In 1901, Sigma Phi Epsilon was founded when 12 young collegians hungered for a campus fellowship based on Judeo/Christian ideals. At Richmond College, Carter Ashton Jenkins applied for a charter of Chi Phi. The request was denied. Wanting to maintain their fellowship, Carter and 5 of his friends decided to form a local fraternity. After his request was denied, Brother Jenkins founded a local fraternity in order to keep his vision alive while fostering fellowship.
Richmond College in the early 20th Century was attended by less than 300 students. Almost half this number belonged to five fraternities previously chartered on the campus. The little Baptist college, founded in 1830, became home to Sigma Phi Epsilon. Sigma Phi Epsilon was founded because 12 young collegians hungered for a campus fellowship based on Judeo/Christian ideals that neither the college community nor the fraternity system at that time could offer. The desire for brotherhood was in the young men's souls. Sigma Phi Epsilon was needed.
Carter Ashton Jenkens, the 18-year-old son of a minister, had been a student at Rutgers University, N. J., where he joined Chi Phi Fraternity. When he transferred to Richmond College in the fall of 1900, he sought companions to take the place of the Chi Phi brothers he had left behind. He found five men who had already been drawn into a bond of friendship and urged them to join him in applying for a charter of Chi Phi at Richmond College. The request for a charter was forwarded to Chi Phi only to meet with refusal. Chi Phi felt that Richmond College was too small for the establishment of a Chi Phi chapter.
Wanting to maintain their fellowship, Carter Ashton Jenkens, Benjamin Gaw, William Carter, William Wallace, Thomas Wright, and William Phillips decided to form their own local fraternity.
The six original members found six others also searching for a campus fellowship neither the college campus nor the existing fraternity system could offer. The six new members were Lucian Cox, Richard Owens, Edgar Allen, Robert McFarland, Franklin Kerfoot, and Thomas McCaul.
The 12 met in October, 1901, in Gaw and Wallace's room on the third floor of Ryland Hall. They discussed the organization of a fraternity they would call "Sigma Phi." The exact date of this meeting is not known. However, the meeting was probably held before the middle of the month, because the 12 Founders are named as members on November 1, 1901, in the first printed roster of the Fraternity. Jenkens is listed as the first member.
A committee of Jenkens, Gaw, and Phillips was appointed to discuss plans for recognition with the faculty at the college. These men met with a faculty committee, where they were requested to present their case. The faculty committee requested that the new group explain:
The need for a new fraternity since chapters of five national fraternities were on the campus and the enrollment at Richmond College was less than 300.
The wisdom of this attempt to organize a new fraternity, with 12 members, seven of whom were seniors.
The right to name the new fraternity Sigma Phi, the name of an already established national fraternity.
Jenkens, Gaw, and Phillips answered:
"This fraternity will be different, it will be based on the love of God and the principle of peace through brotherhood. The number of members will be increased from the undergraduate classes. We will change the name to Sigma Phi Epsilon."
Though the discussion lasted some time, permission was granted for the organization of the new fraternity to proceed.
Immediately at the close of the meeting with the faculty committee, the fraternity committee rushed to Jenkens' room to borrow Hugh Carter's Greek-English Lexicon. They convinced themselves that Epsilon had a desirable meaning, and then telegraphed Jeweler Eaton in Goldsboro, N.C., to add an E at the point of each of the 12 badges. Eight other students were invited to join SigEp. The purchase order was then increased to 20 badges at $8 each, with the initials of each man engraved on the back of his badge.
These 20 heart-shaped badges were of yellow gold, with alternating rubies and garnets around the edge of the heart, with the Greek characters Σ φ and the skull and crossbones in gold and black enamel in the center and a black Ε in gold at the point. (William Hugh Carter’s and Thomas V. "Uncle Tom" McCaul's original badges are on display at Zollinger House.)
Founder Lucian Cox reflected on the "brotherhood that had inspired him and his brothers" when he wrote in the Sigma Phi Epsilon Journal, Vol. 1 No. 1, March, 1904: "As a member of an ideal fraternity, the resources of every member of that body are my resources, the product of their lives is my daily life. The fraternity is a common storehouse for experience, moral rectitude, and spirituality; the larger and purer the contribution of the individual, the greater the resources of each member."
Five men were invited to join before Christmas and became members in January, 1902. Three more of the first group of 21 joined February 1, 1902.
In November or December, 1901, an unheated, unfurnished single room in the tower of Ryland Hall was assigned to the new fraternity by the college. Before January 1, 1902, SigEps had lined all open wall space with wide board benches. The wall was papered—purple and red. A rostrum, shaped like a horseshoe, was built in a corner. A small oil stove would not heat the room, so secret meetings continued to be held in SigEp dormitory rooms until March, 1902.
Of the remaining eight who did return to Richmond College the next session, only two were founders—Gaw and Wright. College records show that of the eight who did return, four were sophomores, three juniors, and one senior. After recruiting many students, only one new man joined in the fall, and one more in the spring. The small college enrollment in the session of 1902-1903 and increasing competition for new members from the chapters of five national fraternities on the campus made the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon realize the crucial position of their local fraternity.
After discussing the situation at several meetings, a momentous decision was reached. Sigma Phi Epsilon must either convert the local fraternity into a national one or watch the local fraternity die. The secretary was instructed to request Founder Lucian B. Cox, an attorney in Norfolk, Va., to write an application for a state charter for Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity and return it to him at the earliest possible moment.
This charter was signed by all eight SigEps enrolled at Richmond College on October 18, filed in the Circuit Court of Richmond City on October 20, and recorded by the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia on October 22, 1902. (The original charter is on display at Sigma Phi Epsilon Headquarters.) Under that state charter, Virginia Alpha established chapters at five other colleges that session.
Sigma Phi Epsilon ended its fifth year of operation with 14 chapters in nine states. Nineteen chapters had been chartered, despite the little money the group had to work with. But the will of the members to develop and expand their Fraternity prevailed, and chapters spread west to Colo., north to Ill., Ind., Ohio and N.Y., and south to N.C. and S.C.
The next five years brought 17 new chapters and representation in a total of 18 states. In addition to those mentioned, Sigma Phi Epsilon chartered in Ala., Ark., Calif., Del., Ga., Kan., Neb., N.H., Vt., and the D.C. This momentum continued with the appointment of the first Grand Secretary of Sigma Phi Epsilon.
The fifth Grand Chapter Conclave, held in 1908, is particularly significant because it was at this Conclave that the laws were changed to provide for a central office and the employment of a full-time chief executive officer to bear the title of Grand Secretary. Founder William L. Phillips ("Uncle Billy") was employed as Grand Secretary and, according to the minutes, was to receive a salary of $900 in the first year.
An article by Frank W. Shepardson, first published in the 1927 edition of Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities, refers to the "latest development in fraternity administration…the establishment of a central office (headquarters) with a full-time secretary in charge." It is apparent from this that the Grand Chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, in taking this step, was showing remarkable forethought as a pioneer in fraternity administration. SigEp was one of the first two fraternities to own a headquarters building. In slightly less than 10 years, Sigma Phi Epsilon had grown from a single chapter to a fraternity with chapters in 21 states and the D.C.
World War I took its toll on college attendance and impacted fraternities, both in membership and expansion. The Journal editor reported: "Already men are leaving in large numbers, while a great many institutions…devote their athletic fields to drilling…"
Congress passed a draft bill with age limits from 21 to 30 years. The editor advised all chapters that, "While fulfilling every duty to our country, let us also strive to maintain every chapter."
The cover of the October, 1917, Journal featured two SigEps in army uniforms. Grand President Francis J. Knauss, Colorado, 1908, wrote of his pride in the brothers' response to the call of duty. However, he warned: "The ranks of active fraternity men have been depleted all over the country…these are trying times, and for some chapters, they will be crucial ones." He also recommended that each chapter buy a Liberty Bond to help fund the war effort.
As an institution, Sigma Phi Epsilon survived World War I well. While three chapters were in danger of closing, only one—Rhode Island Alpha at Brown University—actually failed to survive the war. Expansion during this period was slowed as the Great Depression descended upon the nation; only 15 new chapters had been installed by 1930.
In 1938, a major development took place—a merger between Sigma Phi Epsilon and the Theta Upsilon Omega national fraternity. Four chapters of ΤΥΩ merged with four of SigEps existing chapters, and seven others became Sigma Phi Epsilon chapters. With the merger, scores of dedicated ΤΥΩ alumni became members in the Fraternity, and many became important leaders in Sigma Phi Epsilon.
In 1940, there were 69 active chapters. The 1940s saw the Fraternity's expansion increase, with 27 new charters granted by 1949.
After 34 years as the Fraternity's first Grand Secretary, William L. Phillips, Richmond 1903, retired in 1942. The National Board of Directors appointed Herb Heilig, Lawrence '23, to take Brother Phillips' place as Grand Secretary. Serving for two difficult years during World War II, Brother Heilig laid the groundwork for the Fraternity's post-war rebuilding program, He resigned in 1944.
The Board then appointed William W. Hindman Jr., Pennsylvania '39, to the position of Grand Secretary, in which he served for 13 years. Brother Hindman was instrumental in establishing 51 new chapters during the 1950s. By 1959, Sigma Phi Epsilon had 148 active chapters. With the Fraternity's rapid expansion, the leadership at Headquarters once again changed with Bedford W. Black, Wake Forest '41, taking over after the retirement of Bill Hindman.
Bedford Black's charge was to determine how the Headquarters should best be organized to operate Sigma Phi Epsilon as an emerging "large fraternity." Richard F. Whiteman, Syracuse '54, a member of the Headquarters staff at the time, was selected to lead the Fraternity as its Executive Director. Succeeding Brother Whiteman was Donald M. Johnson, Kansas '45, who had been in business in Colo. at the time of his appointment. Brother Johnson brought to the Headquarters staff the business skills he had acquired. During his tenure from 1961 to 1971, he implemented many organizational changes at Headquarters, including the enlargement of the professional staff.
Sigma Phi Epsilon chartered 33 new chapters between 1960 and 1969, and membership reached its highest levels. In 1968, the College Survey Bureau reported that 59 percent of the 173 chapters were among the top chapters on their campuses.
The 1960s began with Sigma Phi Epsilon making the transition to a more business-like operation, necessitated by its dramatic growth during the 1950s. During this time, the professional staff located in Richmond, Va., grew and became more specialized in developing an array of services for undergraduate chapters. The most significant event of the 1960s was the emergence of J. Edward Zollinger, William & Mary '27, as the leader of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation and the Fraternity. He served the Fraternity as Grand President from 1967 to 1971. "Zolly" came from the successful IBM Corporation, serving as assistant to the founder of IBM, where he was involved in developing IBM's corporate culture.
The successful experience of Ed Zollinger in the business world and the stability of a long-term professional staff in Richmond brought together ingredients necessary for Sigma Phi Epsilon's emergence as a leader among all national fraternities in the 1970s. It was the vision of excellence and the personal dedication to that vision which made Ed Zollinger unique. Sigma Phi Epsilon was committed to the future.
In 1971, the National Board of Directors divided Headquarters responsibilities between the areas of alumni operations, undergraduate operations and financial operations, appointing Charles N. White Jr., Western Michigan '62, to the undergraduate and financial areas as Executive Vice President. Donald M. Johnson assumed responsibility for the alumni and Foundation areas, also as Executive Vice President. This organizational structure continued until 1976 upon the retirement of Brother Johnson, at which time Brother White was named Executive Director and was responsible for the entire Headquarters operation. During Brother White's tenure, the Regional Leadership Academy program was created and instituted, the professional Headquarters staff was expanded, and its responsibilities enlarged.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were difficult times. Fraternities began losing their popularity. A generation wary of established institutions was arriving on campus and many of them scorned the Greek system as elitist, outdated, and immature. Unfortunately, enough fraternity chapters behaved in such a way that the charge stuck.
The "student movement," centered on the war in Vietnam, alienated fraternity chapters still further. Faced with a breakdown of campus and chapter values, many chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon and of other fraternities lost direction. Men were no longer attracted to membership. None of the old recruitment formulas seemed to work. Some of SigEp's oldest and strongest chapters died during this era because they refused to adapt.
By 1972, Sigma Phi Epsilon chapters were suffering. The number of members decreased, and alumni support was weakening—college students of the time were bucking traditions and the ways of "anyone over 30." The Fraternity's Headquarters went into deficit financial operation, but the Board of Directors and the Executive Director refused to cut back on the service to undergraduate chapters. The strength of SigEp over the years has been a function of alumni guidance and Headquarters services to the undergraduate chapters. That devotion to service pulled SigEp through the early 1970s with fewer scars than most other strong fraternities. The investment in the belief that the hard times would come to an end paid off. In the late 1970s, students began to change—demanding a return to the ideals of a past generation. Fraternities were again in prime position to meet those needs and SigEp was ready.
The growth of the late 1970s continued into the first half of the 1980s and did not show any signs of slowing. Sigma Phi Epsilon held its strongest position ever, with 250 chapters in 45 states. With 6,000 undergraduates on college campuses, 170,000 lifetime members, and more men joining than any other fraternity, SigEp became the strongest and most popular fraternity in history.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a commitment to undergraduates and undergraduate housing emerged as a central theme with special emphasis on long-term financial stability. Sigma Phi Epsilon's leadership in the interfraternity world was acknowledged as it led all fraternities in innovative approaches to programming and undergraduate development.
In 1987, Kenneth S. Maddox, Oregon State '75, was named Executive Director, and Brother White began full-time management of the Educational Foundation as its President. A commitment to alumni began to emerge from the Headquarters operation through a focused plan to develop the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation as a primary resource for the Fraternity's future. The Fraternity has benefited greatly from the increased strength of the Educational Foundation.
A number of important initiatives began at the close of the decade. In 1987 the Self-Esteem Committee met under the leadership of Past Grand President Donald C. McCleary, Texas-Austin '71, to discuss issues facing the Fraternity. The Self-Esteem Committee developed some of the concepts for the Balanced Man Program, a membership development program aimed at preserving Sigma Phi Epsilon's values while providing for the needs of its members. In 1989, the Fraternity developed the first formalized strategic plan—a detailed blueprint designed to take the Fraternity into the next millennium as the premier Greek-letter organization.
The 1990s have marked a major shift in the Greek world. The negative reputation of Greek life earned by fraternities during the 1970s and 1980s resulted in declining membership and dramatically increasing insurance costs for all organizations. Yet through this time of turmoil in the interfraternity world, Sigma Phi Epsilon remained the largest and fastest growing fraternity in history. As the founding member of the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group (FIPG) in the 1980s, Sigma Phi Epsilon was instrumental in leading the Greek community to better risk management practices.
The Fraternity's Educational Foundation continued to support undergraduates and innovative programs. It took a giant step by completing the $5 million Campaign for the Heart in 1993. This was SigEp's largest fund-raising effort to date, and it enabled SigEp undergraduates to enhance leadership and scholarship skills for the 1990s and beyond. Through a leadership gift from Curtis L. Carlson, Minnesota '37, the Regional Leadership Academies were renamed in his honor. They are now known as the Carlson Leadership Academies.
A membership program unique among college fraternities was established with Grand Chapter legislation in 1991—the Balanced Man Program. This program is based on individual growth through academic excellence, enhanced life skills, chapter leadership, mentoring, and service in the community.
In March of 1996, Brother Maddox announced his intentions to return to his home state of Oregon. The National Board of Directors selected Jacques L. Vauclain III, Davidson '91, to succeed Brother Maddox as Executive Director.
At the 47th Grand Chapter Conclave, held in Washington, D.C. in 2001, over 1,600 attendees helped to celebrate the Centennial of our great Fraternity. Sigma Phi Epsilon entered its second century as the nation’s largest fraternity. Yet this celebration did not temper the Fraternity’s desire to continue to push beyond the perceptions of the American college fraternity and continue to introduce new innovations.
Since 2000, great strides have been made to introduce and improve upon programs like the Balanced Man Scholarship, Residential Learning Community, and much of what makes SigEp the premier college fraternity today.
In 2009, the Fraternity’s mission was refined to, “Building Balanced Men.” This new mission has provided a heightened focus around the Fraternity’s objectives. Brian C. Warren Jr., Virginia ’04, took the helm as executive director in 2010 and has continued to raise the bar higher and push the Fraternity further in its effort to serve as a valued partner in higher education.