By Ruth Goodman, Editor of The Quill of Alpha Xi Delta
[Editor’s Note: The Delta recently had an opportunity to assist Alpha Xi Delta Sorority research the historic connections between our two organizations. The resulting story, published by Alpha Xi Delta in their Fall/Winter 2006 issue of The Quill, offers a unique glimpse into an interfraternal relationship Sigma Nu is proud to be a part of. What follows are edited excerpts from their original article.]
When 10 young women, whom Alpha Xi Delta members now know as their Founders, attended Lombard College in the late 1800s, they were hard-pressed to find activities to keep themselves busy outside of class. The lack of social support was not unique to this Galesburg, Ill., campus. In fact, female students across the country were finding it difficult to locate social opportunities, especially when women were admitted to college and merely tolerated instead of being welcomed as an integral part of the student body.
A local sorority called I.C. Sorosis, which later became Pi Beta Phi sorority, had been permitted to install a chapter of its organization at Lombard in 1867, which brought the fraternity system to campus and expanded the number of social opportunities for women. This was a good beginning, yet not all of the women at Lombard were interested in, or chosen to become, Pi Phis.
Harriet Louella McCollum became a Lombard freshman in 1892, surveyed the social scene and longed for something more. Harriet envisioned a new fraternity that would encourage personal friendships, promote friendlier contacts with the entire student body and actively serve the college. She shared her idea with friends Cora Bollinger, Lucy Gilmer, Eliza Curtis, Frances Cheney and Almira Cheney. In early March, 1893, this fledgling group met to consider the possibility of founding a fraternity that realized these ideals.
The women of Pi Beta Phi and the men of Phi Delta Theta, one of the two fraternities on campus, were closely aligned, so the idea of another women’s group was enthusiastically welcomed by our men at the Delta Theta Chapter. In fact, Sigma Nu had been founded at Lombard just a year earlier, so Harriet and her friends eagerly talked with our men about how to establish a new group on campus.
Attempts by other groups to organize societies on campus had failed, so the young women made sure their organization was running smoothly before it was officially unveiled to the student body. On April 17, 1893, the group of 10, which now included Bertha Cook, Julia Foster, Lewie Strong and Alice Bartlett, met a few minutes before chapel time to pin on knots of double blue ribbon and long-stemmed pink roses, which had been smuggled into the room. With sparkling eyes, flushed cheeks and proud postures, the women entered the chapel after the faculty and students had been seated and sat quietly near the back of the room. After a moment of startled silence, our Delta Theta Chapter members led congratulatory applause, welcoming Alpha Xi Delta to campus.
Sigma Nu members wanted to do something nice for our new Greek sisters to mark this special occasion, so two of our brothers outraced two Phi Delta Thetas by five minutes to buy the remaining box seats for a performance of Othello, which was being presented at the auditorium on April 25.
This outing was the first of many that the Alpha Xis and Sigma Nus enjoyed. An article in our February 1902 issue of The Delta stated, “The swellest social event of the season so far took place on Saturday eve, January 25, in the [Lombard] college gym. It was a dancing party given to the Sigs by our most faithful and loyal friends, the Alpha Xi Deltas. The gym was prettily decorated in light and dark blue, their colors, and the gold, black and white of Sigma Nu. Inviting cozy corners were arranged here and there, which of course, were always occupied. The music was excellent and everything was first class. At the last waltz the gym rang with the two frat yells. Words cannot express our appreciation of this party or tell of the delightful evening we spent.”
The following year, Alpha Xi Delta’s first convention was held at the same time we held our fifth division convention in Galesburg. It seemed only natural that our two groups would get together for a reception and dance in the Lombard gymnasium, which had once again been decorated in the colors of both organizations. As noted in their fraternity’s magazine, The Alpha Xi Delta, Vol. 1, No. 1, “The reception was set for an early hour, 5:30, and soon after that time the orchestra commenced an attractive program of waltzes and two steps. At 9 o’clock, cars were waiting to take the merry crowd downtown to their respective banquets. The boys filled one car and the girls another, but by a seemingly prearranged plan the car the girls were in ran off the track and the gallant young men offered their seats. When the cars started again, they were filled with a mixed crowd of girls and boys who enlivened the trip with fraternity songs and yells. The Alpha Xi Deltas went to Spake’s banquet hall where an elegant banquet was served. The convention closed Saturday evening with a joint rally at the Sigma Nu house. College songs were sung and several songs composed for the occasion were rendered.”
Lending a Helping Hand
The Lombard Alpha Xi Deltas became increasingly interested in becoming a national fraternity and sharing their organization with women on other campuses. The women realized that expanding Alpha Xi Delta beyond Lombard would require a constitution instead of the few simple rules they had been using to function on a local level.
Chapter member Edna Epperson asked her father who, among his attorney friends, could be trusted to keep their plans confidential and help draft a nationalization plan and a preliminary constitution. He referred her to James J. Welsh, a Sigma Nu alumnus from Lombard. On April 17, 1902, their Alpha Chapter celebrated Founders’ Day by adopting the constitution that declared the organization a national fraternity. And, that constitution, with amendments, still guides their fraternity today.
Albert H. “Bert” Wilson, an iconic Sigma Nu alumnus from our Beta Iota Chapter at Mount Union College in Ohio, was gifted at (among other things) helping local fraternities and sororities affiliate with national organizations. Therefore, and not surprisingly, he was instrumental in helping broaden Alpha Xi Delta’s reach. Brother Wilson began his association with Alpha Xi Delta in 1902 when the S.L.C. Club at Mount Union petitioned for a charter to become Gamma Chapter of Alpha Xi Delta. Brother Wilson and Mary Emily Kay, a member of S.L.C. Club, sat on her front porch and helped write that successful petition. Mary was initiated into Gamma Chapter in 1902 and became Alpha Xi Delta’s fourth Grand President (now known as National President) in 1909.
Throughout the years, Alpha Xi Delta and Sigma Nu continued to establish chapters across the country, often finding themselves at the same colleges and universities. And, since Alpha Xi Delta’s founding, our two organizations have coexisted, or currently coexist, on 109 campuses.
Could Alpha Xi Delta have become a thriving organization without receiving help from the members of Sigma Nu? Given the strength and fortitude of their 10 Founders, the probability is quite high. Regardless, the next time you talk with an Alpha Xi Delta friend, or meet one of their sisters for the first time, tell her how proud you are that Sigma Nus at Lombard College were able to extend a helping hand.
This version of the article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of The Delta.