The Founders of the Sigma Chi Fraternity
The seven young men who founded Sigma Chi were not ordinary men. They were men of vision, men of courage, men of action. They envisioned something new in fraternities.
Prior to Sigma Chi's birth, fraternities were based on the proposition that friendships are best formed by men of like minds, talents, and personalities. Our founders, however, believed that true brotherhood could prosper only when men of unlike minds, talents, and personalities banded themselves together under a common set of ideals. It was on this precept that Sigma Chi was begun.
Knowledge of the exemplary lives led by these men is a requisite to gaining an understanding of their ideals and the tremendous contribution they made to our Fraternity.
"the qualities of learning”
Thomas Cowan Bell was born near Dayton, Ohio, and was 23 years old at the time of Sigma Chi's founding. His rooming place at Oxford with his aunt, Mrs. Lizzie Davis, became informally known as “the first chapter home of Sigma Chi.” All of the members of Alpha chapter either moved into the house or into the immediate neighborhood and all ate at her well-furnished table.
Bell is best remembered for his exemplification of the qualities of learning and friendship. He instilled an atmosphere of friendship in the Fraternity and had, according to Runkle, “an expression on his face that made one instinctively reach for his hand. He was one of the kindly and lovable sort, and came into the Sigma Chi movement naturally. He was good hearted, believed in securing the good things of life and immediately dividing the same with his companions. He was as full of enthusiasm as a crusader. Naturally he was a leader and teacher of men. He was ambitious, but in no way disposed to push his aspirations at the expense of his fellows. He and Cooper, in thought and sympathy and in the deep foundations of their being, were much the same sort of men, though in outward expression of the inward character they differed widely.”
Graduating in 1857, he started on his life's work of teaching. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted in the Union Army, where he won a commission and received high commendation at the Battle of Murfreesboro. He rose to lieutenant colonel, although he preferred to be called “Major Bell.”
Following the war, he returned to a career in education. He served as superintendent of schools in Nobles County, Minn.; county recorder of deeds and editor/publisher of a local newspaper; and as principal and president of several preparatory and collegiate institutions in the western United States.
He entered the Chapter Eternal in 1919, the day after attending a Sigma Chi Initiation at Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of California-Berkeley. He is buried in the Presidio in San Francisco, where in 1933 the Fraternity dedicated the final Founders' memorial monument to him.
“true to principle”
James Parks Caldwell, born in Monroe, Ohio, was just 14 years old when he helped launch Sigma Chi. By the time he was 13, his progress through academic courses, including Latin and advanced math, caused the principal of the local academy to remark that the boy had covered everything that could be offered there, and he entered Miami University apparently with advanced credits.
Caldwell is best remembered for his spirit of youth and for bringing an element of creative genius. According to Runkle, “Jimmie Caldwell was born with a wonderful brain and a strangely sensitive and delicate organization. He was from his childhood one of the most lovable of God's creations. Strong men who have become hardened to tender feeling and sympathetic sentiment, remember and love him. Somehow, he seemed closely akin to all of us. I roomed and cared for him for more than a year. Our holidays were spent in the fields and along the streams, one of us carrying a gun, or fishing rod, but Caldwell his copy of Poe or his Shakespeare. His contributions, essays, poems, plays and stories read in the literary hall, in the chapter meetings and on Saturdays before the whole corps of students, were the most remarkable productions that I ever heard. Few of us escaped the pointed witticisms that flowed from his pen, or ever lost the nicknames that he gave us in his dramas. He never seemed to study as other boys. What he knew appeared to be his intuitively. He wrote Latin and Greek poetry, and he was more widely versed in literature, and more accurate in his knowledge, than any other student in the college. He left the university with the respect and the wholehearted affection of every soul from president to janitor.”
He graduated Miami University soon after his sixteenth birthday. Following college he practiced law in Ohio, and began a career as an educator in Mississippi. He enlisted in the Confederate army, and during the Civil War, he was captured and taken prisoner. He rejected an offer of freedom on condition that he renounce allegiance to the Confederacy, even though it came from a northern soldier who loved him as a brother.
Following the war, he returned to Mississippi and was admitted to the bar. He remained a bachelor and traveled frequently, writing as a journalist and practicing law. His death came in 1912, at Biloxi, where in his room were found the latest issues of The Sigma Chi Quarterly. He is buried in Biloxi Cemetery.
“ruler of the spirit”
Daniel William Cooper, born near Frederickstown, Ohio, was 25 years old at the time of the founding of Sigma Chi. He is credited with contributing much to the moral and spiritual foundations of the Fraternity. The confidence of his fellow Founders led to his election as the first Consul of Alpha Chapter.
Of him, Runkle recalled, “To him more than to any other man is due the birth and early growth of the kindly and generous spirit of Sigma Chi. It is hard to account for his dominant spirit, and his influence in that little band. He was a man of God, honest, upright and pure. In his intercourse with the rest of us he was gentle and considerate. He never reproved; he never lectured. By common consent he was the head of the chapter, and no one thought of displacing him. His quarters were the resort of each one of us when in trouble, and there we found sympathy and convincing, unselfish advice. Different from every one of us, he walked among us honored, loved, looked up to with perfect confidence. He taught us that the badge was not to be looked upon as common. Many an hour did I pass in his room, and every minute was a benediction. Brother Cooper, in those days, though rich in spirit was poor in worldly goods, and his life and work contain a priceless lesson for those of us who think that the end of life is the attainment of material riches and worldly power.”
Following graduation, Cooper attended seminary and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He held several pastorships in Ohio and engaged in special missionary service. In retirement, he lived for some years in the South, returning to Ohio where he spent his last years with his son, James G. Cooper, Ohio Wesleyan 1902.
He was the last of the seven Founders to pass into the Chapter Eternal, doing so in 1920 at age 91. He is buried at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
Cooper wore his original Sigma Phi badge until his death; it is now on display at the Sigma Chi Headquarters Museum. The original badge is pinned on the newly installed Grand Consul at each Grand Chapter, and the Grand Consul is then given a replica to wear during his term.
“energetic & faithful to every task”
Isaac M. Jordan, born on a farm in central Pennsylvania, was 20 years old at the time of Sigma Chi's founding. When he was a boy, he moved with his family to Ohio and became friends with Benjamin Piatt Runkle.
Jordan is best remembered for his strong will and determined purpose. Of him, Runkle recalled, “Isaac M. Jordan-playmate of my boyhood, schoolmate, friend for long and strenuous years of manhood, and always the incarnation of high resolves, boundless energy, lofty ambitions, gifted with untiring perseverance and ability that made success a certainty; he has left an example of what a strong will and determined purpose can accomplish. If ever there was a 'self-made' man who had a high right to be proud of the making, that was Brother Jordan. Nothing was too lofty for his aspirations, nothing to his vigorous mind, impossible. He showed no signs of faltering. He did everything with the same tremendous energy.”
In a speech he gave in 1884, he delineated the valued criteria for pledging, which is now known as the Jordan Standard. Following graduation from Miami, he studied law, was admitted to the bar, and practiced law in Dayton and Cincinnati. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1882, easily winning as a Democrat in a strong Republican district.
Jordan aided in the organization of the Cincinnati alumni chapter in 1881, was involved with the planning of the 14th and 15th Grand Chapters in 1882 and 1884 and served as the Orator of the latter. His accidental death in 1890 was deeply mourned throughout southwestern Ohio. Leaving his law offices in downtown Cincinnati, he paused at the elevator entrance and turned to greet a friend. Unnoticed by him, the elevator ascended to the floor above, the door still partly open. With a quick movement, and still facing his friend, he stepped into the open elevator shaft and fell to his death.
The tragedy created a shock throughout the city. All courts adjourned and public businesses were stilled. The newspapers of the day devoted entire pages, with prominent headlines and drawings, to the dreadful occurrence. Jordan is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
“honest & trustworthy through life”
William Lewis Lockwood, the only one of the seven Founders who was not a member of DKE, was born in New York City and was 18 years old at the time of the founding of Sigma Chi. He is best remembered as the businessman or organizer of the group and for bringing the element of cultural refinement. His organizational skills were largely responsible for the survival of the young Fraternity.
Of him, Runkle recalled: “He was different from each of the others. The difference was hereditary and was sharpened by environment. He was cultured and had been partly educated in the East. He was a slender, fair-haired youth with polished manners, and was always dressed in the best of taste. When he first came to Miami, wondrous tales were told of his wardrobe, of his splendid dressing gowns and the outfit of his quarters.
He was refined in his tastes. He knew something about art and had some understanding of the fitness of things genteel. We welcomed him into our circle. He could bring to our ambitious little band some things, mental and spiritual, that were sorely needed. He came to us, brought us all he had, and divided even his wardrobe, which seemed to be unlimited. Lockwood knew, instinctively, the value and power of money. He was treasurer and managed the business of the Fraternity. He furnished the business spirit to the little band, and without it we must utterly have failed. He shared our love while living, and tender memories follow him to the brighter world.”
After graduating in 1858, Lockwood returned to New York, studied law and was admitted to the bar. At the outbreak of the Civil War he recruited a company of volunteers, which he later led. He greatly distinguished himself in battle, but was seriously wounded and never fully recovered. He returned to Usquepaugh, R.I., with his wife and son, Frank (named for Frank Scobey). Unable to practice law because of his poor health, he bought the local woolen mills and formed the firm of Lockwood, Alpin and Company.
Although the business was a great success, his health failed constantly. In 1867, he became the first of the Founders to enter the Chapter Eternal, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“courageous in spirit and idealism”
Benjamin Piatt Runkle, born in West Liberty, Ohio, was 18 years old at the time of the founding of Sigma Chi. It was Runkle who pulled off his DKE badge and threw it on the table in the important February 1855 dinner meeting, putting into forceful words the thoughts of Bell, Caldwell, Cooper, Jordan and Scobey. It was this type and quality of spirit that he instilled in Sigma Chi throughout his life.
Runkle joined with Lockwood in designing the White Cross. They had decided to come up with something different from the shield and diamond type common at the time. In later years, Runkle explained, “Its selection grew from an admiration of its meaning.” He was inspired with the story of the Emperor Constantine and his vision on the night before the battle for Rome. He believed Constantine was a heroic character, and he convinced the other Founders to pattern Sigma Chi symbolism after the vision of Constantine. Runkle's spirit and idealism in college once led to his temporary suspension from the university for fighting in chapel with a member of Beta Theta Pi who had publicly sneered at his badge.
He had the most noteworthy military career of any of the Founders. At the outbreak of the Civil War he volunteered with a militia company and was a colonel by the end of the war. He was seriously wounded in the battle of Shiloh and left for dead on the battlefield, leading his former DKE rival Whitelaw Reid to pen a glowing tribute to Runkle in a dispatch to his newspaper. The reports of Runkle's battlefield death turned out to be erroneous, and Runkle actually outlived Reid.
After a long military career, where he was eventually promoted to major general, Runkle was ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was the only one of the Founders to become Grand Consul, serving as the Seventh Grand Consul from 1895-1897.
He spent the last years of his life in Ohio, where he died on the Fraternity's 61st birthday in 1916. He is buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Va., where in 1923 Sigma Chi erected the first of the Founders' memorial monuments at his grave.
“courteous & loyal in his friendship”
Franklin Howard Scobey was born in Hamilton, Ohio, and was 18 at the time of Sigma Chi's founding. He, along with Runkle, was a leader of the rebellion in DKE. He was the prime proponent in the Fraternity of what has come to be known as the “Spirit of Sigma Chi,” which articulates that friendship among members of different temperaments, talents and convictions is superior to friendship among those who are all similar.
Scobey is best remembered for the unending enthusiasm and encouragement that he brought to the Founders group. Of him, Runkle recalled: “Of all of those that I have ever been closely associated with he was the brightest, the most cheerful, the sunniest. The sunshine is the most powerful agent of nature. The world is dead without it. But this brother was never gloomy; no clouds seemed to shadow his life; he was the same to all at all times. The element of selfishness was as far from his nature as light from darkness. He cared nothing for money, and yet he was the closest friend and companion of Lockwood, the only one of the Founders who exhibited much trace of the commercial instinct. Without Frank Scobey I do not believe that Sigma Chi would have succeeded and expanded and endured. We had our disappointments, our months of gloom, times when it seemed that we had no chance of success. Everyone was against us. But Frank Scobey was never discouraged. Always looking on the more cheerful side, his very smile and cheerful words of encouragement gave us new heart. Scobey did well whatever he undertook to do; stood high with the professors and was popular even with our enemies.”
He studied law and was admitted to the bar after graduation. Never physically strong, he suffered from increasing deafness, but during and after the Civil War he engaged in newspaper editorial work in Hamilton. He entered the Chapter Eternal in 1888 and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in his hometown.