Whitman History 101: Greek life

Greek LifeThe members of Phi Mu in 1925. The sorority became Whitman’s first national Greek organization in 1913.

Whitman College’s Greek system celebrates 100 years of national Greek affiliation in 2013. The college’s sororities and fraternities owe their existence to a shortage of dormitory space. The 1909 petition from the Illiad Club to Phi Delta Theta fraternity noted that the approximately 100 female students and 150 male students could not all be housed in existing campus dormitories, so a number of the men had to find housing in Walla Walla. Prior to 1909, student requests to form national fraternities and sororities had been denied by faculty members and administrators, who wanted to maintain the social situation provided by a dormitory living arrangement.

The male students who lived off-campus during the 1909-1910 academic year enjoyed their group living experience enough that they once again petitioned the faculty and Board of Overseers regarding the establishment of national Greek organizations. The faculty and overseers granted students a two-year probationary period, from 1910 to 1912, to form Greek organizations. During this time, students had to prove that they could preserve the college’s ideals and add value to the college. The faculty and overseers formed a special committee to study the issue. In June of 1912, just after Commencement, the Trustees and Overseers officially granted approval for the permanent establishment of fraternities and sororities on campus. To ensure the highest standards of organization, the students were required to seek national affiliation.

Greek life formal dance invitation
An invitation to a Phi Mu formal dance from 1925.

scrapbook
A Beta Theta Pi scrapbook from the 1920s. Otto West Anderson ’27, whose name appears on the cover, was the father of actor Adam West (Bill Anderson ’51), of “Batman” fame.

Greek system centennial celebration brings alumni and students together

ReunionBeta Theta Pi Alumni Relations Chairman Dylan Bodet ’14 shares a laugh with a few alumni as they browse through photos from the fraternity’s archives.

It seems the “final frontier” fascinates through the ages.

Wesley Sparagon ’15 of the Gamma Epsilon chapter of Sigma Chi said he had fun connecting with Sig alumni during the Spring Alumni Reunion on April 27, 2013. In fact, a few alumni stopped by the Sig house at 1005 Isaacs Ave. to see their old rooms and reminisce.
“We talked together about ‘Star Trek,’ so it was a merging of generations,” Sparagon said with a laugh.

A special event that weekend marked the Whitman College Greek System’s 100th anniversary. On the Cordiner Hall lawn, Greek alumni mingled with current fraternity and sorority members and enjoyed refreshments while perusing scrapbooks of historical photos that students assembled.

Pete Reid ’49 addressed the crowd at the centennial celebration. “This 100 years of Greeks has done great things for Whitman College,” he said, “and we hope it will do even better things in the next 100 years.”

This decision set off a flurry of activity within the Greeks. Each group began to research the national organizations to determine which one best aligned with their values and goals. The Illiad Club chose Phi Delta Theta, and Whitman’s chapter was installed in 1915. Another fraternity, Delta Phi Delta, affiliated itself with Beta Theta Pi in 1916. A third men’s group was granted a charter in 1916. Originally known on campus as the Commoners, the group decided to pursue membership with Sigma Chi in 1919, and they changed their name to Tau Delta Sigma. They were installed as Sigma Chi in 1923. In 1925, the college approved the charter of a fourth local fraternity called Alpha Omicron Kappa. In 1930, this fraternity became Tau Kappa Epsilon.

The women at Whitman were just as eager to form sororities, so they also researched and petitioned national organizations. A local sorority called Gamma Kappa petitioned Delta Gamma and was installed at Whitman in 1916. Another women’s group called Beta Sigma became a chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma in 1918. Kappa Alpha Theta did not make an appearance on the Whitman campus until they chartered a group in 1957.

Several national Greek organizations have been on campus but no longer have active chapters. These Greeks include Delta Delta Delta sorority (1923-2005), Alpha Chi Omega sorority (1928-1983), Delta Tau Delta fraternity (1948-1994) and Zeta Pi sorority (1988-2000). At one time, Alpha Phi was in this grouping, having had a chapter on campus from 1948 to 1979. The sorority was reinstalled in March 2012.

dance
Members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity dance in this archive photo from around the 1940s.

If you have been paying attention to installation dates, you might be wondering why 1913 is the 100-year anniversary of national Greek organizations on campus, as Phi Delta Theta appears to hold that honor with their installation date of 1915. There is a missing group in the inactive category that deserves special mention. In the Whitman archives is a handwritten request dated Dec. 6, 1912. Fourteen Whitman women sent the letter to the Board of Deans to ask permission to seek national affiliation with Phi Mu. Interestingly, they asked the Board of Deans to keep their request to petition Phi Mu a secret until Phi Mu issued a decision. While it is likely the men of the Illiad Club or the women of Gamma Kappa fully expected to be the first national Greek organization on campus, they were all surprised when, in June of 1913, Phi Mu became Whitman’s first national Greek organization. The Phi Mu chapter closed in in in 1955, but Phi Mu’s 1913 installation does mark the beginning of 100 years of national Greek affiliation at Whitman.

In the early Greek life documents and scrapbooks, it’s evident that the reasons students chose to affiliate with national Greek organizations in 1913 are the same reasons Whitman students continue to do so in 2013 – camaraderie, scholarship, service, self-governance, equality, social justice and support.