Happy 117th Birthday Alpha Omicron Pi!

Alpha Omicron Pi was founded on January 2, 1897, at the home of Helen St. Clair (Mullan). She and three of her Barnard College friends, Stella George Stern (Perry), Jessie Wallace Hughan, and Elizabeth Heywood Wyman had pledged themselves to the organization on December 23, 1896. That first pledging ceremony took place in a small rarely used upstairs room in the old Columbia College Library.

Celebrating a Founders’ Day on the second day of the new year proved to be a challenge for the organization, so Alpha Omicron Pi now celebrates Founders’ Day on December 8, Stella George Stern Perry’s birthday.

Alpha Omicron Pi’s second chapter was halfway cross the country and to the south, 1,300 miles away from Manhattan. Stella contacted Evelyn Reed, a classmate from New Orleans. Evelyn’s sister, Katherine, was a student at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College.

On September 8, 1898, Katherine Reed became the first pledge of the Pi Chapter at Newcomb College. Not only was it Alpha Omicron Pi’s second chapter, but it was also the second women’s fraternity at Newcomb. A Pi Beta Phi’s  chapter was established in 1891. “The little Greek community at Newcomb was very delightfully entertained at a charmingly original birthday party, given by the Alpha Omicron Pi girls, to celebrate the first anniversary of the founding of their chapter,” reported the Pi Phi chapter in the January 1900 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi.

Pioneering photographer and photo-journalist Margaret Bourke-White became a member of AOPi while a student at the University of Michigan. I remember reading a story about her in a Michigan publication from the 1980s. Margaret White, as she was then known, was a student at Michigan in 1922-23. She had previously attended Columbia University, and she graduated from Cornell University in 1927. Between Ann Arbor and Ithaca, she married, divorced, added her mother’s maiden name (Bourke) to her surname and she threw in some classes at Purdue University and (Case) Western Reserve University. 

Bourke-White was the first female permitted to work in a combat zone. She was also the first female photographer whose work appeared on the front over of Life, a weekly current events and popular culture magazine which brought the world into homes before the advent of cable television and 24-hour news cycles. She was one of the four original cover photographers for Life and the first photographer at Fortune. Her images are iconic. They tell the story of the Dust Bowl, survival in the Depression of the 1930s, fighting in World War II, freeing prisoners of war at the Buchenwald concentration camp among others.

Currently on the internet, there is for sale a very expensive copy of Bourke-White’s autobiography. The book is signed along with an inscribed note to Wilma Smith Leland, “My dear friend of long ago.” Leland served Alpha Omicron Pi as National President and Editor of its magazine, To Dragma.

Margaret Bourke-White

Margaret Bourke-White


(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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