The Daily Illini

After three decades, fraternity chef retires to battle cancer

By Abby Paeth, Assistant features editor

A picture hangs on the first floor staircase of the Sigma Phi Delta fraternity.

In this picture, a man stands with long, blonde hair touching his shoulders, wearing a red hockey jersey that has the fraternity’s letters sewn across his chest. The frame is a constant reminder to the brothers of Sigma Phi Delta of the great service that the photo’s subject, Jim Callahan, provided for them during the past three decades.

Callahan started working as a chef for the fraternity in 1986 and has since grown to become an integral part of the house. Earlier this semester, he announced his plans to retire in 2017, but things have since changed. Callahan recently expedited his original plan for retirement because of his ongoing battle with lung cancer.

He battled complications with cancer in recent years, but the brothers of the fraternity have only now become aware about the severity of his medical state. He spoke with the fraternity’s president and junior in Engineering, Carl Remler, about his heightened condition before telling the rest of the house.

“Before I got to how I’m going to deal with this as a president or as a member of the fraternity, it was just like, ‘Oh, man, this a friend of mine, and this is going to really suck,'” Remler said. “My heart went out to him instantly.”

Brody Schofield, pledge master of Sigma Phi Delta and junior in Engineering, was excited about graduating from the University at the same time that Callahan originally planned to retire. He felt it would be fun to leave school with Callahan, but now realizes that it’s no longer possible.

“When he announced that he had been diagnosed, it was just a shock. I didn’t really know what to say at that time. I was just blown away,” Schofield said. ‘This man who has been around for my entire college career, and years back, and all of a sudden he’s just not going to be here anymore was a huge shock to me. It was really tough.”

Callahan has made an impact on hundreds of members that have passed through the fraternity over the 30 years he has spent there. Callahan’s wife started a gofundme.org campaign to help raise money for his treatment. The original goal was to raise around $700, but with the help of the Sigma Phi Delta alumni, the Callahans raised almost $5,000.

Callahan isn’t a “father figure” for many of the members of the house, but is instead just “one of the guys.” In 1996, Callahan went through the rituals and ceremonies of the fraternity to become an honorary brother.

“I would like him to be remembered as … less of a father figure and more of a brother,” Remler said. “People go through this fraternity in four years, and it will have an awesome impact on them. He had the luxury of prolonging that for a few decades, and I think as a result, he was a more of a brother than any of us can ever argue that we are.”

One of Schofield’s favorite memories of Callahan was his banter with the brothers of the fraternity, particularly when Schofield and his paternal brother would race each other down to the kitchen for meals.

“If you were the second Schofield down, he would just immediately tell you, “Oh, you can’t have anything. Your brother has already been here,'” Schofield said. “Every day for a year, he would tell us this, but the joke never got old. I think that’s one of the things that just defines who Jim is because somehow that joke never got old.”

Andy Hill, alumni president of Sigma Phi Delta, lived in the house the year Callahan was hired. For Hill, Callahan was a large step up from the fraternity’s previous chef because his cooking was much better, he was a huge Illini fan and he showed much more interest in the fraternity.

“He said he could cook a hog for Homecoming one time, and he brought in a rotisserie and cooked a hog on our lawn,” Hill said. “None of us knew that he could do that, and it turned out super great, too. I can’t believe we only did it once.”

Many of the members most admired Callahan’s ability to connect with the brothers. The chef listened whenever someone wanted to talk and always found a joke to say to ease the moment.

“It’s a good way to just distract yourself from all of the stresses of engineering and any related coursework,” Schofield said. “Coming downstairs is almost like a safe space, where you don’t need to worry about classes. You can just come downstairs and say whatever you want, and Jim just rolls with whatever you’re saying.”

Sigma Phi Delta has decided not to hire another chef. Instead, Hendrick House will cater for the fraternity.

“I’m glad (the house isn’t hiring a new chef) because having another chef would just be so weird,” Schofield said. “I’m glad we’re not replacing him because he’s really that one person that you can’t find another of.”

The house doesn’t feel the same for many of the brothers. Most of them feel as if they’ve lost their connection to the past and the off­ campus world with Callahan’s departure. With Callahan’s advanced medical condition, the brothers of Sigma Phi Delta want to do everything to ensure Callahan knows his work was appreciated.

Callahan’s service has been something special for those in the house. Many of the brothers, like Remler, have just now come to appreciate everything that he meant to their lives.

“I would hope that he is remembered as one of the best, if not the best, brother we’ve ever had, and I hope that he is never forgotten,” Remler said.

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