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Who Was John E. Pomfret?This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the founding of Beta Pi chapter of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to John E. Pomfret, Beta Pi 1920, we were able to give Beta Pi undergraduates and alumni a clear and informative image of what it was like to be a Beta Pi at the time of our chapter’s origin, and a description of the caliber of our “founding fathers”. Brother Pomfret’s written recollections of that period in time, written by him at age 80, were published in our recent July 2020 eletter.

Since this article was published, there have been questions posed regarding the article’s author. Who was John E. Pomfret? What was his background? Was he a person of note? Thanks to Wikipedia, we have the answers to our questions. John Edwin Pomfret was a perfect example of the quality of the scholars, leaders, athletes, and gentlemen who took a local fraternity, Alpha Phi Delta, and converted it to the Beta Pi chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, a nationally prominent fraternity.  

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1898, brother Pomfret enrolled at Penn and earned an A.B., M.A., Ph.D., and was a Phi Beta Kappa. Later in life, he served Phi Beta Kappa as a member of senate and as vice-president, United Chapters.

After his graduation from Penn, from 1925 to 1936, brother Pomfret was an associate professor of history at Princeton University. He later served as an associate dean at Princeton. In 1937, he became the dean of Vanderbilt University’s Senior College of Arts and Science and Graduate School.

In 1941, brother Pomfret was appointed to be the 20th president of the College of William & Mary. Founded in 1693, the College of William & Mary is the second oldest college in the United States. He served as president of this preeminent school until 1951. Following a grade-changing scandal involving William & Mary’s football team, brother Pomfret resigned from his position even though it was determined he had no knowledge and played no part in the scandal.

At the time of the scandal, brother Pomfret had received an offer to become director of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery (Huntington). Because of the existence of the scandal, brother Pomfret gave Huntington the opportunity to withdraw its offer of employment. After an investigation, Huntington kept the offer in place. Brother Pomfret accepted the offer and became director in 1951. Essentially, he moved directly from William & Mary to Huntington.

Founded in 1919, located in San Marino, California, and now known as the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, Huntington is a renowned educational and research center. It is considered one of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the United States. John E. Pomfret served as director of this prominent institution from 1951 until his retirement in 1966. He died in 1981.

During his long career in education, he had ten published literary works. He won the Tailteann Award in non-fiction for his first publication, The Struggle for Land in Ireland (1930). He later received the Graphic Arts Award, for one of the 50 best books of the year, California Gold Rush Voyages (1954), and the State and Local History Award for The Province of East New Jersey (1962).

In addition, our distinguished brother was recognized by his peers and contemporaries for his contributions and service to the American landscape. He received L.L.D. degrees (honorary Doctor of Laws) from the University of Pennsylvania (1943), the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (1949), and Mills College (1958). He received Litt. D. degrees (Doctor of Letters – a rare academic title given to established and accomplished scholars and academics) from the University of Southern California (1966), and the Claremont Graduate School and University Center (1966).

With all of his success and achievements, Pi Kappa Alpha remained an important part of his life. No better person could have been found to memorialize the beginnings of Beta Pi than Doctor John E. Pomfret, a noted educator, historian, author, and literary award winner.