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On November 4 Penn State Phi Sigs will gather to celebrate a life dedicated to Phi Sigma Kappa. Robert W. "Bear" Koehler '58 retired this year as adviser and as treasurer of the alumni board after 50 years of volunteer service to the fraternity he loves. On the 4th, friends and fellow alumni will honor him with a dinner at the Atherton Hotel in State College.


How much does Bear love our fraternity? Here's what he had to say about his days as an active, "I can remember waking up in the morning and feeling so lucky that I lived at Phi Sig."

And about his willingness to devote so much time to the chapter: "It seems to have been my calling. The years went by 'in swiftness fleet' and it doesn't seem very long since I was a pledge. The actives have always accepted me and, even now when I am the age of their grandparents, they seem happy to have me at the house."

His love for all things Phi Sig is returned ten-fold. We're all happy to have Bear at the house. In addition to his warm presence, the house benefits from his experience. "While many of us on the board have to deal with the issues of the day that are new to us, we often found that Bear had already experienced the same issue with a previous generation of young Phi Sigs," says Matthew Hilbert '81, alumni board member. "His experience has been invaluable in getting us through some tough issues."

Bear was first elected treasurer of the alumni association after his graduation from Penn State in 1958. He has served almost continuously until last fall, when he decided it was time to retire. For 45 years he served Phi Sig as advisor, including three years when he was a PhD candidate at Michigan State University. Bear has attended most of the national fraternity's conclaves, leadership schools and conventions since his first one in 1958 in French Lick, Indiana.

Bear's love affair with Phi Sig began as an undergrad, when he found the house to be the "ideal place" to grow up. "We all sensed that we were held in suspension, somewhere between childhood and manhood," he says. "We could operate without supervision, but we were not financially independent. While most of us...realized that this was the time to 'break away.'"

Bear says he had an excellent group of people to grow up with. "We all had different abilities which we could use for the benefit of the fraternity," he explains. "I was an accounting major and really enjoying practicing my trade as treasurer."

Bear shared a few of his favorite memories from his days as an undergrad. Bear remembers...

  • "Having to awaken recalcitrant brothers (especially Joe Peden) for 8 and 9 o'clock classes.
  • "Raking leaves onto sheets, putting them in a 1931 Ford pick up and taking them to the local dump about seventy miles out of town.
  • "Our cook, 'The Bove,' cooked breakfast five mornings a week. She would ask how we wanted our eggs and we would sit around a large kitchen table to eat them.
  • "Alumni coming to the house on Friday night on homecoming weekend and again after the game on Saturday for cocktails and dinner. The alumni blended in well and served as mentors (before this was a word) quite naturally."

The memories don't end at graduation. During his years as an advisor, Bear has "happily observed" many Phi Sig brothers develop their leadership skills through their active involvement with the fraternity. He enjoys watching as each young man learns more about himself and grows in confidence and skill. "Some who were very nervous about the thought of public speaking learned to express themselves rather eloquently in chapter meetings, often when supporting one side of a controversial issue," he notes as an example.

Bear is ready for retirement. He retired from his teaching position in the accounting department at Penn State four years ago and is already learning the joys of more free time. "I have been able to go to Europe off season, to the beach in September, and to stay in Acapulco for longer than the spring break week," he reports.

Bear still uses his office at Penn State to advise an honorary fraternity and a professional fraternity. He is also the chairman of our departmental Undergraduate Policy Committee and the liaison with recruiters of accounting graduates. Bear also evaluates applications for the Schreyer Honors College. Outside of Penn State, Bear is a liturgist and serves on the Finance Committee for St. Paul's United Methodist Church.

"When I awaken, I have something to do," Bear says. "But my busyness does not preclude me from lingering over morning coffee or from taking 2 hour lunches with other retired friends."

Bear sums up his 50+ year involvement with Phi Sigma Kappa: "I am proud to have been associated with such a fine group of men," he says. "Everyone who has passed through the chapter has left his mark. Everyone has a worthy story to tell."

On November 4th, all the stories will be about Bear.

Alumni Share Memories of Bear

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"Phi Sig was an important part of my college experience and Bear was an important part of Phi Sig. Whenever I talk with my Phi Sig friends we mention Bear, he is a legend. I don't have any specific stories, I remember playing racquet ball with him and hitting him in the back of the head with the ball." - Rich Nonini '69 (aka Bruno)

"[Bear] is certainly one of the most unforgettable characters I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I'll never forget the extravagant dinner he prepared for my group of graduating seniors. Notable were the steak tar-tar and sweetened beer. Near the end of the evening, there was a particular fellow who could not handle another drink and yet could not refuse such a gracious host when offered a cordial of his best liquor. I wonder if Bear ever found it on the floor under his sofa?" - Fatty Arbuckle '81

"My favorite Bear memories include: 1) During my Junior year, the officer's dinner at Bear's apartment. After several rounds of martinis, JJ fell through Bear's prized glass bar; 2) Anytime Bear tells the 'Balls of the Bull' joke; and 3) The 'martinis are like breasts' joke." - Chris Kane '91

"I remember going to a Phi Sig National Convention in 1985 with Bear. We were out partying one night with Tony Fusaro, and Bear got "asked to leave" Tony's suite (current Grand President). Bear replied , "I don't know why- it's only 5:00 am. There's plenty of time to still drink." Tony Fusaro gave Bear a whole bottle of Dewars as to get him out of the suite so Tony and his wife could go to sleep. Bear got back to our room and woke me up saying" Get up Stanell lets drink!!" I went back to sleep... Bear drank....That was our adviser...
Best of Luck Bear!" - Bill "Moth Head" Stanell, '87

I was deeply disappointed that I needed to cancel my trip to State College for Bear's retirement soiree. I'm certain that it was a memorable one with LOTs of tales (not whale's tales) about his exploits.
I have many. The three that are the most vivid are:

1) The wonderful rum cake desert for his traditional house officer's dinner at his condo – more rum than cake! Can I have the recipe?

2) Bear always toke a gentle but firm hand in guiding the decisions of the members, especially as they affected financials. His suggestions were always worded carefully, "I'd suggest that you...." or "You may want to consider...." One evening during our house meeting we were about to take a vote on something or other financial and Bear, with out preamble or a raise of his hand said firmly and loudly, "NO! You can't do that!" His uncharacteristic outburst made us realize that we were about to do something really, really stupid with our funds. Needless to say, after we got over being startled, we very wisely voted down the idea.

3) In '67 or '68 Bear was teaching one of the beginning accounting courses: Accounting 102 or something like that. Because of the large number of students, the course was taught via CCTV with small classrooms being monitored by grad students. If memory serves, this was one of the first classes taught "remotely" on campus.

During one of the lectures Bear, - change that - Dr Kohler - was presenting a point that had five parts to it. For emphasis he raised his left hand with the palm facing him and the fingers out stretched so that he could count down each point. As he explained each point he lowered one of the finger. The thumb went first with the pinkie finger being lowered next. With that chosen as the second digit to be lowered you could get a sense of anticipation in the classroom for the final outcome... Sure enough he made the third and fourth point leaving his middle finger proudly standing erect aimed directly into the camera and all of the students. Someone in the studio must have remarked about the pose because Bear slowly turned his head and seeing the signal that he had created, paused very slightly, looked back into the camera and giggled! The classroom erupted in laughter. To this day, I still wonder, did he know what he was doing or not?

I have attached one picture from that era. It shows three Phi-Sig brothers in front of my house, dressed and waiting to go somewhere as NROTC midshipmen.

From left to right: Rich Cordier, Tim McCoy and me. All from the class of '69.

- Keith Rodwell '69