It was the first week of classes at UNC Charlotte in August, and all the members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity were busily setting up for their biggest event of the year: The Balanced Man Banquet.
They were getting ready to present college scholarships to several male UNCC students to reward them for their excellence in academics and extracurricular activities.
Then one phone call from sophomore Jack Bretz to his big-brother senior, Hazen Warlick, changed the entire night for several members and the entire year, if not life, for the whole brotherhood of the fraternity.
“I thought he was calling to tell me he was going to be late getting to the banquet,” Warlick said.
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Instead, Bretz, 19, was calling from the hospital to tell him he had just been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“I thought he would think I was joking when I called him. I mean, who gets a phone call like that at our age?” Bretz said.
He also admitted that that night was the first time he had ever cried.
“I came to realize that ‘I’m that guy who has leukemia. Your whole identity has to change.’”
When Bretz broke the news, Warlick said, “I stepped outside the banquet and couldn’t speak for 30 seconds.”
And then Bretz recalled the next words his big brother spoke: “Where are you?”
Exactly at that time, SigEp President Michael Brennan, 20, noticed Warlick’s face and knew something was wrong. When Warlick told him about Bretz, they both knew where they needed to be.
Even though Brennan was scheduled to speak that night, his priority was his fraternity brother. The next thing Bretz remembers is looking up and seeing Warlick along with his girlfriend and Michael Brennan standing at his bedside.
The word quickly spread throughout the membership during the banquet. Ian Petrere, 20, remembers getting the news via a text from Brennan. His reaction was a little different.
“I got angry,” he said. “And instead of walking to my apartment after the banquet I ran the whole way and spent the entire night researching this disease and ways we could help Jack.”
A fire had been lit within the entire fraternity that night, he said, and they all knew they wanted to act immediately.
So Petrere came up with the idea to “Shave a SigEp” for donations and to send the money to the American Cancer Society in Bretz’s name. They decided to make it an event around campus.
Individual SigEps volunteered to have their heads shaved publicly if they each received a monetary donation goal in their specific jars that were set up on tables around campus. They all exceeded their goals, and instead of raising their combined goal of $5,000, they received close to $7,000.
So on Sept. 20, a slew of SigEps draped in black salon capes sat in chairs lined up along the student union and had their heads shaved by volunteers from the campus hair salon.
Bretz, who has withdrawn from school to receive treatments, was there sporting a big smile and a great attitude as he also volunteered to shave some heads.
“They’ve really been a blessing,” he said. “When you get sick you start seeing how much people really care for you. I didn’t know people cared this much. It’s helped me to stay positive and to cope.”
Bretz said his treatments have been successful and his body is responding well. He hopes to return to school next semester, but if he can’t, he definitely expects to return by next year.
He and his fraternity brothers stay in constant contact and were heading out to play golf after the Observer interview.
Fraternity members are talking about continuing this event every year.
“This by far is the most amazing and important thing we have ever done.” said Brennan.
Petrere summed up the fraternity’s collective philosophy on the subject: “As long as it is important to Jack, it’s important to us. And that’s not going to change. It’s what we’re founded on. It’s what we stand for. It’s what we live for. It’s who we are.”
In the words of Warlick, “We are not a ‘frat.’ We are a ‘fraternity.’”