Schenectady County

Frat reunites at Chuck Wagon Diner

Word about the Chuck Wagon Diner spread quickly around the Alpha Chi Sigma house.

Word about the Chuck Wagon Diner spread quickly around the Alpha Chi Sigma house.

Meals weren’t served at the professional chemistry fraternity on Fridays or Saturdays, so the graduate residents attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were left to forage.

For Bill Pittman, that meant a trip to the Chuck Wagon Diner for a cup of hot coffee and perhaps a taste of Colonel Sanders’ original recipe. Pittman was among the first frat members to show up at the diner, which opened during his first year at the university in 1956. The restaurant was within walking distance of campus, the food was good and the jukebox hummed with rockabilly.

“Right after it opened, I came down for a meal,” Pittman said Thursday. “I guess word kind of got back.”

Soon, the Chuck Wagon was practically an institution for Pittman, his housemates and scores of others living in Champaign. The eatery was only the 14th franchise to sell Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the recipe kept the diner bustling.

Pittman graduated from the university in 1960 and didn’t give the Chuck Wagon much thought until it showed up in Schenectady County nearly five decades later. The retired chemical patent attorney had been living in Niskayuna when he first saw the news coverage about the diner coming to Princetown from a storage warehouse in Michigan.

“I said, ‘My god, this was the place I used to come and eat,’ ” he recalled.

And when it reopened for business at its new location last spring, Pittman knew he had to share the piece of college-era nostalgia with some of his former classmates.

This week, Pittman and several other chemistry graduates from the university hosted their 50-year reunion in Schenectady County, almost solely so that they could take a trip down memory lane at the diner.

“This is a great place when you need a memory fix,” said Bob Tuite, Pittman’s old frat roommate, who went on to work for Kodak.

Pittman was a vocal advocate for bringing the reunion to the Chuck Wagon after seeing how well the diner was restored by owners Sally and Tom Ketchum.

Other alumni agreed.

“He’s thought of nothing else since it moved,” said John Carlson, who worked as a pharmacist at Johnson & Johnson after graduating. “[Pittman] had all these plans about this place.”

In fact, lunch at the diner Thursday was the centerpiece for the reunion. After finishing their meals, the group took a few moments to revel in their old haunt.

For the alumni, it was like taking a trip back in time: the row of counter stools, the jukebox, even the songs it played.

Everything seemed almost as if it had been frozen in time and somehow transplanted nearly 900 miles away.

“It looks just like it did when it was in Champaign,” Pittman said. “Only there’s no Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

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