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History of Pi Lambda Phi

The First Non-Sectarian Fraternity

The history of Pi Lambda Phi can be divided into two periods. The first period, which we shall designate The Founders' Period, begins with the inception of the fraternity at Yale in 1895, flourishing in opinions within a few short years to a position of enviable promise and achievement only to totter and collapse with equal suddenness. The second or Revitalization Period, dates from 1908, when the Alpha chapter was established at Columbia University. It is from this chapter that the present Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity has developed, young, vibrant and energetic, and destined in due time to be named among the great collegiate fraternities.

The Founders' Period

The early period of Pi Lambda Phi is wrapped in a veil of mystery and has, thus far, defied all efforts to penetrate it adequately. Most of the early archives have either been lost or destroyed. The responsibility for this condition can be easily attributed to the spasmodic character of the fraternity's early career. Chapters sprang up over-night and disappeared with equal celerity, leaving scant records of their short-lived careers. Not even membership rolls have been found.

Very little is known of the Delta chapter, which existed between 1895 and 1900 at the University of Pennsylvania, of Epsilon Chapter at Harvard, Lambda at Cornell or Nu at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Microcosm", a yearbook published by the College of the City of New York, class of 1899, has a page devoted to Pi Lambda Phi, whereon are listed the chapters as named above.

We acquired a letter dated October 3, 1896, to Myer Solis-Cohen, then a student at the University of Pennsylvania, from the Grand Master of Pi Lambda Phi, Louis S. Levy, and Frederick M. Werner, Secretary Grand Council. Both of these men and Henry Mark Fisher were the three men who founded the Alpha chapter at yale and are, therefore, regarded as the Founders of Pi Lambda Phi.

The purpose of the letter was to re-assure Brother Solis-Cohen that the existing chapters were non-sectarian, in reply to a suggestion that it would be a good idea to have twice as many Gentiles as Jews in chapters. The Founders went on to advise Brother Solis-Cohen as follows: "Your argument (for rushing) should consist of your principles, your cause and your aim. To back this up we will send you the record of our successes at other places. But set to work, get your men immediately, determine your own course of action and constitute yourselves a living active branch of Pi Lambda Phi." In writing of the 1897 convention in New York, the Founders continued, "If your delegation goes to New York in a body, our representatives will be on hand to receive you. This will be our first chance to establish that brotherly feeling, which we mean to exist between every individual member of Pi Lambda Phi."

It is interesting to note that the same ideas expressed to chapters during the late 19th Century, are identical with those found today in Pi Lambda Phi's Rushing Manual and convention material.

During the Founders' Period of most fraternities, the guidance and advice on a National scale came from the "Father" or "Parent" chapter and gradually, as the fraternity grew in size and responsibility, the desire for continuity caused the establishment of a National Office and governing body.

Why Founders Werner, Levy and Fisher, representing three different faiths, felt a need for Pi Lambda Phi is best explained by the following "rush" letter presumably written and circulated during the school year of 1895-6 at Yale:

"Dear Sir --

In the early part of this year a number of students at yale met to consider a college fraternity on lines broader and more liberal than those employed at the present time.

It appeared feasible to found such a fraternity, having for its cardinal principles non-sectarianism and the recognition of men on the basis of ability above all consideration. Appreciating the obstacles that present themselves to the success of such an unprecedented undertaking, they proceeded with the utmost caution.

Yet their purpose was such as to elicit the enthusiastic interest and co-operation of many liberal men.

The following article, which appeared lately in the C.C.N.Y. "Mercury", briefly explains our position:

'The long-felt-want in college life has at last been filled. The influence and workings of college fraternities, admirable as they are, have up to now been limited in their scope. And this, not because of the ineligibility, or non-qualification of those not reached, but rather by some narrow and illiberal clause utterly at variance with the original fraternal idea, has defeated the purpose and aim of fraternity. To counteract this, there have been at times other fraternities founded by sects not included in the existing fraternities. These naturally have served as counter-irritants, rather than as remedies. Now, however, there has been founded the fraternity which seek only the most broad-minded, liberal, and progressive men. As will be seen in the account of this fraternity in another part of this issue, the organization does not present itself as an experiment, but as an established fact. The fraternity seeks no members save those seeking it. And only the best of those who are progressive, industrious, and non-prejudiced, can seek it successfully.'

Considerations of this character led to the establishment of a chapter at Yale, which was followed by the formation of chapters at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, College of the City of New York and New York University. Others are being established at the University of Chicago, Union and Harvard. The Undergraduates constituting these chapters are young men who have gained distinction during their college career. They have been prominent in classical, scientific and literary studies. Moreover many of them are athletic and social leaders in the respective institutions.

Now the fraternity is striving to extend its influences that it may ultimately be represented by all the larger universities and colleges. In the undergraduate world, the success and acceptability of the organization is assured. However, we are especially desirous of securing the support of college graduates who have gained distinction in their particular departments.

Your name has been suggested and it is in accordance with this purpose that you are heartily invited to extend us your cooperation by becoming a graduate member. It is expected that graduate members will be in accord with principles which occasioned the establishing of the fraternity and they shall be allowed every privilege usually enjoyed by fraternity members no longer in undergraduate life.

The committee trusts that you will approve of their efforts and will honor them by submitting your name for membership in the near future.

Frederick Manfred Werner
Louis Samter Levy
Henry Mark Fisher"

Several noteworthy inferences may be drawn from the content and tone of this letter. The Founders recognized, from the birth of Pi Lambda Phi, the necessity of having mature alumni guiding an undergraduate chapter and providing the continuity needed to keep a chapter alive as its leaders graduated year after year. They were without alumni members and therefore found it wise to rush and initiate older men into their brotherhood to fill this void.

It is also apparent that Pi Lambda Phi was established as a protest and living example against the tendency of fraternities to discriminate against students for religious and racial reasons. Discrimination had been growing in colleges and the result was the formation of sectarian fraternities by members of the minority groups who were being discriminated against. This action was frowned upon by many who saw in it the widening of the social breach between students.

The "general" chapter at Yale was known as Alpha; Columbia (1896) was designated Beta; the CCNY (1896) chapter was lettered Gamma. According to the C.C.N.Y. "Microcosm", Lambda Chapter at Cornell and Nu at M.I.T. were the next two chapters and no further information of the early University of Chicago or Union College chapters can be found.

It appears that internal difficulties presented themselves to the chapters at the very beginning, for we found in correspondence between Founder Werner and Rex Max Lowenthal or Beta (Columbia), that Beta's charter was revoked and the chapter disbanded in order that two "undesirables" might be gotten rid of. The chapter was immediately reorganized as Beta Deuteron (Second), minus these two "undesirables".

According to a minute book of the collegiate year 1896-97, we have found reference to a chapter at the University of Pennsylvania with mention as members of Brothers Myer Solis-Cohen (1897), Walter Felisher (1898), Lowenstein (1897), Harry E. Cohen and Keim.

On October 17, 1897, according to the minute book, a meeting was held in rooms which had been rented at No. 3 East 42nd Street, and "after the meeting eighteen gentlemen went to the Marlborough Hotel and enjoyed a meal. Toasts were responded to and a very enjoyable evening was spent." The original lease for these meeting rooms is on file in the archives.

It was from meager sources as these that we must glean our information about the Founders' Period. Exactly when each of the several chapters was established, who presided at the installation, when and why each chapter disbanded - these are questions which remain unanswered.

We do know that Yale and CCNY chapters ceased to exist after 1898, Columbia and N.Y.U. presumably struggled along until 1901. Pi Lam was dormant until 1906 when an attempt was made to revive the Columbia chapter. Though it failed, it paved the way for the more successful attempt of 1908, with which the Revitalization Period begins.

The Revitalization Period

In 1908 the Columbia Chapter was revived by Walter Weil, Paul Charles Werner, George Rosenthal, and Aaron Galewski, with the help of H. Arthur Diamant. They wanted to establish a non-sectarian fraternity, and they obtained permission from Brothers Demand and Arthur Shore to use the name of Pi Lambda Phi. Shortly thereafter in 1910 a local fraternity known as Sigma Iota became the Gamma Chapter at N.Y.C., and in 1911 Cornell was installed as Delta Chapter, and from there Zeta at Pennsylvania, Epsilon at Michigan, and Gamma Sigma at Pittsburgh, along with Lambda at Lehigh were chartered. During the fall of 1916 a group of alumni organized a convention to discuss centralization of authority, administration, and general national policy. The result was a new national constitution, which provided for government of the Fraternity by a National Council much the way we operate today.

February 1, 1941 witnessed union with Phi Beta Delta Fraternity, which had been founded in 1912. At the time of the union Pi Lambda Phi had 20 active chapters, here Phi Beta Delta had 16. Deducting duplicate chapters, the united fraternity at the time of the merger had a total of 33 active undergraduate chapters. The union was easily accomplished because the ideologies and purposes of the two fraternities had been similar. At the time of the merger the Greek-letter designations of active chapters were altered by prefixing names of the states in which the chapters were located. Prior to this time, each chapter was known only by its Greek-letter and now the title of each chapter is prefixed by the state.

In November of 1960 Beta Sigma Tau Fraternity merged with Pi Lambda Phi. Of the six chapters which composed Beta Sigma Tau, three were voted into the brotherhood by a vote of the PiLam active chapters. On December 12, 1972 Beta Sigma Rho, a national fraternity founded on October 12, 1910, merged with Pi Lambda Phi. Here too the idealism of both fraternities were quite similar, as both were in fact nonsectarian organizations. Today Founders' Day is celebrated on March 21st, honoring those fraternities that have merged with Pi Lambda Phi.

Wars, depressions and a number of other uncontrollable variables have resulted in the closing of some chapters, as is the case of every fraternity. Reactivation of these is a long term goal.

Coming soon: Chapter History!

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