Origins of Kappa Alpha Theta

Origins of Kappa Alpha Theta

Origins of Kappa Alpha Theta

Phi Gamma Delta and Kappa Alpha Theta

by John A. Pollard (Ohio State 1924, Yale 1927)

One of the first four women enrolled at DePauw was Bettie McReynolds Locke, whose father, Dr. John Wesley Locke, was a professor of mathematics there and a Beta Theta Pi, and whose brother, George W. Locke (DePauw 1871), was a Fiji. During her sophomore year, she was asked by a Fiji to wear his badge. This implied no synthetic engagement, in the subsequent mode, but was merely to claim her as a champion of Phi Gamma Delta, according to the custom then prevailing. Shades of Camelot on tourney-day! And did she accept this invitation? She did not. She was a strong-minded woman, that's what she was. The naivete of these negotiations is now preciously amusing. Lambda Chapter considered that since George Locke was a Fiji, so should his sister be also, at least in declared sympathy. Like brother, like sister. What logic is more unimpeachable? Bethink you that Beta Theta Pi at Wabash had initiated three young women in 1861. Bethink you yet further that Phi Delta Theta in that period had admitted several women to its rolls. Phi Gamma Delta was now sacrificing its virility on the altar of romance.


At any rate, Bettie Locke contended that, if she were to wear the proffered badge, she would have to become a Phi Gamma Delta member whole and complete, or not at all. The Lambda lads finally admitted their inability to establish a precedent by initiating a woman member; so was the issue drawn. Viola! And since neither party knew of women becoming members of Beta Theta Pi and Phi Delta Theta, the Theta historian was enabled to write in 1930: ". . . . fortunately for Kappa Alpha Theta, she was not initiated into Phi Gamma Delta. The young men compromised by presenting Bettie a handsome silver cake basket with the Greek letters, Phi Gamma Delta, a memento she still has in her Greencastle home." [That cake basket is now in the Kappa Alpha Theta headquarters museum.]


What to do? Dr. Locke inquired why Bettie didn't organize a fraternity of her own. To be sure! An idea! But she shrank from the thought of membership in a local organization lacking national scope and prestige and traditional ceremonies. At this pass or impasse, Dr. Locke's wide inquiries disclosed that no order existed such as Bettie desired [Editor's note: But had Dr. Locke investigated closely enough, he would have found that in 1867 there had been founded at Monmouth College the I. C. Sorosis, which in 1888 took 'the name of Pi Beta Phi. The first sorority to bear a Greek name, however, was Kappa Alpha Theta.]; that, if she wished to belong to a "fraternity," she would have to organize it. In the spring of 1869, she did actually start planning, in confidence, with her chum Alice O. Allen, also then a sophomore. Only nine women were enrolled at DePauw at that time.


From Dr. Locke and the eminent Fiji historian, Dr. John Clark Ridpath (DePauw 1863), the two planners extracted numerous suggestions. One of the latter's 'sisters, Martha Ridpath, who later became a Theta, "told how the girls spent one morning in the large, warm kitchen of the Ridpath home, and that Mrs. Ridpath in after years reported they had 'cut up enough paper to fill a woodbox, trying to decide on a shape for their badge.' "


Kappa Alpha Theta was formally organized at a secret meeting on January 27, 1870, attended by Bettie Locke, Alice Allen, Bettie Tipton, and Hannah Fitch, the four founders. Their badges were made by a Fiji, John P. Newman (City College 1869, Muhlenberg 1871), a New York manufacturing jeweler, who had been suggested by Dr. Ridpath. Nor was this the full extent of the local inter-relationship of the two groups, for the Lambda Fijis soon suggested, as their "measure of respect and appreciation," a coalition of the two societies to create a brother and sister order. Thus doth politics make hypocrites of us all. This suggestion, like the Fijis' first proposal to Bettie Locke, was considered and declined.


Now began wider contacts, broadening into the cordial national relations of the two groups today. Soon afterward when the Thetas established a chapter at Hanover College, the installation ceremonies were held in the Phi Gamma Delta rooms there, with the initiation of five charter members. Moreover, when the society convened at Greencastle in1883, one Cornell delegate, Jessie Boulton, recorded these ecstatic impressions:


"After dinner on Thursday, February 22, we were to have our first session. If you have smelling salts, please produce them now . . .. We held our first and second sessions in the Phi Gamma Delta rooms and the third in the Sigma Chi rooms! Think of the generosity of the Greencastle boys and the glorious freedom of Western ideas! I thought of the possibility of our Cornell boys tendering us the use of their rooms and smiled."


Surely these events of six decades ago have cast their shadow down the years; if you would explain the present, examine the past. At Ohio State, for example, there seems to have existed a close and historic affinity between the Thetas and the Fijis, with not infrequent lapses into cardiac affliction. At the Fiji parties, the Theta ladies were always abundantly present; and the old DePauw Fijis were proved seers. The lads and the lasses did not stop at the proposed brother and sister kinship; aye, an even closer bond sprang from this congeniality. The Thetas out-Shakespeared Shakespeare; many of them grappled Omicron Deuteron boys to their souls with rings of platinum.


History, in brief, explains everything. We are indeed grateful to the Theta historian for her engaging narrative and for explaining a social condition that we were reluctant to consider special to Ohio State. If she had not insisted on using the paradoxical "women's fraternity" throughout her book, we should rise and call her blessed for an able work. We are tempted to do so, anyway. In fact, we will do it.




A letter from M. Jess Shinn (Oregon 1941) in The Phi Gamma Delta of May 1941 states the following regarding reminisces told by Roy H. Dobell, Sr. (DePauw 1908) about his father, Joseph T. Dobell (DePauw 1874).


Most interesting of all was the story of his father and John C. Ridpath (DePauw 1863). Joseph Dobell and the eminent historian were connected with the founding of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, the two of them writing the Theta initiation ritual.


Joseph Dobell, incidentally, was the first person to ever wear a Theta badge. When the first pin for the new sorority arrived, the elder Dobell slipped it out of its box and wore it to chapel. Unhappily, the emblem was recognized and the culprit was berated by the sorority founders for weeks.


The first Fiji Dobell remained at DePauw until his death on December 7, 1924, serving as registrar for the university.


Perhaps we should regard these recollections as apocryphal unless some contemporary evidence can be produced to enforce one claim or the other. -- Editor



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