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100 Years Ago at Beta Pi
Beta Pi Founding Group

Beta Pi Chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity was founded on November 30, 1920. Since that date, many of our members have distinguished themselves throughout the communities they live and serve. This tradition of involvement and service can be traced to the very beginnings of our chapter. Fortunately, a remembrance of the origin of our fraternity chapter and the men who comprised our very first initiated class of scholars, leaders, athletes, and gentlemen, is available to us. John E. Pomfret, Beta Pi 1920, was a member of the chartering group of Beta Pi. Here are his unabridged, unedited memories of that occasion from 100 years ago.

 

 

 

  As I Remember Them

(With apologies Hans Zinsser’s As I Remember Him)

 

                The Beta Pi Chapter owes its origin to a local fraternity called Alpha Phi Delta, founded just before America’s entry into World War I.  At the time of its induction into Pi Kappa Alpha it was lodged in the row of houses on Walnut St. below Thirty Fourth, rented.  The local comprised a small group of personal friends, who, unhurriedly, recommended others.  In time the group hoped to nationalize but not before receiving a strong bid.  In the early months since there was practically no initiation fee and since monthly dues were negligible the financial obligation was no barrier to joining.  Even lunch was not served.  Alpha Phi Delta from the beginning was able to attract a number of “true believers,” among them Bob Dengler, Harry Gehman, Herb Gretz, and the elder Wilford.  Dengler, now deceased, and Gehman were P.B.K. and later university professors.  Wilford and Gretz, I believe, were able to tide the fraternity over any unexpected financial crises.  Gretz was beloved by all.  A brewer’s son, a number of social meetings were held at his father’s Philadelphia establishment.

                World War I reduced our numbers and our activities.  On campus most seniors and juniors had enlisted by May, 1918.  Ben Disharoon died of flu at Wissihickon Barracks, U.S.N.R., where many of us were sent, during the flu epidemic of 1918, while Russ Barber and Sam Small were wounded in France.  The rest of us were back on campus in time for October I registration.  The local quickly regained its strength so that by 1920 it was strong enough to attract a strong national.  Its members were by and large still friends of friends; its scholastic performance high; its finances in good condition; and a number had merited campus leadership.  Returning World War I veterans found the campus crowded with co-eds; indeed to such a degree that the Interfraternity Council, of which I was a member, voted that fraternity men not date them.  Within a month this solemn decision became inoperative. 

                The architect of the fraternity’s entrance into Pi Kappa Alpha was the work of Harold (Monte) Glover, a transfer Pi K. A. from the University of Missouri to the Wharton School.  A small shrewd man (he reminded one of a Mississippi River gambler without the moustache) with gigantic business aspirations he masterminded the deal.  In his efforts he was aided by the “new breed” in the fraternity, including several known to us all; Dave Maxwell, John Hipple.

                The marriage was a complete success and the purchase of the 39th St. house soon followed.

                Since I lived at the house, first as a senior, then as a graduate student I have almost hallowed recollections of the membership from 1917 until 1922.  The membership was about forty with about a dozen living and eating at the house.  Most of the members showed up for lunch at least several times a week.  Checking the new directory I find that about twenty of my fifty contemporaries are still alive.  In after years I was in touch with many of them.  To my knowledge none ever went to jail, while several won distinction.  By anyone’s book Maxwell and Hipple became nationally know lawyers; Develin and Trevor bank presidents, Odgers and self, college presidents, and a number led by Buckley, important business men.  Pat Malin ran the Civil Liberties Union during the rough McCarthy period.  He was a courageous public figure.  Several of us were honored by our University with L.L.D. degrees and Alumni Awards.

100 Years Ago at Beta Pi
Chapter House

                Beta Pi had its due mead of eccentricities.  Max Lahr thought of himself as a future tycoon but wound up as an Internal Revenue agent; Doc Moss, who spent five years in Medical School and who hated women, ran a Saturday night poker game; Kilhour, baritone in the Glee Club was forever gargling his throat; Trevor was always worrying lest his father went broke before he got his Phi Beta Kappa Key; Tex Irwin was our banjo player deluxe and Ci Richardson could attend a new musical and play all the tunes the day after on the piano; Russ Barber was allowed a handsome Stutz roadster on condition that he never rode a girl in it, and so on “ad infinitum.”

                Manners and morals at Beta Pi were impeccably high.  More pipes than cigarettes were smoked, beer was the favorite beverage and hard liquor rarely appeared.  Nearly one hundred per cent were virgins.  A few posed as blooded stallions but no one believed them.  In fact the screening committee for charter membership eliminated one local member for womanizing.  Another, then teaching in the South was debarred for posing as a Southerner.  A third man, a Phi Beta Kappa, was rejected, I thought, unfortunately, because of “sissy” mannerisms.  Later he gained a fine reputation as a high school teacher and led a useful and exemplary life.  The background of the membership was Protestant, without prejudice.  When Jimmy Clifford’s name came up, someone mentioned that he was a Catholic but he was elected without opposition.  He was followed by another attractive Catholic, Gene Bonniwell.  Even in those days I believe a Jewish boy could have been elected.  But there were Jewish fraternities at Penn and most aspiring Jewish boys were soon grabbed up.  Most members were from middle class families.  Many held jobs: there were a number of waiters, a church organist (Trevor), a pianist with a jazz band (Richardson), a post office clerk (Pomfret), several tutors, and so on.  Money was freely borrowed and freely lent, especially near the end of the month.

                At eighty, one can fairly assess one’s college experience.  I still believe that a large university and fraternities are a good mix.  A real university provides excellent mentors; a fraternity an opportunity for friendship and social maturing.  The latter prunes the rough edges and invites toleration.  Unhappily some college graduates never caught hold.  These are the negative people and the world must put up with them.  Some college graduates I have known can’t even remember the names of professors who taught them.  One acquaintance confessed to me that he took a degree but paid, he thought, too high a price for it.  A distinguished Oxford man, however, who went down in 1924 wrote recently: “Leaving Oxford was a kind of death, it meant saying goodbye to so much.  We felt,” he continues, “that we must make the most of our time at Oxford and go away with the equipment for a career, as leaders of a kind in some field.  Meanwhile --- and this is where our successors seem different --- we thought our elders had something to teach us; we were certainly not in a rage with them.”  (italics mine).