“The Small Events of Today May Be the Great Things of Tomorrow” – The Corkhill Sisters and P.E.O. Founders’ Day

P.E.O., a “philanthropic organization where women celebrate the advancement of women; educate women though scholarships, grants, awards, loans and stewardship of Cottey College; and motivate women to achieve their highest aspirations” was founded as a collegiate organization on January 21, 1869. The seven founders – Franc Roads [Elliott], Hattie Briggs [Bousquet], Mary Allen [Stafford], Alice Coffin, Ella Stewart, Alice Bird [Babb] and Suela Pearson [Penfield] – were students at Iowa Wesleyan College, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, one of the oldest institutions of higher education west of the Mississippi River.

A little more than a year earlier, in April 1867, Libbie Brook, a student at Monmouth College about 50 miles from Mount Pleasant, across the Mississippi in Warren County, Illinois, helped create I.C. Sorosis, later known by its Greek motto, Pi Beta Phi. Brook convinced her parents that, due to an eye problem, she needed to attend a school where she didn’t know anyone so she could work unhindered by friends and activities. She settled on Iowa Wesleyan College, where it was her intention to start another chapter of her fraternity. On December 12, 1868, her efforts paid off and Pi Beta Phi’s second chapter was established. Not all of the seven P.E.O. founders were asked to join Libbie Brook’s new group, so they created an organization of their own.

Lulu Corkhill was not one of the seven founders of P.E.O., but she may as well have been. She grew up in Mount Pleasant, the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was initiated in March 1869, several weeks after P.E.O. was founded. She was 14 at the time.

She said of those first meetings in Mount Pleasant, “Everything was of such vast importance, everything was so secret. When and where we held our meetings were of as much secrecy as was our oath. And for revealing an officer’s name – that would have been an offense worthy of expulsion. As I look back I can but smile as I recall how careful we were to go down side streets and double on our tracks, and separate ourselves into groups of one as we neared the place of meeting, lest any idle onlooker should detect more than one girl going into a house on the same afternoon and should guess that the P.E.O.s were having a meeting.”

In 1882, a P.E.O. convention, the second of that year, was held in the Methodist parsonage of Dr. Thomas E. Corkhill, in Bloomfield, Iowa. His daughter, Lulu, was convention hostess. She later reflected on that meeting, “As I have tried to recall early days, I have come to realize as never before, how really important our every day life is, and how much it means to those who come after us. We who were early P.E.O.s lived those days and did not think them of enough importance to write them down, and did not try to remember events, and how eagerly those records are sought today. Thus the small events of today may be the great things of tomorrow.”

As a P.E.O. and as Pi Beta Phi’s Historian, I am well aware of the early rivalry between the two groups. In fact, there is a section of Pi Phi’s centennial history titled “Rivalry Between P.E.O. and I.C. Sorosis at Mount Pleasant.” According to the report, some of it taken from the Story of P.E.O. written by Winona Evans Reeves, the two groups were for years “mortal foes yet each respected the steel of the other, for the societies were made up of much of the same type of girls. In Iowa Wesleyan they couldn’t even belong to the same literary societies; they had two societies in later years. The two boys’ fraternities (Beta Theta Pi, founded 1868, Phi Delta Theta, founded 1871 and perhaps Delta Tau Delta active 1875-80) had to be very careful in the way they divided their dates and their attentions.”

Knowing of the intense rivalry between the two groups, I was quite surprised to run across a page in a 1914 Arrow of Pi Beta Phi. It was an obituary for Emma Kate Corkhill. Before I read it, I wondered if she was somehow related to Lulu Corkhill Williams. A few paragraphs later, my hunch was confirmed. Lulu, the P.E.O., had a sister who was a Pi Phi. Both were initiates of the chapters at Iowa Wesleyan. Emma Kate graduated in 1889 and 1892; she earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s. She taught at her Alma Mater for a year, at Simpson College for seven years, and at Lawrence University for the remainder of her life.

When Emma Kate died in a Chicago hospital on December 13, 1913, her funeral services were in Mount Pleasant. Her Pi Beta Phi sisters “met the family at the station and opened rank, at the church while the funeral cortege passed through both on entering and leaving the church. Warm tears were on many faces for this gifted woman had an especial place in many hearts among those who had known her from her childhood.” It was noted by one of the members of her chapter that Emma Kate’s “place in the faculty of Lawrence, her place in her sister’s (Lulu’s) home, her place in Pi Beta Phi will long remain a vital tribute to her worth as a woman of heart, of intellect and of true spirituality.”

Happy Founders’ Day to my P.E.O. sisters!

P.S. This is posted a day early so that you can remember that Tuesday, January 21, is “Wear Your Pin Day.” 

1914 P.E.O. Emblem

P.E.O. emblem from the early 1900s

P.E.O. members, please note that there are several other posts relating to P.E.O. There’s a P.E.O. category on the right hand side and you can get a link to the other posts by clicking on it. There is also a post about Lulu Corkhill Williams and the Illinois State Chapter of P.E.O. at the top of the page.


Today, Monday January 20, is Martin Luther King Day. A post about Dr. King, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, is at http://wp.me/p20I1i-1fF


My apologies to Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, Sigma Chi, who won the SAG Award for Outstanding performance by a male actor in a comedy series. There was an error in yesterday’s post and I neglected to give Mr. Burrell his due. I am sorry for the error and I offer my heartfelt congratulations!

 (c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2013. All rights reserved. 

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