ways to be together. In fact, just this month we started the WaE Investment Club as we prepare for retirement.
My experience is wrapped up by this scripture –
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” -Psalm 133:1.
–Blake DeFrance, Bond # 13, Eastern Washington, ’93
Thoughts from three campers, and newest generation of Phis
Camden Weber has been attending Phi Camp with his uncle, Bond # 72, Kolby Schafer, Eastern Washington ’96, and cousin, Brayton since he was in the first grade.
What was initially just “a blast” became an annual weekend event that Camden looked forward to every summer. As he grew up, he said that the campers became like family, “always happy to see me, and asking about me and my family each year.”
Favorite highlights include the all-age-kickball game. We had kids from five-years-old, to the most senior Phi Delts on teams competing and laughing with one another.
“As a kid, all I knew was that these were buddies in college in this thing called Phi Delt. And what I knew, is that the memorial weekend Phi Camp was fun. And I looked forward to it every year.”
When Camden was in high school, and beginning to consider colleges, he also had a grasp on what this alumni weekend meant to his uncle and his uncle’s chapter brothers. “Even though college was back in the 1990s, they were still like best friends, they never missed a beat from year to year, catching up with one other’s life stories, sharing in the successes, and working through the struggles.”
When I realized I’d be going to Eastern Washington, I knew I’d want to be part of Phi Delt. Recruitment occurred in January 2021, and Camden is one of the newest Phikeias of the Washington Epsilon Chapter.
–Phikeia Camden Weber, nephew of Kolby Schafer, Eastern Washington ’96
According to Camden’s camp buddy, and now Washington Epsilon Big Brother, Riley Eggleston, “Phi camp has shown that the friendship and bonds within the Fraternity are for a lifetime. Since I was just a little kid, I remember the kickball games, biking around camp, and the goofy made-up games that we played all weekend long.”
“Looking back at those weekends, I now know it was a way for Phis to catch up on life, their struggles, and the watch their kids grow up! It’s crazy how big Phi Camp has become since our first camp. It gets bigger and better each year!”
–Legacy Riley Eggleston is a member at WA Epsilon. His father is Founder Keith Eggleston, Bond #6, Eastern Washington ’96
Hunter Johnson, Idaho ’22, started coming to Phi Camp when his mom started dating his now stepdad, Adam Hendricks, Eastern Washington ’04.
Like the other guys, the early attraction to camp was the all-out fun and games the kids had while at the camp.
As he aged, he began to see the connection with the life and friendships his stepdad had with his college fraternity brothers. As he got closer to college decisions, he realized a college with Phi Delta Theta would was an important consideration.
When he was admitted to the University of Idaho, and he learned there was a Phi Delta Theta Chapter, he pursued membership. By this time, some of his camp friends were also committing to Phi Delt back at Eastern Washington. He and Riley Eggleston are the same age and were entering college at different places but with some of the same intentions.
Hunter was offered a bid, and he has made it his Phi-life mission to help Idaho Alpha form their very own Phi Camp, modeled exactly like the one he grew up attending.
Hunter talked about it during recruitment. He talked about Phi Camp during new member period, and he continues to beat the drum of starting that camp upon his graduation. He is paving the way for Idaho Alpha alumni to have their very own camp, and he hopes one day to be looking back, seeing his buddies and their families grow up, just like the guys back in Washington have.
“My stepdad came to my initiation and participated in the weekend’s activities. It was a special moment and the fact that we share the Bond is even better. I knew it was worth pursuing, but now that I’m living the Phi Delt life in Idaho, I am confident that this is all only the very beginning.”
–Legacy Hunter Johnson, Idaho ’22, stepson to Adam Hendricks, ’04