beta theta chapter history
By Jeffrey L Soule ‘75

1800s 1900s 1910s 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s - present  

In the early nineteenth century, college facilities and resources were meager compared to those of today, but the desire for knowledge overcame such limitations. One of the most common means for pursuing intellectual growth at this time was the Literary Society. Students at Madison University were no exception and found they could share books, ideas and fellowship through such organizations. Indeed, the libraries of these societies were a need supplement to the university's meager resources.

Our fraternity's story begins in 1840 with the founding of the Adelphian Society, remembered in the title of our alumni publication, The Adelphian. We might, therefore, consider our chapter and its history as contemporaneous with the founding of Beta.

Through such intellectual activities as debate, oratory, and exposition, rivalry grew up between this society and other societies and rivalry in one form or another remains a part of Colgate fraternity life today.

The Adelphian Society encouraged individual excellence and respect for each others' thoughts, thus fostering an atmosphere of challenge and at the same time, mutual help. In this fashion a student could significantly broaden his education while at the college. These Adelphian forerunners of the Beta Theta Chapter were doers, willing to make more effort and accept more challenge in order to get more out of their university experience.

With the emergence of fraternities at Colgate, beginning with DKE in 1856, literary societies found their appeal diminishing. The Adelphian Society's oldest literary rival, the Aeonian Society, disbanded in 1872. Also, the college was meeting many more of the needs previously met by the societies, such as library books, broader curricula, and academic challenges. However, the need for social growth remained and fraternal commitment based on high ideals and mutual help was to be the answer.

Since its founding in 1840, the Adelphian Society had met on the 5th floor of East Hall until 1876 when it rented rooms in the Smith block downtown. The society sponsored debates in contemporary issues and often hired speakers to give public presentations. Two debate topics proposed by the society later found widespread acceptance: the right of women to vote and the elective system of course selection for students. Most brothers of Beta Theta would probably agree that debate of important issues is a well known Beta tradition, though perhaps in a less formal matter.

It was fortunate that the Adelphians survived the apparently lean times form 1868 until 1880 when several of the Society's leaders --Messrs. Steelman, '80, Smith, '81, Pope, '83, Kingsford, '81, and Petteys, '82, agreed to petition Beta Theta Pi for membership. At that time, in the fall of 1880, the society's members agreed “that membership in a fraternity in more advantageous in and out of college, than not being a member of a fraternity.” The Petition was granted and returned to Hamilton, Thanksgiving Day in 1880. By December 10, 1880, twenty-nine men had been initiated into Beta Theta Pi, with the help of members from the Beta Zeta and Alpha Sigma; chapters at St. Lawrence and Dickenson, respectively.

The early years were not without challenge to the fledgling fraternity. A decision to limit membership turned out to be ill-conceived when, through the usual attrition rate at the college, membership suffered to the point of only seven active members in 1885. Also, a conflict of now forgotten substance resulted in two members being stricken from the fraternity rolls. By 1889, however, brighter days were coming, along with a growing fund for purchasing a chapter house. It was felt then, as now, that the spirit of nurture and challenge could be fully realized only by living together as a unit.

The first move in this direction occurred in 1893. After 12 years of meeting in a room at the Dodge block, downtown, the chapter rented the old president's house.

Life as a member of the chapter still revolved heavily about intellectual pursuits. Members were encouraged to do well in scholarship and to bring honor to the chapter by earning speaking distinctions. Such awards were made to outstanding students at commencement as well as at other times of the academic year. In these early measures of collegiate success, Beta Theta shined proudly, boasting numerous Phi Beta Kappas and other academic accolades.