Sigma Nu's past is a proud and colorful one. Founded by three cadets
at the Virginia Military Institute in a period of civil strife known as
the Reconstruction, Sigma Nu represented a radical departure from the
times. The system of physical abuse and hazing of underclassmen at VMI
led to James Frank Hopkins, Greenfield Quarles, and James McIlvaine
Riley to form the 'Legion of Honor' which soon became Sigma Nu
Fraternity. So, amidst a backdrop of turmoil, North America's first
'Honor' fraternity was established.
The story of Sigma Nu began during the period following the Civil
War, when a Confederate veteran from Arkansas enrolled at the Virginia
Military Institute in Lexington Virginia. That cadet was James Frank
Hopkins, and it is to him and two of his classmates that Sigma Nu owes
its existence. When Hopkins enrolled at VMI, the south was in a state of
turmoil and just beginning to recover from the devastating military
defeat it had suffered. The Virginia Military Institute was highly
recognized for its civil engineering program and the South badly needed
to repair its bridges and railroads. At the Institute cadets suffered,
not only of the ravages of war and a disrupted homelife, but because of
the system of physical harassment imposed on lower classmen by their
fellow students in the upper classes.
Hopkins had experienced military subservience during the war, and was
willing to tolerate a reasonable amount of constraint intended to induce
discipline. However, Hopkins was unwilling to accept any amount of
hazing then being allowed at VMI. Not one ounce of hazing was he willing
to suffer and he was doggedly adamant about eliminating it.
Hopkins soon was joined by two classmates and close friends who were
also equally unhappy with the hazing situation. They were Greenfield
Quarles, from Arkansas, a Kentuckian by birth, and James McIlvaine Riley
from St. Louis, Missouri. These three men began a movement to completely
abolish the hazing system at VMI. Their efforts climaxed on a moonlit
October night in 1868, presumably following Bible study at the
superintendent's home, when the three met at a limestone outcropping on
the edge of the VMI parade ground. Hopkins, Quarles and Riley clasped
hands on the Bible and gave their solemn pledge to form a brotherhood of
a new society they called the Legion of Honor.
The vows taken by these three Founders bound them together to oppose
hazing at VMI and encouraged the application of the Principle of Honor
in all their relationships. That the founders should adopt Honor as a
guiding principle was a natural move since a rigid code of Honor was
already an established traditon of the VMI Corps of Cadets. The Honor
system at VMI required each cadet to conform to the duty imposed by his
conscience that each act be governed by a high sense of Honor.
Sigma Nu Announced
Although Sigma Nu Fraternity began in October 1868 as the Legion of
Honor, its existence was kept secret until the founders publicly
announced their new society on the first day of January 1869, the
accepted birthdate of Sigma Nu. What a New Year's celebration it must
have been for cadets who could not go home for the holidays! In those
days the Institute did not close for 'breaks' as we know them. It
suspended classes only for the day on such occasions as Christmas and
The Fraternity's spiritual birth, however, actually occured in 1866,
the year the Founders entered VMI, when Frank Hopkins first rebelled
against hazing at the Institute. Still, the Founders did not create
Sigma Nu with any feeling of animosity toward others; rather they were
prompted by the impulses of sympathy and affecton for all people which
underlie abiding peace and contentment. They had experienced enough hate
and destruction all during and after the War. They wanted to end all
abuses, and they knew it would not come easily. It was never an issue of
who won or lost the War. It was only an issue of winning the peace.
The Legion of Honor society in its first year assumed the outward
aspects of a college Greek-letter organization. The organizaton kept its
original name secret but was recognized publicly as Sigma Nu Fraternity.
It was soon to win the respect of all.
The new Fraternity needed an identifying symbol, and Founder Hopkins
designed a Badge for the members to wear on their uniforms. That Badge
was patterned after the White Cross of the French Legion of Honor, which
was worn on the uniform of a favorite professor of Hopkins. The Badge
was first introduced in the spring of 1869. Keeping with the Founders'
decree, the Badge has remained unchanged ever since, except in size and
the raised center. Even today, the collegiate Commander's Badge, and the
Badge of the Grand Officers remain identical to Hopkins' original Badge.
When the first slate of Officers was chosen, Riley, the most popular,
was elected Commander and Hopkins the Lieutenant Commander. Typically,
Hopkins, the epitome of humbleness, was delighted that 'Mac' Riley was
chosen leader. It gave Hopkins 'the doer,' thinker, planner, along with
Quarles who had similar talent, more of an opportunity to concentrate on
solidifying ol' Alpha before he graduated in 1870. By the 1869
commencement, the group had grown to fifty-one members.
Sigma Nu Expands
Expansion began for Sigma Nu in 1870 after the graduation of the
Founders, when the mother chapter at VMI, then known as Chapter I,
approved the establishment of a chapter at the University of Virginia.
Later, a permanent numbering system established a Greek-letter
designation for chapters. Thus, Chapter I became Alpha and the
University of Virginia chapter became Beta.
Sigma Nu established a chapter at North Georgia Agricultural College
in 1881. One of the men instrumental in the chartering of the North
Georgia chapter was John Alexander Howard. He was blessed with rare
intellect and considerable talent for writing. That talent led him
naturally to newspaper work. Howard read widely and in his reading
discovered Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities. He read that
book until he was familiar with all national fraternities. His study of
other fraternities prompted him to examine shortcomings of his own
fledgling Fraternity. At this time Sigma Nu was still using the Roman
numeral designation for chapters. Howard felt that the Fraternity should
adopt a Greek-letter designation according to the founding date of the
chapter. Thus, his own chapter at North Georgia became Kappa. Howard's
main contribution was the founding of The Delta, the Fraternity's
renowned magazine. He selected The Delta for the magazine's title to
symbolize the geographic relationship of the three existing chapters of
the Fraternity at that time, Alpha, Lambda and Kappa. The first edition
of The Delta was published in April 1883 and contained sixteen pages.
First National Convention
The year following the publication of The Delta witnessed another
important milestone for Sigma Nu. That event was the First National
Convention, which met at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville,
Tennessee, July 9-10, 1884. The person responsible for the Fisrt
National Convention was Isaac P. Robinson (Lambda, Washington and Lee).
Robinson felt that a meeting of alumni and collegiate representatives
was imperative because of a need to update the constitution, revise
procedures and coordinate efforts. The Sigma Nu convention later became
known as Grand Chapter. It is held every two years and serves as the
legislative body of the General Fraternity.
Another event in 1884 which had a major impact upon the Fraternity
was the establishment of Nu Chapter at the University of Kansas. During
the first fifteen years of its existence, Sigma Nu was primarily a
southern fraternity, and the decision to establish Nu Chapter was to be
the first step in a radical expansion program. Nu chapter was to open
the West and North for Sigma Nu. Eugene L. Alford of Lambda was
instrumental in the founding of Nu Chapter.
Two charter initiates of Nu who became very influential in Sigma Nu
in later years were Perlee Rawson Bennett and Grant Woodbury Harrington.
Bennett served the Fraternity as Grand Recorder for many years and in
1890 was elected Regent. He presided over the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth,
and Tenth Grand Chapters. Harrington became editor of The Delta and
Grand Recorder. For eight years (1886-1894) he had almost total
responsibility for the administration of the Fraternity. Other early
members of Nu Chapter were the Sears brothers, William H. Sears,
Clarence H. Sears and Walter James Sears, who also became influential in
Sigma Nu affairs. Their brother, Lorin Beecher Sears, attended Ohio
State University where no chapter of Sigma Nu existed at the time.
Walter was so interested in having Lorin initiated into the Fraternity
that he entered Ohio State University, founded Beta Nu and became its
first initiate; Lorin became its second. Walter Sears devoted much of
his lifetime to Sigma Nu, but his name will be remembered best for his
beautiful prose work, 'The Creed of Sigma Nu.'
The Move West
Leland Stanford University opened in 1891. Among its first students
was Carl Lane Clemans, who had founded Chi Chapter at Cornell College in
Iowa. Clemans was determined to open a chapter on the West Coast, and he
recruited enough men to charter Beta Chi Chapter at Stanford in November
1891. Beta Chi's fame soon spread to Berkeley, and Clemans went there to
help organize Beta Psi in February 1892.
Sigma Nu opened the Northwest to Greek letter organizations when
Gamma Chi was chartered at the University of Washington in 1895, earning
the Fraternity kudos throughout the Greek community for its 'Northwest
conquest.' For almost four years Sigma Nu was the only college
fraternity in the Northwest, having been the first to establish a
chapter not only in the State of Washington, but also Montana and
Beta Iota at Mount Union was chartered by Walter James Sears in 1892.
Three years later Beta Iota initiated Albert Hughes Wilson, to whom
Sigma Nu owes a great debt. 'Bert' Wilson served as Regent, but his most
noteworthy achievement was in expansion. Wilson established more
chapters than any other member of the Fraternity, thirty-two in all, and
he is generally credited with helping develop Sigma Nu into a
geographically representative organization. Brother Wilson was the
exemplar of interfraternity spirit as well, being chiefly responsible
for the founding of Alpha Sigma Phi men's fraternity. As an aside, it
should be noted that Brother Wilson C. Morris (Beta Iota, Mt. Union) is
given credit by Sigma Tau Gamma men's fraternity as being the driving
force behind its founding while the collegiate Brothers of Delta Theta
Chapter, Lombard (Knox) College assisted greatly with the founding of
Alpha Xi Delta women's fraternity.
Having active chapters in each section of the country, Sigma Nu was
now in every sense a national fraternity. Expansion proceeded at an
orderly rate, and by 1915 there was a need for centrally located
administrative offices with full-time officers. Heretofore, the various
Sigma Nu officers maintained their files and records at their own homes
or places of business. Fire had once destroyed many of the Fraternity's
records, and there was a lack of coordination in general.
Following the Denver Grand Chapter in 1915, the High Council approved
the establishment of the central administrative system first proposed by
Regent Francis V. Keesling (Beta Chi, Stanford). The plan, adapted by
Walter J. Sears, converted the High Council into a board of directors
elected by the Grand Chapter; all executive and administrative duties
previously exercised by members of the High Council and committees were
lodged in a single official - the General Secretary (now Executive
Director) - appointed by the High Council and subordinate to its
Indianapolis was selected as the location of the Fraternity's
headquarters, and on November 1, 1915 the General Offices were opened
there temporarily in the Lemcke Annex before moving into the main
building. Bixby Willis (Lambda, Washington and Lee), a past Grand
Treasurer of Sigma Nu, was employed as the first General Secretary. In
1926 the central office was moved to the Illinois Building in
Indianapolis served as the Fraternity's headquarters for forty-two
years, during which time fifty-five new chapters were added to the
roster of the Legion of Honor.
Founders Join Chapter Eternal
Founder James Riley, who had served ten years (1869-79) as the
Fraternity's first Regent, entered the Chapter Eternal on May 6, 1911,
in St. Louis, Missouri. Members of the Fraternity carried his remains to
a burial plot purchased in Bellefontaine Cemetery by the St. Louis
Alumni Chapter in fraternal affection for the Founder.
The life of James Frank Hopkins ended on December 15, 1913, and he
was laid to rest in the village cemetery at Mablevale, Arkansas, beside
his sweetheart from cadet days and devoted wife, a native Lexingtonian,
Jennie Barclay Hopkins. In 1920 an impressive memorial was dedicated at
the gravesite. Greenfield Quarles, the only Founder still living,
offered a tribute to Alpha 1:
The love of our Brother for his fellow man was only excelled by his
love of God. His example has instilled into the hearts of us all the
principles which guide us now, and these principles will go down in
future generations for all time. His life has been an inspiration to all
youth. All that was mortal of Brother Hopkins lies buried here; but his
immortal spirit will live forever.
Six months later, the last of the three Founders was taken from
living contact with the Fraternity. Judge Greenfield Quarles entered the
Chapter Eternal at his home in Helena, Arkansas, January 14, 1921. He
had lived a life of noble service.
In 1945, Brother William P. Yates (Beta Rho, Pennsylvania), inspired
the formation of the 'Sigma Nu Inc., Educational Foundation' with a
handsome bequest. Its name was changed in recent times to the 'Sigma Nu
Educational Foundation, Inc.' The foundation has been instrumental in
assisting collegiate members with financial aid supplements, and the
General Fraternity in the development of the LEAD Program, (LEAD is an
acronym for leadership, ethics, achievement, development). The
Foundation continues to support the exclusively educational programs of
Return to Lexington
Even before Sigma Nu's first central office was organized in
Indianapolis, some dreamed of the day when the Fraternity would have an
appropriate shrine at Sigma Nu's birthplace, but it took nearly four
decades before the first step was taken. That step was the appointment
of a Headquarters Committee in 1954. It compared rent with ownership and
ultimately recommended the latter in a college town where a Sigma Nu
chapter thrived. Inevitably Sigma Nu history and tradition pointed to
Regant James W. Bradley (Epsilon Epsilon, Oklahoma State) and his
High Council took the historic step in 1957, purchasing without mortgage
or lien a singularly appropriate property, a large, a large home ideally
suited for conversion and development. The land, conveniently located on
the highest hill in the corporate limits of Lexington, Virginia, and on
a seven-and-one-half-acre tract overlooking VMI and Washington and Lee
University, enjoys the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop to the east
and the Allegheny Mountains to the west. The land was originally owned
by the son of General Frances H. Smith, the first superintendent of VMI,
who inspired Hopkins in the founding of Sigma Nu; the house, built by
the grandson of Superintendent Smith, came to Sigma Nu directly from the
Smith family. Milton L. Grigg, a renowned Virginia architect and
participant in the famous Williamsburg Restoration, was contracted to
restore the building. The Headquarters facility was occupied in 1958 and
officially dedicated June 9, 1960.
Sigma Nu Centennial
On January 1, 1969, Sigma Nu reached its one-hundred-year milestone.
In the year that followed, it marked that event with a series of
Centennial dinners at 36 locations throughout the country and with
pilgrimages to the gravesites of the three Founders and the first editor
of The Delta. Then on Sunday, June 15, a Centennial Convocation was held
in Lexington. Two beautiful new wings of the Headquarters building were
dedicated, one housing the Sigma Nu Museum and the other the
Fraternity's Honor Library, later to be dedicated in tribute to former
Executive Secretary Richard R. 'Dick' Fletcher, who had long since
earned the moniker 'Mr. Sigma Nu.'
Sigma Nu in its 100th year had come a long way from its founding. At
the century mark it had issued 164 charters of which 143 chapters were
alive and flourishing. Of the nine other truly national fraternities
older than Sigma Nu, only three had more initiates. Sigma Nu owned 110
chapter houses providing living accommodations for more than 3,500
students. All this had been accomplished solely through the appeal of
its principles - without false claims or specious promises, without
merger, without honorary members. Every chapter had earned its own way
by applying integrity in both purpose and method.
Sigma Nu Celebrates its 125th year
Well into the Fraternity's second century, Sigma Nu continued its
dramatic growth. Today, the number of initiates is nearly 200,000; the
number of chapters approaching 250. Many of the Fraternity's chapters
have initiated more than a 1,000 members, with a large number topping
1,500 and several exceeding 2,000.
Among the many significant achievements during the past decade has
been the additon of adjacent properties in Lexington, Virginia, known as
the Ethical Leadership Center, owned by the Sigma Nu Educational
Foundation, Inc. Particularly noteworthy is Sigma Nu's interfraternity
leadership in risk reduction and risk management matters followed by the
introduction of its unique LEAD Program, one of the most meaningful
educational initiatives ever undertaken by a college fraternity. In
additon, the transfer of ownership of the Fraternity's Headquarters
property, known as the Sigma Nu Headquarters Shrine, to the Sigma Nu
Educational Foundation, Inc. has enabled alumni gifts to assist in its
restoration and preservation, so as to relieve the burden of upkeep on
future generations of collegians.
Finally, in celebration of the Fraternity's 125th anniversary, the
Foundation undertook construction of a third wing to the Headquarters
Shrine as well as a Pathway of Honor of engraved bricks, which provides
an opportunity to celebrate the life of each Sigma Nu. The Pathway of
Honor will meander throughout the Lexington properties. A special
'Pilgrimage to the Rock' was one of the memorable highlights of the 56th
Grand Chapter held in Washington, DC, in August 1994.
For a century and a quarter Sigma Nu chapters have shaped the man of
integrity. Their challenge for the future is to focus efforts and
energies anew to the fuller realization of the great mission set by our
Founders - to build Men of Honor, ethical leaders for society based upon
the concept of the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God.
Indeed, Sigma Nu may be on the threshold of the era of its greatest
achievement as it enters the 21st Century.