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A Rose Returns Home



By Drew Logsdon (Western Kentucky)

Facilities Manager Kenny Lewis had only been working at Headquarters for a year when one day he spotted a small plant clipping in some newspaper near the back patio of the main building. He was confused at first. He wondered if he had missed an email, memo, or forgotten some conversation. He couldn’t recall any mention of a delivery of a new plant. Maybe it was a co-worker’s? Best to leave it be for now.

Several days passed and Lewis noticed the plant still there. Not wanting to see it left to itself, he brought it to Margaret Davis, the de facto Chief Grounds Officer of Headquarters. Margaret Davis had worked at Headquarters since Sigma Nu returned in the 1960s, lived on the property, and although retired she was the majordomo of all botanical operations at Headquarters.

Ms. Davis’ memory was also fuzzy on this peculiar new visitor but found a pot and took charge of it. Over a few months, it looked like it was doing surprisingly good, but Ms. Davis’ age had begun to limit how much attention she could give it. Kenny Lewis offered to find it a nice home in the “backyard” of Headquarters. Lewis took charge of their mysterious new friend and tended to it. And it took to its new home as if it had always belonged there.

Because it had. In fact, it was just coming home.

As visitors approach Headquarters, they are presented with a visual symphony of symbolism for the Legion of Honor and the work done there. The Hall of Honor and Hall of Fame wings of the main building stretch outwards and curl toward them, a welcoming embrace to all those who return “home.” The crossed swords above the front door convey the spirit of duty and service, a reminder to those who pass its threshold of the oath they took, and the important work done inside.

But the most well-known symbols sit nestled together about six feet in front of the doorway: The Rock and the Rose. The Rock, cut from the same limestone outcropping upon which our beloved Fraternity was founded, is stability, protection, and perseverance. It does not move, bend, or break. It is a foundation upon which Sigma Nu rests. As time passes, our oath, principles, duty, and commitment do not. Directly behind it, rests the Rose. It grows and blooms in cycles, nurtured by its stewards but beholden to time.

If the Rock represents the timeless essence of the Fraternity, the Rose represents its living essence. Our membership will also grow, bloom, and eventually pass on to the Chapter Eternal. But with each passing winter comes a rebirth in spring, and so the Fraternity blooms anew, a little bit different but still a rose with a direct connection to its forebearers.

Every brother knows the story of the Rock and how Ora Baldinger (VMI) preserved it during VMI’s Parade Ground expansion and later aided in its rediscovery and relocation to Headquarters. But what folks may not realize is that the history of the Rose at Headquarters has a fascinating story as well. It’s a story that starts in the early years of Sigma Nu, and it all starts just a few blocks from Headquarters…


If you were to stand on the steps of Headquarters and look westward on a cloudless day, it’s possible you could spot the historic Blandome house just a couple of streets down the hill. Tucked between East Washington Street and Massie Street, Blandome was purchased by John Randolph Tucker and his wife in 1872. John Randolph Tucker was a lawyer and first Dean of Washington and Lee University Law School. The property’s landscaping fell under the direct supervision of his wife, Laura Tucker. At some point during the Tucker’s residency, which lasted until 1902, a wild white English rose shrub was planted.

The wild, white English floribunda of Blandome were not the traditional white roses that we would expect today. They bloomed in spurts in late-spring and early-summer as small five-petaled blooms, sprouting from thornless stems and living up to their name as they defied restrictions to their sprawling growth, stretching wherever sunlight, good air, and free real estate existed. They’re both hardy and fickle, withstanding the hard Shenandoah winters but susceptible to too much human interference, as if stubbornly refusing to be told what to do.

In the same year that the Tuckers moved into Blandome, they welcomed a new son-in-law into their family with the marriage of their daughter Virginia Tucker to an outstanding graduate of VMI, Assistant Professor at the Institute, and one of Alpha Chapter’s earliest initiates, John Carmichael (VMI).

Although John Carmichael only taught at VMI for one year after graduation, he remained in the area as a farmer and civil engineer. As such, his family grew over time and his children frequented Blandome, no doubt finding joy in exploring the home’s property, gardens, and the love of their maternal grandparents.

The oldest son among them was John Carmichael, Jr. In the 1930s, Carmichael, Jr. reminisced on his boyhood and how intertwined it was with Sigma Nu.

“Some forty-six years ago a boy of sixteen was growing up in the community (Lexington). He had known Sigma Nu from babyhood; had cut his first teeth on a Sigma Nu pin; and had been initiated into the Fraternity at fifteen…”

John Carmichael, Jr. was initiated into Lambda (Washington and Lee) Chapter in 1890 and just a year later he wrote to Grand Recorder Grant W. Harrington to suggest the White Rose as the Fraternity’s official flower.

Throughout his childhood, he had been attracted to the white roses of Blandome. The small blooms were in approximate size to some Sigma Nu’s early pins and their white five petals resembled the badge of the Fraternity. “He associated the sentiment of living with its beauty and purity,” Carmichael Jr. wrote of his younger self. “Almost as far back as he could remember, the White Rose was there for him to love and respect.”

And so, in 1892 the Grand Chapter took upon the young Carmichael’s suggestion as it appointed a Committee on Fraternity Flag, Flower, and Yell. The committee discharged its duty and so was launched the White Rose as Sigma Nu’s official flower.

When Sigma Nu returned to Lexington, the then-owners of Blandome (no longer the Tucker family) graciously insisted that Sigma Nu accept some roots from the original White Rose bush, to be planted at the new Headquarters. And so, the transplanting began, born from the original “mother rose” at Blandome.

But through the curious threads of destiny, the Rose would soon take a journey over the Appalachian Mountains to find another place to call home.

A Fortuitous Clipping

In the late 1970s, Jack Gilman (Morehead State) traveled with his brothers from Kentucky to Lexington for a traditional chapter pilgrimage. On this pilgrimage, Jack quickly fell under the same spell that Carmichael, Jr. had so many years earlier. The Rose at Headquarters, by now having grown upwards and outwards in a wild sprawl, was a sight to see. Unable to resist the beauty of the Rose and reckoning the size of the bush could spare a young initiate’s unbridled spirit, Jack Gilman took a small clipping and tucked it into an empty Coke bottle with some water.

Once back at Morehead, Jack Gilman planted it, nurtured it, watched it, and waited. Over time, Jack took some clippings from Morehead and planted it at his parents’ home in Shelbyville, Kentucky.

Jack’s older brother, Past Regent Joe Gilman (Morehead State/Georgia), recalls how his parents reckoned with their new botanical guest. “It grew wildly,” Gilman says with a laugh. “My dad would frequently be outside cursing it as he tried to keep pace with it and all of the new places in the yard it would grow.”

Over time, this story faded, and the Rose in Shelbyville lived on in relative obscurity unless you heard the story from the Gilmans.

Meanwhile at Headquarters, time was catching up to the Rose.

The End and The Beginning

By the early 2000s, the Rose at Headquarters had grown into a figurative jungle. Every passing year was marked by visitors having to take a few more steps to avoid running into its branches, and this wasn’t out of any sense of neglect either.

Margaret Davis, who knew every inch of Headquarters intimately, knew the Rose all too well, and she understood that any effort taken to reign in the Rose’s growth would result in its demise, as if the plant had decided to cut off its own nose to spite its face.

By 2010, the Rose had begun to show signs that something was amiss. Although it had weathered so much in its time at Headquarters, a fungal disease had taken root and was slowly killing it. Its spirit, as expected, seemed to reject this notion entirely but every bloom saw less and less like a boxer refusing to acknowledge its defeat. But the conclusion was a forgone, the Rose would have to be removed.

Now, certainly an attempt could have been made to revisit Blandome to find another clipping, but it had been 50+ years. Who knew if they even still had the bushes?

As this news was shared with the Sigma Nu Educational Foundation Board of Directors, a solemn pause fell over everyone until Joe Gilman, then Chairman of the Board, spoke up that he had several thriving Rose descendants at his parents’ home in Shelbyville.

Gilman went out to his parents’ home, grabbed a few clippings, and brought it back to Headquarters as a replacement. A different bush entirely, but still the same Rose tracing its proud lineage back to Blandome.

Full Circle

After Joe Gilman helped replace the Rose in 2010, he took some clippings back to his own home outside Atlanta, Georgia. Since then he has cultivated his own little garden of Sigma Nu Roses.

“They all came from my parents’ house, which came from that first Rose at Headquarters, which of course came from Blandome and the Mother Rose,” Gilman said.

Over the last decade, Gilman tended to the fickle plants and gave some clippings out as gifts, but with varying luck. Some of them take to their new homes and some of them quickly pass away. “You can take ten clippings and one might root in water,” he says. “Which is wild because I once saw this rose growing wildly alongside a fencerow in Oklahoma once. It just decides on its own where it wants to grow and where it doesn’t.”

One gift was to Lambda (Washington and Lee) Chapter to commemorate an anniversary. Then Leadership Consultant Alex Taylor (Huntingdon) happened to be passing through on his way to Lexington and stopped by Gilman’s house to retrieve a mature clipping and the two, man and plant, rode back to Lexington together, carrying over 100 years of history with them up Interstate 81.

Sometime in 2016, Gilman also dropped off a mature clipping of the Rose at Headquarters as a replacement and it was that exact same clipping that Kenny Lewis noticed sitting outside the back patio.

By the spring of 2020, the Rose was again showing the signs of failing health. Thankfully, this time the Fraternity had a replacement that was growing strong in the backyard. And so, the process began again of clearing out the old and replacing it with a new Rose, again just a little bit different but still the same.

It’s still there today, doing exceedingly well. True to its personality, it enjoys the humor in thriving despite the world around it.

And the symbolism shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Like the Rose, Sigma Nu will continue to thrive and grow. It will see its own harsh winters and challenges, but it will never stop living and growing. It will change and look different, but it will never lose its essence.

Like the Rose, as long as the sunlight of brotherhood, the fresh air of loyal love, and the water of new minds, men, and energy exist, the Legion of Honor will continue to bloom.

© 2015-2022 Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc.
9 North Lewis Street, P.O. Box 1869, Lexington, Virginia 24450
Phone: (540) 463-1869 | Fax: (540) 463-1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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