With the possible exception of the 1891 founders of New York Alpha, the young alumni who purchased the original “Hillcrest” in 1902, and those who led the effort to rebuild after the 1911 fire, no other person has been as important to the success of the chapter as Fairbairn “Gilk” Gilkeson ’14. He was chapter adviser from 1941 to 1967 and held key NY Alpha, Province Beta, and Province Nu offices from 1938 until the 1960s. In 1961, Gilk was awarded the Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by Sigma Alpha Epsilon national on any individual member.
Many brothers fondly recall his frequent weekend visits to the house–driving from Philadelphia in a series of VW Beetles, wearing a tweed sports coat (usually brown) with a pipe in hand. He was loved and respected by all and knew the names of all of the actives. His strong hand on the tiller and exemplary financial management were vital to the success of the fraternity. Besides serving the house as advisor, he was liaison between the actives and the alumni as secretary and treasurer of the New York Alpha Alumni Association. Moreover, he assisted the brothers of SAE in maintaining orderly records by using his accounting skills.
Some comments from two of the many eminent treasurers with whom he worked: “Gilk was a rock. When, as ET, I took umbrage at paying money every month to something called the NY Alpha Association (an entity I thought must be a front for the Mafia), he patiently and competently explained where the money went and how necessary it was. He could relate to an ever-changing band of brothers and the real world.” (Brian Elmer ’58)
“I was ET for a year. Gilk, great accountant that he was, always paid a lot of attention and was a great tutor. When my books were not up to date for a review, he would very politely urge me to get on the stick. All was done on great ledgers, of course. No QuickBooks to help. It must have been a good start, as I have been treasurer of many extracurricular and work-related entities. In his quiet way, Gilk always seemed to enjoy his visits with us.” (Harris Palmer ’62)
Gilk graduated in 1914 and greatly enjoyed his fraternity experience at SAE. After returning to his hometown of Philadelphia to start his accounting career and his family, he continued his interest in fraternity work helping the University of Pennsylvania SAE chapter and being elected to the Province Council in 1938. A year later, the older of his two sons, Robert, graduated from Cornell after becoming a second-generation SAE. His other son, Jack, a Bucknell SAE, was lost when his US Navy submarine was sunk in the waters off Japan early in the war.
In 1941, Gilk became chapter adviser to New York Alpha, and, along with several dedicated war veterans, supervised the rebuilding of the chapter after WWII.
In 1942, Gilk became province archon, conducting extensive visitation and leadership seminar programs, and counseling the chapters in the Province. He retired from his post as chapter adviser in 1967 when his grandson, Dick, also an SAE, graduated from Cornell.
His tenure as chapter adviser spanned over 25 years between his older son’s graduation and that of his grandson. His two other grandsons, Tom and Dave, also graduated from Cornell as SAE brothers. A fourth generation of Cornell SAE “Gilks” is still a possibility, as Dave has a 2-year-old son and is already saving for the youngster’s Cornell education.
Gilk also worked with an enthusiastic group of brothers to formulate the plans that resulted in the wing added to the house in the 1960s.
Throughout his term of service to the chapter, Gilk maintained his basic philosophy regarding his advisory position and always attempted to live up to that belief. He felt that his position was that of a counselor to whom the brothers could go for suggestions and ideas when needed, but who would not try to run the house himself. He stressed the importance of the brothers working out their own problems with as little interference as possible. This was the only way, he believed, that the fraternity could prepare the members for later life. The successful careers of so many Hillcrest leaders–EAs, EDAs, ETs, and rush and social chairs–have proven him correct.
In 1984, at 93, Gilk answered a holiday greeting from a brother as follows: “It was swell to get your note and always a pleasure to hear from alumni since I no longer get to Hillcrest. I look back at many weekends I spent there with fond memories. I put my last VW to rest last spring, as it was no longer a pleasure to drive. I am in pretty good shape for an old codger. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year. Fraternally yours, Gilk.”
Loyalty, service, and zeal defined this humble servant who remembered and loved to put aside his ever-present pipe and sing Violets and the other fraternity and Cornell songs until his death at the age of 95.
Gilk inspired many to service for SAE. He was certainly a True Gentleman.
Dick Gilkeson ’67 and Ron Demer ’59
More pictures of Fairbairn Gilkeson and other brothers from the early 1900s.