Beta Kappa

Hamline University

Image for Beta Kappa

Installed: May 15, 1942
Location: St. Paul, MN

October 15, 1901, in the drafty boarding house at 1605 W. Minnehaha Ave., Albert “Bucking Cow” Spencer, Edward T. Marlette, Charles Wallace, and D. Paul Rader formed a small local fraternity known as “The Knights of Beta Omicron Sigma Kappa.” This name comes from the childhood organization of Rev. Rader, using the Latin letter counterparts, B.O.S.K. Hamline would refuse to recognize the fraternity’s existence at first, but finally accepted the inevitable by the fall of 1904. The name was eventually colloquially shortened to Beta Kappa Fraternity. The long title, however, remained the official one.

The fraternity, being nearly the only social outlet on for young men at Hamline, rapidly grew in both numbers and prestige. So strong was its growth that by 1911, when the first rival fraternity appeared, Beta Kappa was firmly entrenched in the Hamline landscape. In the few years of its existence, Beta Kappa had already developed a strong network of alumni. In is in this year that then men of Beta Kappa would get their own house. It was built solely on the support of alumni. It was one of the first houses along the small road, by today’s standards, called Snelling Avenue. Our house, still at 823 N. Snelling Ave., was moved into on October 15, 1911, the ten-year anniversary of the formation of Beta Kappa, making it the oldest student housing affiliated with Hamline. Beta Kappa was thus at an obvious advantage to any upstart fraternity, and growth remained unchecked until the entry in to World War I in 1917.

That year, when America joined the war, Beta Kappa Fraternity closed its doors and enlisted in the army. It is somewhat misleading, however, to assume that merely blind patriotism compelled them to go to the front, as it did with so many men. The Beta Kappa’s of 1917, still close to and aware of their founders, did not join the war to take part in the killing. Rather, they went to war as an ambulance unit, transporting wounded men from the front lines to primitive rear echelon hospitals. The Beta Kappa unit served on one of the most difficult campaigns in the war, the cold and mountainous Italian Front.

The end of the war brought an unprecedented era of prosperity to Hamline University and Beta Kappa. Between 1918 and 1923 the undergraduate population of the fraternity nearly tripled in size. Phi Delta, Beta Kappa’s chief rival and eventual Alpha Tau Omega chapter, doubled in size during the same period. With Beta Kappa leading the way, Greek life at Hamline reached its “golden age” by the mid 20’s. By 1925 there were ten Greek letter societies (5 fraternities and 5 sororities) competing for prominence on campus. Of these, only Beta Kappa, now Theta Chi, survives today.

In 1922 the fraternity received a letter from a group of young men who were organizing a fraternity at Washington University in Seattle, Washington. They had heard about Beta Kappa through an alumnus of the fraternity living in the area. He had so impressed them with the quality and high ideals of the organization that they wished to establish a chapter of Beta Kappa on their campus. This letter touched off a serious debate within the fraternity as to the pros and cons of “going national.” The main issue, as voiced by a slight, but vocal, minority of the brothers, was whether or not the fraternity would be able to field the necessary undergraduate and alumni strength to successfully launch a national fraternity. The most trying time for a national fraternity is at the very beginning, they argued, and without the necessary levels of interested manpower, the effort could easily collapse, a common occurrence with many fledgling nationals. Not only could the episode prove a great embarrassment, but the nationalization attempt could distract the fraternity from its primary interest, the Hamline campus. Beta Kappa could lose its role of leadership on campus, whether the nationalization was successful or not.

Both sides of the issue offered convincing arguments, but rather neither could muster enough votes to settle the issue. Unable to answer yes or no to the Washington group, the fraternity opted instead to buy time. This came in the form of a polite letter informing the Washington group that, should a specific petition for membership be filed by them, it would be considered in due time. By the time a legitimate petition had been sent by the Washington group, enough members of the opposition had graduated to give those in favor of nationalizing the edge. A charter was granted to the Washington chapter, and the Beta Omicron Sigma Kappa fraternity of Hamline became known as the Alpha Chapter of Beta Kappa Fraternity.

At the first National Convention (occurring in 1924 at the Alpha Chapter House), national offices, regulations, and funding procedures were established. A fraternity magazine, The Journal of Beta Kappa, was begun, and a new chapter, Gamma located at Nebraska Wesleyan University, was chartered. After 1926 national growth for Beta Kappa was unusual by any fraternity’s standards. By 1928 it had been accepted as a full member of the National Interfraternity Conference, sitting side-by-side with such ancient and well established nationals as Theta Chi and Alpha Tau Omega. Beta Kappa became known as a fraternity consisting mainly of small, but wealthy and influential, chapters. Its main strength, however, laid in the high academic quality of nearly all its chapters. Beta Kappa Fraternity was somewhat unusual in the fraternity would in the fact that it had developed a highly centralized system for maintaining high academic standards among its member chapters. With such a good reputation building behind it, it was only natural that growth would be outstanding. By 1929, the last great year for Beta Kappa, there were 27 chapters, nearly all located at well-known college campuses stretching from Vermont to California, from South Carolina to our own Hamline University.

The next two decades proved a difficult, and in many cases fatal era for colleges. The collapse of the worldwide economy in 1929 brought with it a collapse in college enrollment, as many people simply became too poor to pay tuition. Fraternities, symbiotically connected to the health of their colleges, were even more seriously affected. Hamline, facing drastically shrinking enrollments and a collapse in the value of its endowment (which was overwhelmingly connected to the agricultural industry) nearly shut its doors during the Great Depression. Alpha Chapter of Beta Kappa saw its undergraduate membership drop from well over 40 members in 1959 to just over a dozen men in 1933. Needless to say, the chapter lost its leadership role on campus, if only because there wasn’t much to lead. All Greek societies at Hamline were facing similar retrenchments. Two local fraternities even had to merge in order to survive. The most severely affected, however, was Beta Kappa; it was more expensive to be a part of a national fraternity and few in those cost-conscious times were willing to pay for the added financial burden.

While the Alpha Chapter was struggling at Hamline, the existence of Beta Kappa as a national organization was in more serious doubt. The national government continued to operate successfully under a more austere budget than in the 1920’s, but it rapidly was becoming somewhat of a head without a body, as chapter after chapter closed its door for good. Although Beta Kappa had chartered 47 chapters by 1940, only 25 were still active. These 25 appeared relatively stable, however, as the Great Depression entered its waning years. This changed for the worse when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II. This time the drain of men appeared to be a fatal blow to both the Alpha Chapter and the National Organization.

At this time the leaders of Beta Kappa decided to seek out another national fraternity for the purpose of a merger. It was clear that the future of Beta Kappa was in great doubt. A merger with just any fraternity was out of the question however. The other fraternity must be as compatible with Beta Kappa as possible; such a fraternity was found in Theta Chi. With over 50 chapters still active, Theta Chi was in no immediate danger of extinction. It did, on the other hand, face irreparable danger as it lacked the funds (or capacity to raise them) to keep many of its weaker chapters afloat. Beta Kappa, having a strong network of very successful alumni, was in relatively good financial shape but had to with a crippling manpower shortage. Other signs also pointed to a favorable merger. Theta Chi and Beta Kappa were very much alike in philosophy. Theta Chi was East Coast heavy, while Beta Kappa had more chapters on the West Coast. Even the symbols (Coat of Arms, Badges, Charters, etc.) were alike. A merger was agreed upon and took place on the evening of April 14, 1942. On May 15th and 16th of that same year, Alpha Chapter of Beta Kappa Fraternity was chartered as the Beta Kappa Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity, promised that position in the series as an honor to the strength of Beta Kappa originating from our house. Over the next months, finishing that December, the rest of the Beta Kappa Chapters were installed under Theta Chi. In all, 16 new chapters and about 6,000 men were added to the ranks of Theta Chi. Of Beta Kappa’s other chapters, some where considered too weak to survive as Theta Chi chapters and were let go. Most, however, were on campuses that already had a Theta Chi chapter.

The merger could not, however, prevent many of these chapters from temporarily becoming inactive for the war. Beta Kappa was one such chapter. It closed its doors on May 10, 1943, allowing Hamline to buy the house for $1 under the agreement that they could buy it back for $1 when the men returned home from war. Thus while the men were away, Hamline used the house as a rooming for its Nursing School, the only time in the house’s history during which it was not run by the chapter.

When the Theta Chi’s returned home from war to reopen the chapter on October 28, 1946, they found themselves faced with a new dilemma. Hamline refused to relinquish control of the house back to the chapter, claiming that had become Hamline’s property when the chapter was (temporarily) dissolved in 1943. The University had used the same tactics to gain control of both the Phi Delta house (eventually the Alpha Tau Omega House and currently Alpha Gamma Epsilon’s house) and Alpha Sigma Chi house (eventually the Tau Kappa Epsilon house and currently the Admissions house). Hamline succeeded with these houses due to a weakness and poor financial planning on the part of respective fraternities. The tactic proved unsuccessful against the more robust Theta Chi’s. After months of debate and threats of legal action by the chapter, Hamline agreed to concede ownership of the house to the Beta Kappa Corporation (the organization formed to run the house). The Theta Chi’s moved back into their house on February 3, 1947 from the old field house where they had been staying. As a result of this, Theta Chi is the only Greek society at Hamline that owns its own residence.

From the late 40’s to the mid 60’s the chapter enjoyed steady growth, interrupted only briefly and slightly by the Korean War. All through this time the chapter excelled in sports. Hamline’s National Championship basketball teams were largely made up of Theta Chi’s, including the starts of the era, Joe Hutton, Jr. and Hal Haskins. Later on, in the 60’s, most of the football team consisted of Theta Chi’s, this time including the stars of Hamline’s 1966 MIAC Championship team. Two years later, in 1968, Jed Knuttila, a Theta Chi and running back for the Pipers, would break a 99 ½ yard run for a touchdown against St. Thomas, still a NCAA record.

The Theta Chi’s of this time also excelled in academics. Twice, in 1955 and again in 1957, the chapter was recognized as having the highest GPA of any chapter of Theta Chi. These men were not, however, without their troubles. In 1959, the chapter almost lost its charter when, in a surprise inspection, members of the University’s administration discovered two six-packs of beer in one of the brother’s rooms in the house. Hamline’s policy was very strict then and Dean of Men threatened to close the chapter for good over the incident. The house was to remain open in recognition of the chapter’s “unusual eager compliance with the no alcohol rule,” provided, however, that the offending brother be expelled from the house, and his roommate placed on probation. With this incident behind it, the chapter prospered, reaching its peak membership of 72 active members and pledges in the spring of 1962.

Changes also came to other Greek Societies on campus. Alpha Sigma Chi became a chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity in 1959. One sorority, Phi Beta Gamma, became defunct in the early 60’s. Finally, in 1965, Phi Delta, our oldest and most intense rival, became the Zeta Sigma Chapter of Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. With the addition of two more fraternities to the Hamline campus, maintaining the leadership position on campus became more difficult for the Theta Chi’s. The chapter remained on top until the late sixties, when changes in student values brought on by the Vietnam War caused fraternity membership to once again drop considerably across the nation.

Membership suffered considerably, reaching a low of 9 members in 1979. With hardly anyone able or willing to keep the chapter house in repair, it fell into a state of near ruin. Amazingly enough, the Tau Kappa Epsilon’s were in even worse shape than the Theta Chi’s. Hamline finally revoked its charter in 1979, leaving on two Greek organizations at Hamline (the four sororities had all their charters revoked in 1974 following a hazing accident in one of their houses which resulted in the death of a pledge). Out of 7 Greek societies in the beginning of the ‘70’s, only Theta Chi and Alpha Tau Omega survived through the decade.

The eighties proved better for Greeks at Hamline. In 1981, Hamline permitted sororities to reappear; immediately two new sororities, Alpha Gamma Epsilon and Delta Tau, appeared. Of the fraternities, Alpha Tau Omega recovered the most quickly from the malaise of the ‘70’s, winning the respect of the campus by 1982 and thus gaining the edge in membership over Theta Chi. Theta Chi concerned itself chiefly with internal housecleaning (both spiritual and physical) in the early ‘80’s. In 1983 the City of St. Paul, after threatening to do so for years, finally had the fraternity house condemned. It had more than 100 housing violations and, to the best of our knowledge, still holds the record for most overall. This action forced the chapter to turn the majority of its attention away from growth and towards the more down to earth goals of retrenchment and restructuring. With help from the National Board of Trustees (Theta Chi’s financial coordinating body) the chapter cleaned up its membership as well, as it sought to shed its reputation as being little more than a drug house and party haven. In 1984, the house spent $40,000 on the exterior completely rebuilding the porch, a renovated bathroom, and new wiring, which had previously been insulated with newspaper. In 1986, more renovations were done, improving the heating system. The late ‘80’s saw more and more work done to the house, renovating the kitchen, installing more wiring and a new fire alarm system.

It was during this time that membership also grew. A renewed vigor and pride in the refurbish and stronger house helped recruit more and more members. This was a time of great changes from the years before. The house made the decision to ban illegal drugs in the early ‘80’s and later on in that decade, banned kegs from the house, all of which brought very heated debates in the house. With a cleaner mentality and a more positive attitude, growth continued from the mid ‘80’s into the early ‘90’s, when the house again saw numbers approaching or exceeding 40 active members. It was during these years that the Beta Kappa Chapter received a great honor. Recognizing the great service that our ancestors made to fraternal life, Governor Arne Carlson declared April 14, 1992 Beta Kappa / Theta Chi day, honoring the importance of our history and the work of our famed alumni. By the mid-‘90’s, this trend began to wane for a variety of reasons. Both Alpha Tau Omega and Theta Chi began to recruit fewer and fewer men. This lead to the closing of our long time rival, Alpha Tau Omega, in 1998 due to a lack of membership. Later that year, Hamline, after refurbishing their house, moved Alpha Gamma Epsilon from their old house to their new location in the old Alpha Tau Omega house in order to make room for a new set of student housing buildings. By the closing of the 20th century and the final years of our first century of existence, membership would once again reach its low of 9 members.

Through the hard work of a few core members, the fraternity membership grew each year into the 21st century. New men changed the way the fraternity operated, with a heavy revision of the bylaws, and other structural changes, the fraternity saw strong growth. National chapter took notice of the success, giving Beta Kappa chapter the Chapter Achievement award for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.