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Perspectives on Our Past

This column, the first about our three Founders, kicks off the events leading up to Sigma Nu’s 150th Anniversary in 2019. We’re focusing each of the next three years on one of the Founders. Thus, 2016-17 has been designated as The Year of Riley. Future announcements will highlight the additional events and activities planned for the 150th celebration.

In my opinion, James McIlvaine Riley is the most complex of the three Founders. He is also the hardest to write about because he left very little behind to tell us about his life.

Riley was named him after his father, a father he never met. He never married and had no descendants.

Riley served the longest time as Regent in our history – by far. His Regency was ten years, from 1870 until 1880. The next closest Regent served for only four years. At VMI, he was considered the most sociable of our Founders and yet, despite being a Founder and serving as Regent, he never attended a Grand Chapter, several of which were in St. Louis where he lived.

The youngest of the Founders by several years, he was the first to die.


James McIlvaine Riley was the son of James McIlvaine Riley and Anna Chichester Sanford Tapscott.

His paternal ancestors were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. His grandfather, William Riley, was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Kentucky. He married Mary McIlvain in 1803 in Mason County, Kentucky. She was the daughter of William McIlvain and Mary McIlvaine (notice the slight difference in spelling of their last names.) The couple had ten children (five sons and five daughters) before his death in 1829. Their second child, James McIlvaine Riley (our Founder’s father) was born on November 9, 1805, in Kentucky.

In 1834, five years after her husband’s death, Mary (McIlvain) Riley and her ten children moved from Kentucky to Illinois and eventually settled on a farm near Bryant, Illinois. James and his younger brother William spent time farming the family land before shifting their efforts to carpentry and building. In the late 1830’s, they headed to St. Louis to ply their trade. Both of them worked on the “Old St. Louis County Courthouse” for several years. This courthouse was begun in 1839 and was the site of the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1857. The courthouse stands to this day and is now a part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial near the Gateway Arch.

Founder Riley’s mother, Anna “Annie” Chichester Sanford Tapscott, was the daughter of Chichester Tapscott and Jane Naylor. The Tapscott family originally came to America in 1696 from Devonshire, England, and settled in Lancaster County, Virginia. Eventually some of the descendants moved to Romney in Hampshire County, West Virginia, where Riley’s grandparents, Chichester and Jane Tapscott were married in 1825.


James M. Riley married Anna Chichester Sanford Tapscott on October 1, 1847, in Marion County, Missouri and they resided in St. Louis.

James was listed in the St. Louis directory as a partner in the firm of Riley & Christy – a grocer and commission merchant. A commission merchant sold provisions and other commodities as a middle man for a percentage of the sales price. Thus, they didn’t own the product, they merely brought the two parties together and arranged the transaction for a fee.

A little over a year after their marriage, on November 26, 1848, James M. Riley died at his home leaving his wife and unborn child behind. He was buried in a Presbyterian graveyard in St. Louis.


Our Founder, James McIlvaine Riley, was born on May 16, 1849 in St. Louis, Missouri – a little over five months after the death of his father.

Prior to his birth, his mother relinquished the right to administer her husband’s estate to her step-father, William R. Campbell. He was also later appointed as legal guardian to Founder Riley in matters of his inheritance from his father’s estate. William R. Campbell was James’ step-grandfather through his marriage to his grandmother, Jane Naylor.

Founder Riley’s mother Annie remarried on December 30, 1852 to Clinton Odell Dutcher. Clinton was of Dutch ancestry and a descendant of Captain William Dutcher who fought in the American Revolution. He too was a commission merchant, initially working for the firms of his uncles, Thomas B. Dutcher and Isaac Van Wert Dutcher in St. Louis. Clinton and Annie Dutcher would go on to have four sons, all step-brothers of James Riley – Clinton, Frank, Charles and Ralph. The oldest, Clinton, was seven years younger than James.

When Riley’s legal guardian passed away in 1855, the court appointed Isaac Van Wert Dutcher as his new guardian. Isaac was the uncle of Riley’s stepfather, Clinton Dutcher. Isaac would remain his guardian throughout his time as a cadet at VMI.

According to an article in The Delta by Walter James Sears, Riley attended high school at the St. Louis University School. However, in searching the list of students, I found no record of his attending that high school. Thus, perhaps Sears misinterpreted what Riley had stated during their time together.

Enrollment and Time at VMI

Riley entered VMI in the fall of 1866. Due to General Hunter’s raid on Lexington and destruction of VMI in 1864, the Institute was closed for over a year. After the Civil War ended, VMI was rebuilt and reopened in the fall of 1865. Riley was among the group of cadets entering in the following year that opened on September 10, 1866. Other enrollees with that class included our two Founders, James Frank Hopkins and Greenfield Quarles.

Riley was drawn to enroll at VMI due to Captain Marshall McDonald, a kinsmen (a first cousin once removed) and a member of the VMI faculty. Riley’s grandmother was a sister of McDonald’s mother. McDonald was an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology at the Institute. He would later go on to become the commissioner of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries.

At that time, cadets admitted were of two types – “state” and “pay” cadets. Virginia provided tuition and board for “state” cadets in exchange for their teaching for two years after graduation, while the “pay” cadets had to pay their own way. Riley was a “pay” cadet and the board and tuition totaled $250 a semester. Cadets were also allowed $5 a month for personal expenses.

The opening day of class included quite a bit of pageantry as well as the reinauguration of the statue of George Washington in front of the barracks. After the destruction of VMI two years earlier, Union troops stole the statue from VMI. Our Founders must have been thrilled that day by the attendance at that ceremony of none other than General Robert E. Lee, then the president of Washington College (later to become, Washington and Lee University.)

During the 1866-67 school year, 182 cadets enrolled of which 123 were in the fourth (freshman) class. Initially the Institute housed five men to a room in newly built cabins east of the barracks. The cabins were comfortable and heated by open coal fires that made them very cozy in cold weather. In December of that year, the barracks’ rebuilding was completed and the cadets had to relinquish the cabins in the dead of winter. The barracks’ steam heating system still did not function efficiently and the rooms were cold. Accounts of that winter by the cadets were very unpleasant.

In The Story of Sigma Nu, John C. Scott describes Riley as follows, "From the day he arrived in Lexington, 'Mac' Riley was a favorite among cadets of all classes. A strikingly handsome youth, with courtly manners and affable disposition, his attractiveness was compelling, his personal charm irresistible. He had a natural talent for friendships, and…a habit of doing just the right thing at the right time."

The three Founders had entered VMI at the same time and were friends from the start. Thus, it was natural when Hopkins chose men to start the Legion of Honor several years later, Riley was among the very first he asked.

Although fires later destroyed most of the early records of Alpha Chapter, we do know the first three chapter officers. At the time, the officers were designated by the Greek letter conforming to the initial letter of the office they held. Thus, the Commander was called the “Chi”, the Lieutenant Commander the “Lambda Chi”, the Grand Scribe was called the “Gamma Sigma”. In the spring of 1869, Alpha Chapter held its first elections. James Riley was elected the first Commander of Alpha Chapter, James Hopkins the first Lieutenant Commander and J. P. Arthur the Grand Scribe.

The chapter re-elected Riley and Hopkins to the same offices for the 1869-70 academic year. John Scott stated: "The popularity of 'Mac' Riley and the consistently modest manner of Founder Hopkins are noteworthy in the choice of first officers. From the earliest hint of the history of Sigma Nu down to the last recollection of survivors of that first year, all records, traditions and memories harmonize in the unquestioned fact that James F. Hopkins was the originator and the real leader at the beginning of the Fraternity. All agree with equal emphasis that this distinction failed to cause him to forego his modesty by acceptance of the highest honor of the Chapter."

The first Constitution of Sigma Nu, in contemplation of future expansion to other schools, required the election of a Regent and Vice-Regent for a term of five years. The chapter held the first election for these offices before the Founder’s graduation. Following the precedent of the first chapter elections, Riley was elected Regent (then called the “Rho”) and Hopkins was elected as Vice-Regent to serve for the period 1870-1875. The chapter re-elected both for another five-year term in 1875.

In total, Founder Riley served as Regent for ten years, far longer than any other person has served in that position. The closest was four years, served by several of our early Regents. Of course, with very few chapters in existence during this period and virtually no communication between them, there was not much for the Regent to do. In fact, it’s quite likely that Riley served more in name only and that there was minimal contact with him, if any, during his two terms as Regent.

Riley graduated with his class from VMI on July 4, 1870. His sociability and friendly nature resulted in less attention to studies and more attention to enjoying his time at VMI: he was 45th in his class of 52 graduates. In addition to the three Founders, eleven other members of Alpha Chapter graduated in that class. Riley served on the Committee of Arrangements planning the commencement ceremony along with James Frank Hopkins.

Post VMI Professional Career

Riley took a job in the fall of 1870 at a salt mine in Warfield, Kentucky. The city of Warfield in eastern Kentucky developed as a result of the establishment of a salt mine in the area on the Big Sandy River. Salt was a vital commodity at the time and was used to preserve food before refrigeration. It was also used extensively in the curing process for leather and dying cloth. Riley took courses in mineralogy and geology in his senior year and ranked number twelve in his class on this subject. He also took numerous engineering classes throughout his time at VMI.

He left the Warfield salt mine the following year and joined the engineering department of the Wabash Railroad. Between 1871 and 1878 he worked for this line, the Missouri and Texas Railroad and the Texas and Pacific Railway, except for a gap, between 1874 to 1876, when he worked out of Salt Lake City, Utah, in mining development. All of these railway and mining operations needed engineers and surveyors to build their lines and mines and Riley was a perfect fit.

Starting in the spring of 1878 and for the next twenty years, he was employed with the U.S. Engineers (the civilian component of the Army Corp of Engineers) engaged on improvements of the Mississippi River or as a surveyor with the Street Department of the City of St. Louis. He alternated between these two jobs as needed. Finally, due to health reasons, he retired.

Later Years

His mother, Annie C. Dutcher died in St. Louis in 1879. His stepfather, Clinton Dutcher outlived her by many years and passed away in 1903.

Despite being described by John Scott as one of the most sociable of the early Alpha members and our longest serving Regent, Riley never attended a Grand Chapter. Of course, there were no Grand Chapters while he was Regent, the first not being held until 1884 – four years after his Regency ended. However, he didn’t even attend the two Grand Chapters held in St. Louis in 1892 and 1896 while he lived there.

He seemed to shy away from the accolades to him as one of the Founders. In June 1896, several months before the Eighth Grand Chapter in St. Louis, he was asked to write his recollections of the early days of the Legion of Honor for The Delta. His response reflected his typical embarrassment and humility, "Willingly would I write you such a sketch as you desire, did I feel that I could do justice to your publication, or present such thoughts as you desire, in so entertaining a manner as either Hopkins or Quarles, for, I assume you are in communication with them."

In December 1902, just before the Eleventh Grand Chapter in Indianapolis, he indicated he might attend the upcoming event if he felt up to it, "I will be with you do I not have nervous prostration; in other words: I live very quietly and so am fearsome of results; not being accustomed to attend functions of any kind. This is why I hesitated to try and be one of you."

Not surprisingly, he did not join Hopkins and Quarles in attending the convention.

In June 1910, he responded to an invitation to Lexington for the celebration of the revival of Alpha Chapter. In what was perhaps his final letter to Sigma Nu he wrote, "I have always kept with me the desire to return; as years have passed, hope has not dimmed, until lately. What a little band of youngsters it was forty years ago! What a power it is today! What I do wish – is to try to impress, that my heart and soul are with Sigma Nu… Now I have not by my works indicated this – in this I have been unfortunate; it is a continued source of regret and thought and worry that maybe I might be misunderstood, in that I have accepted none of the many invitations, so heartily showered upon me. Environment and conditions beyond me have always been in control.”

He lived his final years of retirement at 3405 Meramec Street, at the corner of Meramec and Louisiana Avenue in St. Louis.


On April 17, 1911, Riley entered the U.S. Marine Hospital in St. Louis. The Marine Hospitals were set up across the country for civilian mariners, of which Riley qualified due to his service on the Mississippi River. At that time, the hospital was at Marine Avenue and Winnebago Street. He was suffering from stomatitis - an inflammation of the mouth and lips – possibly brought on by his pipe-smoking habit. He never left the hospital and died on May 6, 1911, just 19 days later, at 1:30 in the morning. His death certificate lists gangrene of the mouth as the primary cause.

On May 9, 1911, he was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis in the same plot as his mother, Ann (Tapscott) Riley Dutcher, and his stepfather, Clinton Odell Dutcher. Vice Regent Arthur F. Krippner (Wisconsin) and the brothers of Gamma Omicron Chapter (Washington University, St. Louis) accompanied his coffin to the cemetery.

Writing of his death Vice-Regent Krippner said, "He looked well even in death. His face betokened peace and comfort and in the lapel of his coat we left the little Sigma Nu scarf pin which he has always worn there. His large badge will be preserved for the archives of the Fraternity. Six Sigma Nus acted as pall bearers and we placed upon his grave a huge bouquet of white roses."

Walter James Sears, the author of the Creed, wrote upon his passing, "As that little company of Knights stood at his grave in quiet Bellefontaine, across the flight of the years there came the message: ‘A Founder of the Faith is fallen, an old Knight is gone, but the Faith dieth not, being a living and uplifting power upon the earth; his lifeless ashes are to rest here, but his Spirit is to live among men – all men who have taken the vows of that Faith – a gentle and noble spirit working its way and will in the hearts of all Sigma Nus."

In 1919, Sigma Nu erected a monument over his grave in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Due to the high number of Sigma Nu visitors, the cemetery has put together directions to his gravesite. Inscribed on the stone marking Founder Riley's grave are these words:


And so ended the life of Sigma Nu Founder and Alpha Chapter initiate number 3 – James McIlvaine Riley.

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