COLUMBIA — A group of men and women, almost all in their 60s, are seated at a long table atop the roof at Harpo's Bar and Grill. The mid-evening temperature is cool, but the sun is shining intensely; they wear sunglasses or squint, some holding a hand over their eyes to see.
They're immersed in lively conversation and waiting. When a group of couples emerges from the dark stairwell, everyone rises from their chairs and goes to greet the new arrivals with hugs and handshakes. One of them mentions a "secret grip."
They’re the 1970 pledge class of Alpha Gamma Sigma, and they gathered Friday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their graduation.
Alpha Gamma Sigma is a social and professional agriculture fraternity that began at MU as a local fraternity in 1923, according to its website. In 1931 they joined with The Ohio State University's Tau Gamma Phi to create a national fraternity, designating MU's chapter as the Beta chapter. During this pledge class' time in the fraternity, the organization had a total of six chapters across Midwestern universities.
The group spent much of the evening laughing and sharing fond memories of its time in college. When reminiscing at the table about their frequent visits to Broadway Diner, the brothers and their wives chimed in rapid-fire, laughing as they did.
"Back in the day it was called the Minute Inn."
"It used to be up the hill, and now they’ve moved it down."
"We called it 'the Greasy Spoon'..."
"...and it was so greasy it slid down the hill."
They did some catching up, too, but more often they were quick to commend each other on their accomplishments, of which they were well informed. Rather than introducing themselves, they made introductions for each other, referring to one brother, Dr. Allen Knehans, an Oklahoma University professor, as "probably the most famous of us all."
They listed off the professional titles of others: Neal Bredehoeft, former president of the National Soybean Association; Don Nikodim, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association; or Gary Marshall, chief executive officer of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, among others.
Dennis Stewart of Lenexa, Kan., said the pledge class brothers were a "very cohesive group, and we have retained that cohesiveness over 40 years."
"We went to everyone's wedding,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had the opportunity to go to one of our class member’s funeral. We stay together, we communicate. It’s a unique bunch."
Bill Coen of Columbia said a few of the pledge class members began planning the reunion about six months ago. The group stayed the weekend, taking a tour of its fraternity house Saturday morning followed by a walk around campus, with a banquet to be held at a Jefferson City winery.
Many of the brothers' wives also came to the reunion. A lot of them — Jean Knehans estimated "around half" — dated their spouses in their college days. Some of them, like Jean, were a part of the fraternity's little sister organization, the Daughters of Demeter, which she jokingly referred to as a "dating pool."
David and Nancy Riekhof of metropolitan Louisville, Ind., met in college as well. Nancy said they married only a few months after graduating in 1974, but they initially had competition from another couple in the fraternity.
"We had to move our wedding date because someone else already had the one we wanted," she said.
While a few from the class live in Columbia, many have not been back for several years. The brothers were thankful to all be back together again, as well as being able to visit their old fraternity home and MU as a group. They consistently referred to each other as "lifelong friends" and "the go-to guys."
"I'm just so proud of our class for what they’ve done and how they’ve contributed to agriculture," Coen said. "We just have a good bunch of guys that all came together at the right time. It’s a hell of a group of guys."
Supervising editor is Mary Ryan.