Sigma Pi - How It All Started
By Thomas J. Snyder - 1951 Drexel Graduate
 


This is one story. The beginning of a fraternity that encompassed the heart and soul of all those who worked constantly to "Spread the word" and to be successful.

My writing effort may miss some of the details. If I have gone astray, it is hoped that someone will offer to correct the way. Someone may be able to add to the facts. Any further input is welcome.

This is a collection of memories that are over fifty years old. Passage of time can cause you to forget. Some names are now fuzzy, but the events are real. I have tried to relate some of the things that happened along the way. Bear with me - I tried.

Thomas J. Snyder Class of 1951


Before describing the beginnings of the fraternity, it is necessary to understand the era and the times. Circumstances and current conditions all played a part in the instant success we achieved from the beginning. As it can be said, 1947 was "the dawn of a new age" for Drexel.

World War II ended in the Spring of 1945, but it took the time, 1945-1947 for most of the service people to be discharged. After all, in the past, all males were drafted at age 18. Many of those discharged wanted to go to college .. so they applied to their schools of choice. The selection process was the same as today.

Many people were now given the chance to attend college because the government provided that opportunity. Educational benefits were provided thru the G.I. Bill of Rights. It paid, direct to the college, all tuition charges plus the cost of books. The bill even provided money for basic living expenses. While enrolled, a person received via mail, a monthly subsistence check for $75. This was enough to pay the rent and pay for your meals. It seemed like everyone went to college.

In the Fall of 1947, colleges everywhere were inundated with large numbers of incoming freshman. Drexel was no different than the rest. At that time it was Drexel Institute of Technology; DIT to us. Our enrollment expanded to about 2,800 undergraduates, not counting night school.

The school consisted of a small group of buildings - the main building @ 32nd & Chestnut Streets with 3 others attached and on down towards 31st. At the end of the row was a fenced in lot that had temporary Quonset huts that were used for classes. In the late 40's or around 1950 expansion began.

Around the corner from the Main Bldg on 32nd St and towards Market St was a small hole in the wall - the Dragon's Den. It was used for snacks & lunches. On the corner of 32nd & Market was the branch of a Philadelphia bank. Next to it was Linton's Cafeteria - at that time, it was part of a large chain of waitress service restaurants. They had a large circular counter and a side room with booths. The pizza craze and fast food outlets were not around yet.

Going down Market St next to Linton's was a large red brick bldg that Drexel converted from a bank. It was the Student Union Building. It contained student meeting rooms that could be retained by appointment. It also had a large hall for parties, dances and banquets. The student Union Bldg was severely damaged in, I believe, the late50's when the big Grain Elevator up from 30th & Market Sts exploded. This had extensive news coverage in the Inquirer when it happened.

Drexel also had "The Lodge" in Newtown Square .. this was used by organizations fro parties, informal picnics, etc. (Editor's Note: Drexel Lodge was sold off in the early 1990's. Several Alumni Picninc's were held there around the late 70's and early 80's.)

At 46th & Market Sts, Drexel owned a large open field complex. This included the football stadium with its huge seating capacity of about 750. Yes, Drexel had a football team in those days. When we enrolled in 1947, Drexel was in the midst of a long losing streak - about 19 straight games. We finally won in the Fall of 1948. The team turned it around and it became a winning team.

Bear with me, all of this (and more) has a tie in to the fraternity.


Housing at the college was a problem. Drexel had one dormitory on Powelton Ave, and that was for women. The administration relied on the existing fraternities to provide housing for incoming out of town men There were six houses on campus. They were the Apple Pi's, SAM, Theta Chi, TKE, Lambda Chi Alpha, and Pi Kap's.

Prior to school opening, out of town students were sent, by appointment, to a fraternity house to apply for one of their openings. To some, these interviews were brutal. The fraternity men involved seemed smug, superior and not too friendly. I know, because I went thru this ordeal at one of the houses. Each fraternity used the housing interview as a fixed method to acquire future pledges.

Still the excess volume of out of town men had to be housed. The problem was solved by sending students out and into the private homes of residents throughout all of West Philadelphia. These were all white neighborhoods at that time. Exodus to the suburbs had not yet begun.

Classes were beginning on the last Monday in Sept 1947. That weekend some of us reported to our assigned rooming house on Windsor Ave (around the corner and off Baltimore Avenue). It was a large house occupied by a widow and her grown son. The house was a 20-minute trolley ride away from Drexel. Seven or eight of us were there. I can remember Dick Adams, my roommate. Also rooming there were Carl Shoemaker, Ed Myers, Harold Hillegrass, Charlie Morrill and one or two others. We went to school together, loafed in the "Great Court" steps together, waited for each other to go home together. We became close friends quickly. We didnít know it yet, but from this group of 7 or 8 guys came the heart of our organization. We also added a few commuter students as friends as we sat around the court between classes.

It must be remembered that the incoming student body consisted mostly of males ages 20 to 24 who were starting college after the war. It seemed that all activity, social & otherwise was controlled by the fraternities and sororities. We decided to check out a club for all independent non-fraternity men. We met in the Student Union Building and became a part of this group called "IMDITS" (Independent Men of Drexel Institute of Technology). All our group became the main core of a large membership.

At the beginning of the Winter Term, we found that the Student Council elections for officers in all classes were being readied. In the past, the IFC would set up a slate of fraternity and sorority people in all offices. Elections were automatic and the fraternities always won these elections because they were organized. Little did they know that "IMDITS" set up their own slate (which included many of our men). The election was held and the IMDIT slate swept the election for all classes - the fraternities were stunned! Our impact on the campus was underway.

Social activities on campus were in high gear. Pep rallies and basketball games were underway. Dances were held at the Student Union Building and in the Great Court fraternities sponsored most of the Saturday night affairs and used them not only for social purposes but to generate publicity on their behalf. Tickets were sold from decorated booths the week prior to the dance. Many students attended these events.

This also was the time for pledging to begin. Posters, signs and booths were all over the court. Fraternity and sorority invitations were sent to many students and open house invites were made. We all received invitations to smokers ... but for some reason we were not impressed. As we sat around the court between classes, we all looked around and said to each other that the present fraternity situation was not for us. The reaction was the same for all of us. "Let's start another new fraternity - there's room for more. All of our key individuals were instantly sincere and dedicated with this idea. To name a few of our "starters", there were Carl Shoemaker, Ed Myers, Charlie Morrill, Mike Peters, John Nicholson, Ellison Davison, George Dolde, Herb Sommers and others. Even our members, not in the spotlight contributed a great deal to our efforts.

These men investigated our options. They contacted the Dean of Men for advice. We had two choices...
1. Become a colony of a national fraternity of our choice. 2. Start a local from scratch.

Since we were all adventurous and full of ideas we decided to start from scratch and form our own local. Most of us were scheduled to graduate in 1951 and after. We vowed to work hard to succeed as a local because we wanted to be affiliated with a "National" before we graduated.

A meeting room was booked in the Student Union Building for a Monday night in March 1948. There were 14 of us at that first meeting - I do not recall who the exact 14 were, but it must be noted that new members were added as each weekly meeting was held. We grew at a steady pace. We met in that Student Union Building every Monday night for our first year. Our charter membership was kept open until a time before the new school year began in September 1948 - after that, our future membership grew thru pledging. Our membership was in excess of 30 when we closed our charter.

At our first meeting we elected officers (Carl Shoemaker was our first president), set-up finances and discussed Greek letters and a possible combinations for our use. There was plenty to do .. so we settled in to solve our problems one at a time.

Mike Peters and John Nicholson researched information regarding the Greek letters and Coat of Arms. They also developed our initial ritual. We came up with the words - Fidelity - Tenacity - Decorum. Thus Phi Tau Delta.

As per finances, we set a charter Membership fee of $25.00 plus monthly dues of $5.00. Ed Myers was our first treasurer. He soon became President of our class thru graduation.

We selected Maroon and Gold as our colors and we designed our own banner. We had this hand sewn at once. We worked continuously to put all of the pieces together .. our endeavors were paying off. Everyone was involved in something.

Still, the only person who knew what we were doing was the Dean of Men. We had to decide on what to do to let the campus know who we were and what we were doing - and we had to move quickly.

When the students came to classes on Monday, April 12, 1948, they saw our banner hanging in the Great Court and the Phi Tau Delta fraternity decorated booth and poster in the center promoting "The April Shower" court dance that Saturday night. That was how we decided to let all know that we were here. It worked! The dance was a success and we were on our way.

As time went by, we held our social get-togethers in the Student Union Building or at the Drexel Lodge. We quickly realized that we needed our own home. That was a super big hurdle to conquer. We were too new and financially unstable to be considered for any house purchase. We did not give up on that one!

We knew that our out-of-town men were living in various rooming houses scattered all over West Philadelphia... all paying weekly room rent. Our "idea mill" started to generate. If we were unable to buy a house, why couldn't we rent one and fill it with our own men? We zeroed in on 67 North 34th St, a house just up the street from Lancaster Avenue. We already had some of our members living there.

We assumed management of this house about April 1949. This was about a year after we started. Dick Stockton was the house manager. We ran the house as a rooming house facility only there was no food preparation or meals served.

After classes, everyone assembled and we continued the practice of walking down Lancaster Avenue and on to Linton's Cafeteria for our daily dinner meal. We took over several booths and enjoyed dinner together. Needless to say, we were always engaged in "fraternity talk!"

Having the use of 67 North 34th St gave us the true feeling of being a fraternity. Our weekly meeting site became the front rooms at "the house". The Charter Membership period was now closed and we were involved with our first pledge class. About a dozen were preparing for full membership. A few of the men in this group included Hank Ewald, Jim Gildea, Don Nauss, Barry Pickell, Jake Strauss and Steve Tranovich. About this time we adopted the flat straw hat. Pledges were to wear and have the hat in their possession at all times. The hat, with maroon and gold headband, became a recognized symbol of Phi Tau Delta. Our numbers grew to 42.

At about this period in time we became a part of the IFC. We were accepted into the Inter-Fraternity Council with full representation.

The house became profitable for the fraternity. We had many "out-of-towners" who needed a place to stay. They provided rental income on a regular basis. It didn't take too long for us to purchase solid wood bunk beds, desk chairs and dressers for efficient, uniform room set-ups.

The effect of having a house started to show bigger results. At least we had a place for some social activities. We held open house parties for other groups including the fraternities and sororities, etc. These were very well attended. However, our facilities were limited - no basement - no operating kitchen - lack of appliances - limited social space on the first floor - but "we made do with what we had!"

There was always activity around the piano with either Charlie Morrill or Jerry Songster leading various song groups. Dancing to recorded music took place in the center section of the first floor. After football game parties became the norm. For Homecoming 1949 Phi Tau Delta was able to erect its first display. As usual, we tried to be an innovator in what we presented.

Our project introduced motion into the design by having the car wheels continuously turn on our "welcome Old Grad Tin Lizzie". Phi Tau Delta won the coveted "Little Brown Jug Trophy" for the most appropriate display. WOW! A win on our first attempt!

We were now "in the groove" as far as fraternity activities were concerned. Regular house parties were popular. Our pledge activities and training efforts were very well received. We were an active force in the Inter-Fraternity Council.

Springtime brought a new activity for us. The school auditorium was to be the site of the annual inter-fraternity sing. Kano was very competitive with Pi Kappa Phi the usual favorite because of their original musical comedy tradition. Charlie Morrill gathered a group of our guys around the piano several times each week. They practiced regularly and with great intensity.

Our group went on stage wearing the traditional flat straw hats because their music was a rousing barbershop type number followed by, I believe, Blue Moon. Needless to say, the Phi Tau Delta group was good. They were mellow, enthusiastic, in time and with so great a sound, they were selected first place winners.

Many of our original members were now in their junior year. When we started we vowed, "if successful", we would go national before we graduate. Now was the time to work to that end. With some advice from the Dean of Men, several fraternities were contacted. Based on the initial information received, we preferred Sigma Pi.

Frank Fryburg was then the Archon of the local Beta Province. He met with us many times to provide all the details and the information we needed. Brothers from Temple University came in to help.

Our formal request was a leather bound scrapbook sent to Sigma Pi with our history, list of members and request to join "The National". Our elaborate efforts paid off and we were soon informed that we would be installed as Beta Theta Chapter of Sigma Pi.

Our invitation was to take place on Saturday, November 18, 1950 and was to be administered by the national officers of Sigma Pi. Our house was too small to accommodate everyone involved, so we leased the Student Union Building for the private, secret, initiation ceremonies that were to begin at 1:00 PM. We also scheduled a catered celebration dinner for 6:00 PM that included the Sigma Pi participants, Drexel officials, representatives from our Inter-Fraternity Council, brothers from Temple University and all of our members.


Sigma Pi Chartered in 1950

That was a big day for all of us - but it had a unique characteristic to it. You see, we were also loyal students of Drexel. On that same Saturday, November 18, 1950 Drexel was playing its biggest football game of the year.

It was he last game and it received a lot of press coverage. Powerful West Chester State was undefeated and Drexel had lost only one game, a 26-25 contest to Western Maryland. Here we were, the biggest game of the year, and we were all going to miss it!

We arranged to have another fraternity friend call us on the telephone every half-hour for game updates. Drexel won the game 7-6.

With the Winter Term 1951, we began the homestretch toward graduation. This was the first year we were to lose about a dozen founding members to graduation. The chapter was growing and 67 North 34th Street was getting too small.

During January, every year since 1949, we presented our annual Court Dance, "The Starlite Ball". As usual, the well-decorated, elaborate affair was a huge, well-received success.


First Starlite Ball

It's publicity helped launch our yearly pledging activity. We continued to compete well with the other fraternities and we added another great pledge class for 1951.

Graduation was not far away. The fraternities were getting ready to host their yearly Spring Formal Dinner Dances. These traditional affairs were usually held at the various fraternity houses.

Beta Theta of Sigma Pi decided to show it's innovative self again and settled upon a very special "Spring Weekend" ! With Drexel's permission, and with proper supervision, we became the first fraternity to leave the Drexel campus for it's annual Spring Formal.

We leased Vacation valley, a resort in the Poconos. We arrived on Friday evening - enjoyed the facilities of the resort all day Saturday which concluded with the Orchid Ball held in the main lodge that night. All participants returned to Philadelphia Sunday afternoon. This became a traditional Beta Theta Sigma Pi event for some time well into the future.

Graduation 1951 gave us our first group of alumni. We graduated about a dozen founding members who became important in the expansion activities soon to develop.

For Beta Theta, the future was NOW!

For years, Drexel had been trying to buy the "white mansion" on Powelton Avenue (the house now occupied by Tau Kappa Epsilon). The private owners rejected the sale, but serious negotiations were now underway and Drexel succeeded in acquiring the property. Here is what school administrators worked out.

TKE was occupying the north half of the twin in the building at 210 North 34th St. The other half of the building was a private rooming house. TKE had been at that location for about 14 years and they too needed to expand. Drexel arranged for Sigma Pi t purchase the TKE house at 210 North 34th Street. Tau Kappa Epsilon would then be able to purchase the house on Powelton Avenue. Both fraternities moved at about the same time and were also able to enjoy needed expanded facilities.

Our new alumni association already had their sights on acquiring the other half of our building. The idea was to knock wall out, remodel and end up owning the larger needed fraternity house. All this happened a short time later when the alumni negotiated a deal to purchase that part of the property.

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