Judge Hearn’s legacy is proof that you don’t need an official title to transform an organization.
The story of Judge George Hearn (Georgia) is a modern history of the Mu Chapter itself. It’s a story of resurgence, peaks and valleys, and earning influence the right way. It’s a story about lowercase “l” leadership – proof that you don’t need a title to transform an organization.
Impact on Mu
Judge Hearn’s fraternity experience began with a phone call from a certain Mu Chapter alumnus who convinced him to become a Sigma Nu. “If Sigma Nu is good enough for me, I hope it’ll be good enough for you,” he told him. The caller was Senator Herman Talmadge.
From that moment forward Judge Hearn’s Sigma Nu career would span six decades, during which time he played a key role in at least two resurgences of his own Mu Chapter at University of Georgia. The Judge and his contemporaries were not happy with the way things were going with the chapter post-Vietnam. The chapter had little interest in engaging with alumni – not even to tailgate on football game days.
During the Fall 1975 semester the chapter started experiencing positive change. “The chapter leadership wanted to make it more like a true fraternity than a club,” recalls Robert Durham, past Regent of Sigma Nu. “We would go out and engage with alumni at tailgates. All of a sudden more of these alumni would show up. By bringing his contemporaries back to the house he showed us he was proud of us.”
The chapter eventually reached a manpower just shy of 80, one of the largest chapters on the University of Georgia campus. This is when Judge Hearn gave Robert the now famous ‘Obligation to Excellence’ message that would guide the national fraternity’s strategic goals beginning with Robert’s term as Regent.
Some struggles returned in the mid-2000s when the chapter experienced a rare low point in performance and membership. Low manpower, no house, no reputation, no money, and no alumni support. When many asked what the chapter was doing there at all, Judge Hearn’s wise counsel once again helped the group stay on track. Focus on what you can control, he always said. “Those who can, do; and those who can’t should get out of the way.”
When the chapter reorganized and started an Alumni Advisory Board in the 2004-05 academic year, Chapter Advisor Michael Barry knew Judge Hearn would be involved. “Everyone else wanted to be on the board to just hear what he would say,” Michael says. “He attracted other leaders.”
The Judge was known for his quotes and one-liners, and one in particular stuck with the newly reorganized chapter: Vires Acquirit Eundo (“It gains strength by continuing”), a motto he coined for the collegians who committed themselves to reviving the chapter in 2005.
From that moment forward the Mu Chapter’s resurgence would barrel ahead and never look back. Manpower surged while chapter members earned top campus leadership positions. Years of hard work resulted in three consecutive Rock Chapter awards and recognition by the North American Interfraternity Conference as one of the top fraternity chapters in the entire nation.
The Judge had a unique leadership style that would tacitly expect the officers to strive for excellence. Hearn would ask the chapter officers questions about the chapter – whether they were using the Ritual and countless other questions about the operations of the chapter. “He had that influence on the chapter officers. He gave us confidence to do our own first capital campaign,” Robert recalls. “His influence was to tell alumni to start going back to the house. ‘You’ll be proud of the chapter,’ he would tell them.”
Judge Hearn’s leadership also illuminated the importance of campus involvement, once urging the officers to run for IFC so they could positively influence the direction of student governance. “UGA believes in student self-governance. You need to be part of that governance if you want to excel,” he told them. This advice would eventually help brothers of Mu Chapter earn spots in UGA’s Gridiron Secret Society, an achievement previously unrealistic given the chapter’s lack of influence in campus affairs.
Judge Hearn’s personal career success contributed to the rapport he had with the chapter officers, as Michael remembers: “We looked up to him. The word ‘can’t’ wasn’t in his vocabulary. He would help you understand how you get around the mental block. He wouldn’t do it for you. He was quick to praise you, quick to correct when you needed it. He was always there to support as long as you did the right thing.”
“He wasn’t going to hear about how we couldn’t do something, how we weren’t big enough, etc. He wanted to know what you were going to do about it.”
The more the chapter improved the more passion he would get, and the more passionate the chapter would get in return. It created this positive cycle that reinforced itself.
Leaving a mark on the national fraternity
Judge Hearn was a local chapter leader first. He had an impact nationally because his local chapter was successful, as Robert points out: “National involvement gave us a chance to spread his message. Few would be willing to listen to these ideas had Mu Chapter not excelled locally.”
“This whole ‘Obligation to Excellence’ idea can be traced back to him,” Robert says. “We moved College of Chapters to January and changed the location back to Virginia because we weren’t satisfied. The curriculum was revised to focus on collegiate Commanders, with emphasis on equipping our best leaders to hold their peers accountable. We created the Best Practices Library so chapters could learn from each other. Anyone who’s used the BPL was influenced by Judge Hearn.”
Other chapters experiencing a low point have much to learn from the Judge’s wisdom. “He wasn’t going to hear about how we couldn’t do something, how we weren’t big enough, etc. He wanted to know what you were going to do about it,” Michael says.
“If you believe in the concept of excellence then you need to be willing to go out and find help from others. This is a concept Judge Hearn imparted in us.”
Robert echoed a similar sentiment: “If your chapter is in bad shape and you haven’t engaged with Rock chapter delegates at convention, then you’re missing a major opportunity to improve.”
Judge Hearn’s affinity for Sigma Nu as a national brotherhood culminated with his attendance at the 66th Grand Chapter in Nashville last summer – only a few weeks before his passing. “I am going to Nashville in a passenger seat or a pine box, but I am going to Grand Chapter.”
The Judge expected excellence from the chapter and he made sure they knew it. He never hid being a fraternity man; he was first to tell everyone how proud he was. And the chapter shared a mutual respect, as demonstrated by all the brothers who lined the aisles at Judge Hearn’s memorial service in Monroe, Ga. Attendees at the graveside service locked hands and recited the short Creed.
Judge Hearn entered Chapter Eternal on September 5, 2014, at the age of 80. His funeral services were attended by hundreds of friends, family, and Sigma Nu brothers, all of whom recounted lessons they learned from the Judge.
“Keep a positive outlook, tell the truth, do what’s right. Those are the key messages I’ll always remember from the Judge,” Michael says.
Robert says he will remember the Judge as a wise man who freely dispensed his wisdom. “After he died we would hear more stories from people in his Monroe community,” Robert says, reflecting on the memorial service. “We heard story after story about Hearn counseling young men in his community – Sigma Nu or not.” Judge Hearn went out of his way to support young people his entire career – from Lt. Col. in the military to football coach to a judge in the family and juvenile court system. He closed his living will with a fitting quote – another one of his favorite sayings: Sic Vos Non Vobis (“Not for ourselves but for others”).
“If you believe in the concept of excellence then you need to be willing to go out and find help from others. This is a concept Judge Hearn imparted in us,” Robert says. “Whether he had a title or not, people knew he cared. He wanted to help these young men develop into better leaders.”