Pike alumni give a hand to their top chef
Published: Monday, October 7, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 7, 2013 at 9:41 p.m.
On Thursday nights, when he made the best meal of the week for the fraternity house, the brothers would chant his name until he came out of the kitchen and took a bow.
"If I didn't," Early Sinclair said, "I knew they was never goin' to stop."
That was some 30 years ago when he worked as a cook at the University of Florida Pi Kappa Alpha house. On Sunday, Early, now 84, returned to the Pike's house once more to take another bow.
The cook returns
He had put a little polish on his shoes, the ones he'd bought buy-one, get-one free at Payless, because he knew today was going to be a big day. Walking back into the house at 1904 W. University Ave., he saw his kitchen again.
In the next room, a group of men began to gather. They brought photos of the good old days when their hair was long and their mustaches were full.
When all had gathered, about 25 in all, the shouts rang out. "Early, Early" they chanted.
A short, black man shuffled through the door with a white chef's hat on his head, and loud applause erupted. Their cook had returned.
A Chance Meeting
He had worked there for about 10 years, watching the freshmen enter the house as boys and graduate as men. Early admits he's forgotten some of their faces. But few, if any, forgot Early. Tim Anderson didn't.
Anderson, 55, was a Pike member in the late '70s when the drinking age was 18 and recreational drug use earned a slap on the wrist.
This past June, Anderson saw a man sitting alone at The Clock restaurant drinking coffee and enjoying his oatmeal and toast. He knew immediately it was Early.
Anderson and his wife sat with Early and reminisced. They learned that his wife, Theresa, had died seven years ago and that he was living off of his Social Security benefits and was having problems with his knees and hips.
Early said he didn't recall Anderson at first but he remembered many of the stories he shared. Anderson insisted that Early come to the Pikes' annual homecoming reunion that is attended by members who were at UF in the mid '70s through the '80s.
Cooking from scratch
Early lived up to his name. Five days a week he'd get up at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the Pike house, so his wife, who worked there, too, could start frying eggs for the boys.
Ernie Cox, who lived in the Pike house from 1981 to 1985, remembers talking to Early and his wife at breakfast. Some of the guys would stumble in after having too much to drink the night before. Early would ask those who were late if they were hungry. Then get a watch, he'd say.
"And I would talk to them like they was my child or somethin'," Early said. "Some of 'em I would."
Breakfast was the smallest group to serve — about 50 or 60 would be awake to eat. For lunch about 180 men would show up, and dinner would have about 150.
He had to feed them all from scratch.
His daughter La Shay Hickmon, 47, remembers how she and her sister would cut up all the fruit for the big cookouts for the Gator football games because her dad refused to use canned goods.
"I tried to feed them the best I know how," he said.
Early doesn't cook anymore. His knees are bad, so it's difficult for him to stand long enough in the kitchen. And his daughter is worried that he might fall and accidentally grab a hot pan of grease off the stove, so she tries to prepare meals for him that can be heated in the microwave.
He said he doesn't know how or why his parents named his so accurately, because he never got to ask them. He was born in the country town of LaCrosse to a mother he never knew — she died in childbirth. His father followed her about seven years later.
Growing up, Early lived with relatives. He came to Gainesville to be with his sister. Then he met the woman who would become his wife and never left.
Early was looking for a job when the position at the Pike house became open. The man who had been the cook was always late and drinking liquor on the job.
So, he asked them to try out and before long he was their cook.
The fight was on
After Anderson found Early in June, the checks started showing up in the mail to help Early with some medical bills and living expenses. Anderson had alerted Pike alumni of his meeting with their old cook, and so the word spread. Before long everyone wanted to help.
Steve Huntsinger, 54, looked through the 2,500 photos he had salvaged from an old water-damaged Pike photo album. He found just one of Early.
So, he turned that photo into an e-card that was emailed to the fraternity members. And then he turned that into a plaque with the picture that read, "You were there for us then and now we are here for you."
The plaque was given to Early at the reunion where they made him an honorary brother.
Seated in front of all the Pike brothers, Early told them he didn't recognized everybody, but he remembered the food throwing.
On occasion, when Jim Eccles arrived in the dining room dressed in a wetsuit with a mask and fins, the fight was on. Food would fly everywhere, tables would be overturned and dishware would shatter. The blissful sounds of fraternal bonding, as one Pike waiter Joe Vargo would call it.
During one particular food fight in 1979, Vargo ran into Early on his way back to the kitchen for more ammo.
"Be careful, now," Early said to him. "We need them bowls for tomorrow night's dinner."
From one generation to the next
In the corner of the room, some of this year's Pike pledge class had gathered to see Early and the older Pike brothers.
They looked on as their counterparts recounted more stories. Cox told the pledges that one day they'd understand why this day was significant to the Pike alumni. He emphasized the importance of serving others and brotherhood.
"The Pikes during this time were the dominant force on campus," he told them.
The fraternity has been building itself back up after facing legal troubles in 2006 when it was suspended by UF's judicial system for having an unregistered party. The court said Pike members disregarded the possible endangerment of an individual or group and served alcohol to minors.
The Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed the ruling. But the damage was already done and their house was then rented out to another fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon.
In the fall of 2010, the fraternity was officially allowed back on campus and initiated a new pledge class of 92 men that November.
Cox told the crowd about the renovations they planned to do for the Pike house kitchen. He is the president of the Pike's House Corporation that oversees the building.
He asked the alumni to get out their checkbooks. They want to raise $80,000 in 30 days.
The fraternity now has its meals brought in by a catering company. The system is not cost-effective, so the project will save money in the long run, according to Huntsinger.
But more importantly, they'll have their own Early. Although no one could ever replace him, Huntsinger said.
One person was missing
Early bought eight packs of thank you cards to send out to all the people who attended the reunion. He's already sent personal thank-you cards to everyone who contacted him.
He said the only thing missing from the day was his wife, Theresa. She always stood behind him with a smile when he'd come out of the kitchen to take his bow.
She died Sept. 15, 2006, about a week before her 62nd birthday. They had been married for 39 years.
But although she couldn't be there, Early still felt like she had been next to him.
"Maybe this is my imagination," he said. "But I felt the warmness."