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Perspectives on Our Past - The Return to Lexington

Updates from Lexington

It was a quiet time, early evening on a late spring day in Lexington, Virginia. It was the week between the graduation of the students of Washington & Lee University and the cadets of VMI. Some families were getting ready to sit down for dinner. It had been temperate that day, a welcome respite from winter's chill and the soon-to-be stifling, humid days of summer.

Just before 6:00 P.M., the sound of a cannon broke the quiet and echoed across the hills of the town. Fired from one of the highest hills in Lexington, at a spot that provided an excellent defensible overlook above the town, including, significantly, the ramparts of VMI's barracks.

Was this the start of Hunter's Raid of Lexington in May 1864 during the Civil War? Was it retaliation for the participation of Cadet Corp in the Battle of New Market when Union General David Hunter ordered his men to raid Lexington and burn VMI to the ground?

No, Hunter's Raid took place 146 years ago. I'm writing about an event that took place exactly 50 years ago, in 1960. The cannon heralded the return of Sigma Nu to its birthplace. On June 9, 1960, the official dedication of Sigma Nu's new headquarters in Lexington was celebrated, slightly over ninety years after its founding.

Planting Seeds of Change

Since 1915, the Fraternity had rented space in several office buildings in downtown Indianapolis. Sigma Nu had been one of the first fraternities to establish a central office and hire a full-time General Secretary to administer its operations. The High Council chose Indianapolis primarily because of its central location and accessibility for the chapters then in existence.

In 1954, the High Council appointed a Special Headquarters Committee to look at future options for the Fraternity's headquarters. At the time, among the thirteen large national fraternities maintaining central offices, nine owned their own headquarters and a tenth was committed to purchasing one in the near future. This left only three, including Sigma Nu, renting headquarters space.

In addition, there was a trend for large fraternities to locate their headquarters away from large downtown city locations — Sigma Nu was then one of only two with a downtown location. The Committee reviewed the costs of renting versus owning and Indianapolis as compared with several other locations. After reviewing the pros and cons of rental versus ownership, the Committee recommended the outright purchase of a headquarters for Sigma Nu.

The General Fraternity headquarters office before wing additions in 1969. The Fraternity purchased the home from Professor Livingston W. Smith.

After considering three college towns recommended by the Headquarters Committee, the High Council in 1956
decided that Lexington was the first choice. A thorough search for a suitable home in Lexington commenced.

Unfortunately, the initial search was unsuccessful and the Fraternity was just about ready to give up on Lexington and turn to its second choice when a fortunate event occurred.

A substantial 10-room house became available, and not just any house. This house had been built by Professor Livingston W. Smith, the grandson of General Francis H. Smith, on land purchased by General Smith's son.

General Smith is often referred to as the spiritual founder of Sigma Nu. He was the first Superintendent of VMI and served in that position for 50 years, from 1839 until 1889. He was Superintendent during the time the three Founders of Sigma Nu attended VMI and he taught them religious studies.

The hill where the house stands is the highest point in the town of Lexington and had been a favorite spot of General Smith. His grandson, Livingston Smith, was Chairman of the Mathematics Department at Washington and Lee University for many years and built the house with its outstanding view over Lexington and the campuses of Washington and Lee and VMI.

Nearly three hundred initiates and guests attended the headquarters building dedication ceremony on June 9, 1960.

The original house was designed by William C. Noland, Virginia's very first Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (an award given for outstanding contributions to the profession). The house was completed in 1910, exactly 100 years ago.


A Dream is Realized

Once Sigma Nu purchased the home and site, the real work began to make this home the central part of the beautiful headquarters we have today. To bring Executive Secretary Richard R. Fletcher's vision to reality, Sigma Nu hired another outstanding Virginia architect, Milton L. Grigg, to add his creativity and expertise to the project. Grigg had been very involved in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg and Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello. The renovation work began in July 1957 and required seven months for completion. The building was first occupied in February 1958 as Sigma Nu's new headquarters.

However, to officially recognize Sigma Nu's return to Lexington, the cradle of its founding, a dedication ceremony was in order.

A Dedication Wortiiy of a Great Fraternity

Sigma Nu's headquarters building was officially dedicated on June 9, 1960. Nearly three hundred initiates and guests were in attendance. Arranged in a semi-circle on the lawn in front of the renovated building, the guests faced a low, walled enclosure displaying a three-ton piece of the original limestone outcropping were the three Founders said their initial vows — the "Rock" of Sigma Nu.

The enclosure also held a white rose bush taken from the original bush still growing in Lexington that had inspired our official flower — the "Rose" of Sigma Nu.

Only the central part of our current headquarters was dedicated that day; the two wings were built subsequently and dedicated during Sigma Nu's Centennial year in 1969.

Those in attendance for the initial dedication included Regent B. Kendrick Vaughn and members of the High Council; the Superintendent of VMI; the Chancellor of Washington and Lee; Benjamin F. Hopkins, a grandson of Founder Hopkins; Colonel Ora M. Baldinger of Alpha Chapter, the preserver of the Rock; Malcolm C. Sewell, who had served the Fraternity as its Executive Secretary for twenty-five years from 1931 to 1956; initiates of Sigma Nu, representatives of the Lexington Triad (Alpha Tau Omega and Kappa Alpha Order) and other fraternities and Lexington officials, including the Mayor.

Alpha Chapter had been banished, along with all other fraternities, from VMI in 1915. Out of the thirty-three original members of Alpha Chapter still alive in 1960, five were able to make the dedication: Ora M. Baldinger (Alpha 133), Frank A. Grove (Alpha 145), Colonel Ken Purdie (Alpha 146), Lester Gayle (Alpha 150) and Chris Nowlin (Alpha 169).

At the start of the ceremony, the limestone "Rock" was covered with the flag of Sigma Nu, and guarding it was an honor guard of three cadets from VMI. The American flag flying over the ceremony once proudly flew over the U.S.Capitol. It was presented as a gift by J. George Stewart (Delaware), then Architect of the Capitol.

VMI Cadets guard The Rock during the 1960 dedication ceremony.

The official dedication ceremony began at 5:00 P.M. and was short but memorable, lasting approximately 45 minutes. It consisted of a narrative read by Executive Secretary Richard R. Fletcher, interspersed with short presentations and comments by several others in attendance.

The theme was chosen by Fletcher and woven into the ceremony were two great traditions that were important to Sigma Nu and were reflected by the Rock and the Rose — the tradition of constancy and the tradition of change. "Here the Rock protects, the Rose embraces ... the Rock is firm, the Rose sways ... the Rock unchanging, the Rose forever changing ... the tradition of constancy, the tradition of change." At the appropriate time, the flag covering the Rock was removed.

Several gifts were presented to the headquarters as part of the dedication. Lambda Chapter (Washington and Lee) presented the very first physical property ever owned by Sigma Nu. It was a simple pine coffer that had been purchased by Alpha Chapter to store and safeguard their chapter records and initiatory equipment. However, when Alpha was finally banished from VMI, it was turned over to Lambda for safekeeping. While Lambda considered the chest one of its most cherished possessions, in 1960 the chapter donated the chest to the Sigma Nu museum.

Benjamin F. Hopkins, the Founders' grandson, presented his grandfather's set of encyclopedias, his drawing instruments, and photos. The encyclopedias had been given to James Frank Hopkins by his father and were used by him during his studies at VMI.

Gamma Upsilon (Arkansas) initiate number one, W. Terry Field, a good friend of Founder James Frank Hopkins, donated the Sigma Nu badge worn by Founder Hopkins and his sword to the fraternity. Gamma Omicron Chapter (Washington University - St. Louis) donated the badge owned and worn at his death by Founder James McIlvaine Riley.

At the close of the ceremony, a bugler from VMI blew attention and at that point, a gun crew discharged a single round from VMI's ceremonial artillery piece, "Little John." In the town below, church bells pealed their welcome.

It was a beautiful and moving ceremony in accordance with the significance of the event. The narration included the following in recognition of the three men who were instrumental in bringing Sigma Nu into the world.

"To this place — Lexington and VMI — came three idealists, not themselves Virginians, but born and reared in the Virginia tradition. They were to become the Founders of Sigma Nu ... two from Arkansas, one from Missouri ... two from the battlefields ... MEN, not boys ... men of ideals. The three met under the stars in a limestone saucer hard by the parade grounds of VMI to plight their vows of Brotherhood, and so Sigma Nu was born on January 1, 1869."

Virginia Military Institute Cadets with a period cannon during the dedication ceremony.

On the 50th Anniversary of this dedication ceremony, Lexington still enjoys a special place in the hearts of all Sigma Nus, and most particularly to those who have made the pilgrimage to our birthplace.

The Delta

© 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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