Zoom get-togethers inspired ‘brothers for life’ to create gift-giving legacy
Spare change adds up to be a lasting gift for Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health graduate students
The motto of Zeta Beta Tau’s Virginia Tech chapter is “brotherhood for a lifetime.”
That rings true for 45 members of the fraternity who connected in the 1970s. Friendships formed during their time in Blacksburg extend to today. They follow each other’s lives and careers. They get together for fishing, football games, golf outings and paddling trips. And, as happens later in life, they reconnect at funerals.
After a memorial service about five years ago, a few of the members started an email list. It grew. That gave them a way to come together when everything shut down for COVID-19. “Zoom became a tool for staying in touch,” Paul Bugas ’75 said.
What started on those calls as an informal pandemic giving project grew to something more lasting. The fraternity members recently pledged to fund a fellowship that will support students in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program conducting research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
It started with spare change.
Their Zoom calls, and the fraternity’s legacy of service, inspired a platform for giving. “Some of these guys have done well in life, so we thought maybe if we came up with a virtual jar, people could throw money in it and we could disburse it back out to the common good,” Bugas said.
In his mind, Bugas pictured the giant glass jars you find at checkout counters in rural filling stations and country markets asking for change toward a cause. Anyone could donate at any time, in any amount.
Bugas alphabetized the fraternity brothers in the email chain. When the amount reached a certain milestone, Bugas would contact the next one on the list. “If it was your turn to pick I would say, ‘You’re getting $1,000. Where do you want it to go?’ We kept going until everybody got a whack at it.”
The first donations went to a food bank in Northern Virginia, a substance use and mental health treatment program in New Hampshire, and a community center serving teens in central Texas.
Donations kept coming in, and gifts kept going out. It was gratifying to the members because they were helping causes in their own backyards. They would share their progress on video calls. “Paul was diligent about getting the check to people, saying this is where the money went and sharing kind letters of appreciation back,” Greg Metcalf ’77 said.
They were inspired by the thank you messages they received and news of how the gifts were used.
One thank you that struck a chord came from Joelle Martin, a Ph.D. student in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program. She was studying a form of brain cancer that had taken the life of one of the fraternity brothers.
The Zeta Beta Tau donation supported her glioblastoma research and allowed her lab to purchase products and cell lines that hadn’t previously been used. “It was just a great experience to feel supported by the really generous donors,” Martin said in the video. “It gives us this freedom.”
Bugas handled the work of managing and sending the funds. It was efficient but informal. There were some CPAs among the members, but Bugas was not one of them. His field was natural resource sciences. He retired in 2019 after 44 years with what is now the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.
As they neared the end of the list, Bugas sent an email letting everyone know the collective giving was winding down. It had been a good ride.
But James W. “Jim” Seegers had other plans.
Seegers ’78 reached out to Metcalf immediately after Bugas’ email. How could the group continue the philanthropy while lessening the workload?
Paul’s younger brother, Daniel J. “Dan” Bugas ’77, also a Zeta Beta Tau member, exchanged ideas with Seegers and Metcalf. They were joined by James C. “Jim” Wilkins ’75, who studied accounting and was instrumental in putting together a plan. “Jim has a keen mind for all things, especially regarding finances,” said Metcalf, who retired from Henrico County Public Schools after 35 years. “He possesses a sharp wit and a generous spirit.”
By the beginning of 2022, the group had collectively given $63,250 to 36 organizations. Yet there was only one that had received more than one gift; four fraternity members had chosen the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC when it was their turn. It made sense to contact the Virginia Tech Foundation, which helped form a plan.
A number of Zeta Beta Tau members had personal or family struggles with cancer, so that became the focus. “We thought, why don’t we talk to Tech to see if we could do something on a more permanent basis?” Metcalf said.
While there was an implementation team, the energy of the brothers who remain connected 50 years after graduating fueled the stepped-up effort. About half pledged to contribute. “The response was phenomenal,” Metcalf said.
In August, the group established a fellowship in honor of Zeta Beta Tau and the fraternity brothers to support translational biology, medicine, and health graduate students.
“We are very fortunate and deeply appreciative to have such strong support from Virginia Tech alumni,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “Every dollar counts and even more importantly, the support of the Hokie nation inspires and motivates our faculty, students and staff.”
“We think Fralin Biomedical Research Institute offers three great things. It’s our alma mater, it’s our fraternity that has enriched our lives, and it’s the kind of health issues people have faced for quite some time,” Metcalf said. “We take Tech’s motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) to heart.”
“It’s been a labor of love,” Metcalf said. “We didn’t want Paul’s inspiration and hard work to go by the wayside. We want to make a difference in our lives, and for other people. Maybe one of our own will find a cure for cancer. Who knows?”