Ellen Bertha Person was a charter member of the Zeta Chapter of Sigma Kappa at George Washington University, where she was a student from 1904-07. The chapter had been a local organization, Omega Alpha, before obtaining the charter from Sigma Kappa. The installation and Person’s initiation took place on February 24, 1906.The quest to obtain a charter was described in an early history of Sigma Kappa:
Zeta has had difficult conditions to meet. Situated in a university where a large proportion of the students attend evening classes, where there are no dormitories, and where the fraternity interests themselves frequently have been the sole point of contact, the chapter has steadfastly held her ground, won the esteem and consideration of the administration, had her generous share of scholastic and activity honors and placed upon her roll of members the names of women of character, brilliance and achievement. The alumnae, many of whom reside in the city, have been a tower of strength, sharing joys, bearing burdens, and working always toward the future.
A 1907 issue of the Sigma Kappa Triangle had this entry in its chapter letter, “Zeta is grieving, perhaps prematurely, over the loss of Bertha Person. Her health was much impaired this fall,and she has gone to South Dakota, her former home. It is doubtful whether she will return next spring.” She did not return and graduated from the State Normal School, in Speerfish, South Dakota, in 1908. She earned an A.B. from the University of Michigan in 1909. After that she worked as a secretary and a newspaperwoman in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
She died on October 30, 1918 and this is the memorial which was written by one of her chapter sisters. In the early years of the Greek-letter press, deaths of members were given much space and memorials could be a paragraph or several pages. At some point, for each of the organizations, the tipping point of available space versus an increasing and aging membership was reached and space would not allow for more than a line or two about a deceased member. I, for one, find these early memorials fascinating. I spent several hours last night searching for a Sigma Kappa to highlight for #WHM. I didn’t want it to be anyone who is on the list of notable Sigma Kappas. I went down many rabbit holes, but hit my pillow without any idea who would be featured in today’s post. This morning, I started the quest anew. E. Bertha Person, the name on her gravestone, seems to me to be an unsung heroine. One of her chapter sisters wrote:
For the first time, Death has entered Zeta’s family, and, in accordance with the old tradition, has chosen a shining mark. To the younger girls, Bertha Person was but a name; for only since her health demanded a change from our fickle Washington climate, have we had the pleasure of having her with us. In that brief winter, the active chapter, all of whom are now alumnae, saw her from time to time, and unanimously voted her ‘Great!’
But only her classmates and intimates knew the real Bertha, and to them she was a perennial delight. With her unusual versatility and mercurial temperament, she may have been a complexity to mere acquaintances; but to her friends she was ever a fascinating and lovable personality. Generous to a fault, impulsive, of profound depth of thought and feeling, steadfastly loyal to her loved ones, she was a friend of friends. Frankness was one of her most marked qualities, and she had an unsparing hatred of hypocrisy, snobbishness, and any kind of pretense.
Those of us who knew her real aspirations, were hopefully awaiting what the future might unfold in her career, for she possessed literary ability of no mean order, and a wide range of interests. An idealist, and a wit, of a highly imaginative and spiritual turn of mind, balanced by a subtle sense of humor and a keen sense of the ridiculous, she was endowed with varied gifts which augured for future accomplishment.
It was characteristic of ‘Ber’ that she could write delicate verses filled with poetic fancy, and at the same time apply herself vigorously and with enjoyment to such practical problems as railway economics. ‘I am either riding Pegasus full tilt, or grubbing in the intensely practical,’ she once wrote, when describing her postgraduate studies in economics.
Her letters were always vivid, delightful, and surprising. One never knew, when opening one of her missives, whether one would find a serious letter, philosophic, imaginative, or even mystic, for there was a good deal of the mystic in Bertha, or the other extreme—a bit of rollicking drollery, full of the most charming absurdities imaginable. Often they were a well-blended mixture of the two.
The following extracts from an obituary published in Ann Arbor demonstrate the place she held in her community:
Miss Person had been society editor of the Times News for several years, and had won for herself a very dear place in the hearts of the community, both for her literary ability, which was very much above the average, and for her conscientious devotion to her work, and for her high ideals of life. She was a young woman of very pronounced thought, and when a condition appealed to her as wrong, she was willing to make any personal sacrifice to end that condition, counting neither her personal comfort nor the criticism of friends.
Miss Person was a young woman of pronounced ability. She was a clever writer along certain lines, and for several years acted as private secretary to Prof. H. C. Adams, and in secretarial work, as in newspaper, she showed marked ability. She was of a cheerful disposition, of keen wit, which was never used for discomfort of others, and she was imbued with an interest in life and in the welfare of others to an extent seldom surpassed. Like all newspaper people, she was constantly thrown into contact with all classes, and very often she became the recipient of secrets shared with no one else. These secrets she held inviolate always, but by her own peculiar ability she was oftentimes enabled to lighten the way and help over a stony path those whose feet were faltering. Many cases of dire want were discovered in her professional work, and always she found a way of alleviating conditions without humiliating the recipient.
Miss Person was one of the first in this city to come down with Spanish influenza. The disease itself was soon over, but there was an after-effect of asthma that was a great drain on her strength and vitality.
When she got up again and took up her work, she did not apply moderation, because that was a word not in her vocabulary/ Instead of resting all she could, she visited her several friends who were ill with influenza, trying to assist in their nursing, and even volunteered her services in one of the hospitals at the time when volunteer help was asked for. The result was that in about a week after she had taken up her work she was taken with a high fever one morning, and was forced to give up.
One cannot liken her to any type for she did not conform to any mold, but was just herself, ‘Bertha,’ an unassuming but at the same time shining personality, whose memory will be cherished with the most tender affection by all her friends.
© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2016. All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory.