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Sigma Nu History

Sigma Nu's past is a proud and colorful one. Founded by three cadets at the Virginia Military Institute during 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 Founders

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 home life, but because of the system of physical harassment imposed on underclassmen 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.

Two classmates and close friends who were also equally unhappy with the hazing situation soon joined Hopkins. 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 tradition 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 New Year's.

The Fraternity's spiritual birth, however, actually occurred 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 affection for all people who 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 organization 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 Olli' 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.

Headquarters Established

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 direction.

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.

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 grave site. 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, Judge Greenfield Quarles, entered the Chapter Eternal at his home in Helena, Arkansas, January 14, 1921. He had lived a life of noble service.

Written by: Jordan Fleming '03