The Origin of Phi Kappa Tau

The North Dorm’s steam heat had been turned off in the chilly March weather of Miami University’s 1906 spring vacation. Sophomore William H. Shideler, who was visiting his family in nearby Hamilton, Ohio, ended his vacation a day early and caught a train back to the dormitory. He planned to meet his friend Dwight I. Douglass, a senior who had remained in Oxford over the break rather than make the long trip home to Colfax, Illinois. Since their dormitory rooms were cold, the two decided to look for a warm place to discuss the outline of a constitution for the Non-Fraternity Association that they had organized along with sophomores Taylor A. Borradaile and Clinton D. Boyd ten days earlier. They began their search in the twin-towered Old Main Building in the center of Miami’s small campus, just a few yards west of their North Dorm rooms.

As Shideler remembered the day many years later, “We found all the doors along the main hallway locked until we came to the office of Dean Hepburn. This was unlocked, so we entered and took possession.” Douglass, who was beginning his final term at Miami, immediately occupied the venerable dean’s wooden swivel chair. At six feet two and two hundred pounds, Douglass cut an imposing figure, reputedly the largest man in the 202-member student body. Shideler pulled up a chair and sat across the desk strewn with the learned clutter of the Reverend Andrew Dousa Hepburn, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. The musty old building was silent except for the ticking of the dean’s brass alarm clock.

“Looking into the Dean’s desk for some scratch paper, Douglass uncovered a box of cigars. Placing a couple in his vest pocket, and one in his mouth, Douglass lit up, leaned back in the Dean’s chair, put his feet up on the desk and said, ‘Well Doc’, my nickname even then, ‘let’s see what you have.’ So we proceeded to discuss the draft item by item,” Shideler later wrote.

Just as the smoke from the purloined cigars filled the office, Shideler and Douglass heard the door latch click, and in walked Dean Hepburn! As Shideler went on to recount, “It was difficult to say who was the more surprised. We bounced to our feet while Douglass undertook to explain just why we were there and what we were doing. The Dean wrinkled his nose, of course recognizing the aroma of his tobacco. He really could have made an issue of the affair, but he was a good old sport in addition to being a fine gentleman of the old school, and at almost the age of eighty he still had an understanding and an appreciation of students’ problems. He listened attentively, then finally he smiled and said, ‘Well, boys, that’s exactly how Beta Theta Pi [his fraternity] was founded. I wish you all the success in the world.’ With this benediction and dismissal we eased through the door and got away from there—fast!”

Only in retrospect can one appreciate how profound was Dean Hepburn’s “benediction,” recalling the long and proud fraternity tradition at Miami University, the “Mother of Fraternities.” For it was in that same Old Main Building that Hepburn’s fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, oldest of the famous Miami Triad, became the first fraternity founded west of the Alleghenies in 1839.

Miami University’s 1904 catalog advertised the college as the “oldest and most famous institution of higher education in the Miami Valley.” The history of Miami University and her fraternities was well known to Phi Kappa Tau’s founders, and that history gives essential context to the fraternity’s early development.

The first Greek-letter college fraternity was Phi Beta Kappa, founded in the Apollo Room of the historic Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 5, 1776. Since 1831 Phi Beta Kappa has been a non-secret academic-recognition society synonymous with the highest standards of scholarship in more than two hundred of America’s leading colleges and universities; but for the first fifty years of that organization’s history, it also was a general or social fraternity. Not only was Phi Beta Kappa first to adopt a Greek-letter name, it devised a secret Ritual and grip and its members identified themselves by wearing a small silver badge engraved with the letters Phi, Beta, and Kappa, which represented its secret motto, “philosophy is the guide of life.” Almost every fraternity since Phi Beta Kappa has adopted similar ceremonies and insignia.

Phi Beta Kappa set another important precedent by placing chapters at several other colleges and universities. It was one of those chapters, Alpha of New York at Union College in Schenectady, which sparked the founding of the famous Union Triad fraternities. Shortly after Phi Beta Kappa entered Union in 1817, the college’s faculty began to dominate the fraternity’s governance. Groups of Union students who sought distinctly student-governed organizations formed Kappa Alpha Society in 1825, Sigma Phi Society in 1827, and Delta Phi in 1827. A fourth fraternity, Psi Upsilon, was founded at Union in 1833 followed by Chi Psi in 1844 and Theta Delta Chi in 1847.

Following Phi Beta Kappa’s example, Sigma Phi established a second chapter at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1831. The following year, Samuel Eels, a member of Hamilton’s class of 1832, founded Alpha Delta Phi. Eels had become con¬cerned about the bitter rivalry between the two student literary societies at Hamilton. His efforts at Hamilton to establish “a society of a higher nature and more comprehensive and better principles” would become a familiar model for the founding of new fraternities and new chapters across the country.

Three years after accepting a position in the Cincinnati law office of the future U.S. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Eels befriended William S. Groesbeck, who took a clerkship in the same office after graduating from nearby Miami University in 1834. Eels enthusiastically shared the Alpha Delta Phi story with Groesbeck and initiated him into the mysteries of Alpha Delta Phi right in the Chase office. Groesbeck quickly contacted two friends still in school at Miami about forming a fraternity; and in the fall of 1835, Alpha Delta Phi’s new Miami chapter became the first fraternity chapter west of the Alleghenies and one of the first dozen fraternity chapters in America. Ohio became the third state to have fraternities (after Massachusetts and New York), and Miami became the fourth college to host fraternities following Union, Hamilton, and Williams colleges.


“Yale of the early West”

By the time John Reily Knox founded Beta Theta Pi Fraternity at Miami in 1839, the young school with its 250 students was already the fourth largest college in America. Only Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth were larger. Considering that college-level instruction had begun only fifteen years earlier, the record of this institution in America’s hinterlands was impressive.

Chartered by the Ohio legislature in 1809, Miami University opened for collegiate-level instruction in 1824 under the direction of President Robert Hamilton Bishop, who since 1804 had been on the faculty of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Twenty male students, including some who had followed Bishop from Transylvania, began the winter term in November 1824. Enrollment swelled to sixty-eight students in the second term.

Following the tradition of the eastern colleges, two literary societies were formed at Miami in the college’s second year. On the third floor of the Old Main Building, the Erodelphian Literary Society took up residence in the southwest room, and the Union Literary Society made its home in the southeast room, both with windows looking out over the rolling woodland south of the campus. In the years before fraternities entered Miami, the fellowship of the literary societies’ Friday evening debates had been the primary social outlet for the all-male student body.

When they arrived, the fraternities had a tremendous impact on those societies. As Alpha Delta Phi badges began to appear on vests of members of both literary societies, the uninitiated became suspicious and fearful of this mysterious new secret society. These natural fears were fueled by the anti-Masonic and anti-secret society fervor, led by John Quincy Adams and others, that was sweeping the country in the 1830s.


Beta Theta Pi

Curiously, one of the most vocal opponents of Alpha Delta Phi was the president of the Union Literary Society, John Reily Knox, a member of Miami’s class of 1839. While he issued stinging anti-fraternity rhetoric from the Union rostrum, he could not help but notice that Alpha Delta Phi had initiated some fine men and there was something attractive about their close-knit brotherhood. Inspired by the ideals of Masonic rituals, which were exposed in the early 1830s, Knox and seven others formed Miami’s second fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, in August 1839. As Alfred Upham described in his 1909 book, Old Miami: Yale of the Early West, “To the unprejudiced observer there is one feature about Knox’s plan, novel enough in his day, that gets to be painfully familiar as time goes on. The new brotherhood was to have all the good qualities of Alpha Delta Phi and none of the bad ones.”

Still, Miami’s two young fraternities existed in the face of great faculty and student opposition. Members of Beta Theta Pi actually operated sub-rosa for seven years, first publicly displaying their badges in 1846. It was not long before the “Alphas” and “Betas” were dealt a fatal blow following an 1848 college prank that is legend in Miami’s history. “The Great Snowball Rebellion” was orchestrated by “Alphas” and “Betas,” who, on their return from an off-campus prayer meeting, rolled enormous snowballs against the Old Main doors. The much despised college president, Erasmus McMaster, derided the perpetrators at the next morning’s chapel service, declaring that he was determined “to make Miami a decent college.” This comment so infuriated the students that the next night they filled the Old Main corridors and barricaded the doors with piles of wet snow and all the scraps of wood, metal, and broken furniture that could be scrounged up. When the temperature dropped later that night, the building solidified into an enormous block of ice. It was three days before the faculty got into their offices at Old Main.

The entire next week was devoted to determining the fate of each student, which was decided in a trial with the Reverend Dr. McMaster presiding as judge and members of the faculty as jury. All the “Alphas” were expelled or left Miami in sympathy with their expelled brothers, and only two senior “Betas” were left to graduate in June. Whether or not it was President McMaster’s intention to kill the fraternities will never be known, but kill them he did, temporarily.


Phi Delta Theta

Robert Morrison of Miami’s class of 1849 kept a bottle of water from the melting snow of the “Great Snow Rebellion” in his room in the North Dorm. It served as a reminder of the vitality that was lost from the campus when the fraternities dispersed. In the chill of the evening after Christmas 1848, Morrison called together five friends in the candlelight of his second-floor North Dorm room to discuss forming a new fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. Since the members of Beta Theta Pi and Alpha Delta Phi had all departed Miami, the founding of Phi Delta Theta was unique in two significant ways: first, it was not formed in opposition to another secret society; and second, the faculty was favorably disposed to his organization, as several of them, including President McMaster’s successor, were soon initiated.

Miami’s fourth fraternity chapter was founded when a division occurred in Phi Delta Theta. In 1851, Benjamin Harrison, who later became the twenty-third president of the United States, was a serious and earnest president of the fledgling Phi Delta Theta chapter. He led a movement in the chapter to enforce a strict oath of abstinence from strong drink. In spite of the pledges they had taken, Phi Delts Gideon McNutt and J. H. Childs were drunk on repeated occasions. In fact, it is recorded that the two were drunk on the night of their initiation but when confronted promised again to uphold the oath. After their repeated spills off the wagon of sobriety, the chapter, following long and painful deliberation, expelled McNutt and Childs. Four others left the chapter in support of their errant brothers.

Not long after that event, Jacob Cooper, a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity’s mother chapter at Yale, was visiting his family near Oxford when he met McNutt and the others in his gang. Along with another student who had not previously belonged to a fraternity, the group formed the Kappa Chapter of DKE at Miami.

Sigma Chi Completes the Miami Triad

To complete the Miami Triad, Sigma Chi was founded in 1855 after what today seems a trivial disagreement within the DKE chapter. Whitelaw Reid, the Deke president in 1854, later the unsuccessful candidate for vice president of the United States on fellow Miamian Benjamin Harrison’s 1892 ticket, was embroiled in a controversy over the election of a poet for the Erodelphian Literary Society. Reid wanted his brothers to support a fellow Deke for election as Erodelphian Poet, although the candidate apparently had little or no poetic ability. The four opposition Dekes supported another man, who was not a brother but was known to have considerably more talent as a poet. In the end, the controversy became a referendum on DKE loyalty; and although the chapter worked for a year to heal the wounds, it was not to be. Finally, in 1854 the six dissenters relinquished their DKE badges and left the chapter.

In 1855 the six former Dekes and William Lockwood gathered in a second-floor room on Oxford’s High Street to form a new fraternity in a familiar attempt to maintain all of the advantages of the other fraternities but possess none of the evils. Sigma Chi’s Miami chapter failed in 1857; but during its short life, chapters had been begun at Ohio Wesleyan, Western Military, and Mississippi, and expansion continued from those fronts.

By 1860, the American college fraternity had become well-established with 22 of our present day fraternities having come into existence. While most of these organizations were founded in Ohio and in the East, two early fraternities were founded in the South. The first was known as W.W.W. or Rainbow founded at the University of Mississippi in 1848. This group later united with Delta Tau Delta. Sigma Alpha Epsilon became the second southern fraternity when it was founded at the University of Alabama in 1856.

Old Miami, which had for a time been the preeminent college in the early West, was on its last legs when Andrew Dousa Hepburn became president of the university in 1871. Hepburn tried to save the struggling school; but as the enrollment dwindled to eighty-seven students, the trustees had no choice but to suspend classes in 1873 “with a view to a full reorganization at the earliest practicable period.” The reasons for its failure were many. The state legislature’s refusal to provide financial support, the maintenance of an outdated classical curriculum, and its staunch opposition to coeducation were among the factors that brought about Miami’s demise. The school was closed for twelve years until the legislature could be convinced to make some contributions and alumni could be rallied to their old college’s cause.

New Miami –
The Origins of Phi Kappa Tau

After securing its first-ever appropriation from the state of Ohio, paying all of the university’s debts and accumulating a permanent endowment of more than $50,000, Miami reopened in 1885. By 1892 Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Sigma Chi had all reestablished Miami chapters. Apolitical “ring” consisting of the Betas, Dekes, and Sigma Chis immediately began to dominate campus athletic teams, politics, and social life. It was in this atmosphere at “New Miami” that the idea for an association of nonfraternity men began to crystallize.

Early histories of Phi Kappa Tau record that a nonfraternity organization called Independents was formed in 1894, but it existed only briefly. For the next ten years, occasional political alliances were formed to back candidates in student elections; but no lasting attempt to organize nonfraternity men took place until October 20, 1903, when a small group of them secretly founded a local fraternity, Delta Rho, which would become the Miami chapter of Delta Upsilon in 1908. This group was too focused on internal organization to have much impact on the “ring.” In early 1905, an unsuccessful effort to organize nonfraternity men was led by Arthur Harrison and Dwight I. Douglass. Harrison graduated with the class of 1905, but Douglass returned the next year with renewed fervor to organize the campus “barbarians,” as nonfraternity men were commonly called. By the end of the 1905–06 school year, four men, including Douglass, his roommate Taylor A. Borradaile, William H. Shideler, and Clinton D. Boyd, would ultimately be successful in founding a lasting organization of nonfraternity men. It was this organization that evolved into Phi Kappa Tau.