Beta, Pi Phi, and P.E.O.

My life has been lived east of the Mississippi, the last half of it just miles from the river. When we first moved to Illinois, it was odd to tell people that we were five hours from Chicago, the only Illinois city most easterners recognize. St. Louis, on the other hand, is two hours away. Crossing the Mississippi is a regular occurence in my life. The crossing of the Mississippi by Greek-Letter Organizations is a story that was running through my mind as I travelled through Iowa and Kansas on a recent trip.

There’s only about 60 miles and one big river, the Mississippi, separating Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, from Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. In 1868, when Pi Phi founder Libbie Brook enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan with the express purpose of founding a second chapter of her organization, she likely travelled to Mount Pleasant by train.

In 1855, the Xi Chapter of Beta Theta Pi was established at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. Galesburg is about 15 miles from Monmouth. Ten years later, after the Civil War, Beta’s Alpha Alpha Chapter was chartered at Monmouth College. Pi Phi founder Nancy Black’s future husband, Robert S. Wallace, was a charter member of the Beta chapter at Monmouth College.

The founding of Pi Beta Phi as I.C. Sorosis took place on April 28, 1867 between the founding of Beta’s chapter at Monmouth College and the founding of its Alpha Epsilon Chapter at Iowa Wesleyan University in early 1868. It was the first men’s fraternity to be installed at Iowa Wesleyan and it is my contention that Libbie Brook’s decision to enroll at Iowa Wesleyan was due, in large part, to the presence of the Beta chapter there. Libbie established her organization’s second chapter at Iowa Wesleyan in December of 1868 and the women first wore their arrows at a New Year’s party thrown by the Betas at Hallowell’s Restaurant.

Coincidentally, among the founders of the Beta chapter at Iowa Wesleyan was Will Pearson, the brother of P.E.O. founder Suela Pearson. P.E.O. was founded at Iowa Wesleyan on January 21, 1869, a month after the Pi Phi chapter. Had Libbie not enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan, would P.E.O. be around today? Had the Betas not established the chapter at Iowa Wesleyan, would Libbie have ventured there? I thought about that on my drive. To me, it was a domino effect. The Beta chapter was the reason Libbie chose Iowa Wesleyan and the founding of the Pi Phi chapter caused seven young Mount Pleasant women to create a society of their own, the P.E.O. Sisterhood.

As an aside, many of the vignettes about the personalities of the P.E.O. founders were taken from the recollections of Dillon Payne, a charter member of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Iowa Wesleyan. In the 1920s, the P.E.O. Record published his reminiscences of the P.E.O. founders.

While the Beta chapter at Iowa Wesleyan was the fraternity’s second chapter west of the Mississippi, it closed in 1915. The first Beta chapter west of the Mississippi was chartered at the University of Iowa in 1866.

In the late 1870s, the GLOs were forced off the Monmouth campus. Had Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma, not extended quickly and successfully beyond the Monmouth campus, the Monmouth Duo likely would not be around today. This thought hit me, too, as I was driving through Iowa to Lawrence, Kansas. In 1873, Sara Richardson was a student at Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. She heard through the grapevine, likely the Knox Betas whose chapter was in the same city, that Beta was establishing a chapter at the University of Kansas. It would be the first fraternity at the university. Her three sisters, Flora, Alma, and May, were students at the university. She encouraged them to seek a charter from the Alpha Chapter at Monmouth, the body that was granting charters in the early years. The sisters gathered a few of their friends and the Kansas Alpha Chapter of Pi Beta Phi was established on April 1, 1873.

Flora was the first female to graduate from the University of Kansas. In addition, she was the Valedictorian of the class of 1873. At a party in June of 1873, when Sara arrived back in Lawrence, the first Cookie Shine took place. It was named by Chancellor John Fraser and the tradition quickly caught on and it is still a much-loved tradition.

Sara Richardson’s autograph album includes this ditty from David Starr Jordan, a Delta Upsilon, who taught for one year at Lombard College. He would later go on to do great things for Indiana University and Stanford University. (See for more information)

Libbie Brook, Dillon Payne, Suela and Will Pearson, the Richardson sisters, the seven P.E.O. founders, the Beta men, and David Starr Jordan all made appearances in my thoughts as I drove back east to the Mississippi and onward to home.

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