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Perspectives on Our Past

Schools closed, quarantines set up, group gatherings banned, and an abnormally powerful virus spread worldwide. Given the recent circumstances, this scenario may sound familiar to readers, but they are not new to Sigma Nu. In 1918, a deadly influenza pandemic (known as Spanish flu) gripped the world and impacted all aspects of society, especially colleges, universities, and of course, Sigma Nu Fraternity.

The Delta dug into its archives to present a snapshot of how Sigma Nu’s first pandemic experience affected the Fraternity.

This journey into the past wasn’t without its own hurdles. In 1918, World War I was still raging in Europe, with American forces now committed to the fight. Due to the pressing importance of wartime morale among those serving and those on the home front, wartime censors heavily downplayed the impact of the initial Spanish flu outbreaks.

An additional hurdle was that, unlike today, there was not a great sense of real-time connectedness. If something happened in Los Angeles, unless it was carried by telegraph news wire, it was likely to be days, if not weeks, before it reached someone in New York City. There was also no nightly televised news update carrying reports from across the country and the world. Many communities had to rely upon their local newspaper’s morning and evening editions to keep them updated.

But traces of the pandemic can be found in the letters and updates from Sigma Nu’s collegiate chapters as they were sent to The Delta.

The narrow funnel of information, censorship, and World War I meant that some of what you will read seems incredibly laissez-faire for a pandemic that infected 27% of the world’s population and killed 17 to 50 million people. This is less a reflection of Sigma Nus not taking the pandemic seriously and more a reflection of being unaware of how seriously to take it.

Additionally, this pandemic is frequently referred to as Spanish influenza/flu. The naming denotes the suspected country of origin based on frequency and details of early reports coming out of Spain, but that’s because Spain did not have the same wartime censorship protocols as other nations. The actual place of origin of the pandemic is still contested today.

The first references to the pandemic’s impact on Sigma Nu are found in the December of 1918 issue of The Delta amidst the numerous reports sent in by collegiate chapters, alumni chapters and clubs, and alumni themselves.

The very first mention appears in the Mu (Georgia) Chapter’s update out of Athens, Ga. from Commander Frank E. Wilhoit.

“Chapter activities have been badly broken into by a quarantine from Spanish influenza. The campus and barracks have been strictly quarantined for a week and most of the men in the chapter are on the campus. We took in ten men before the quarantine was declared…Besides these we have four pledges

who will come in as soon as the quarantine is lifted…Besides these we have a few others “on the string,” but all action is off of course until that infernal quarantine is lifted. We expect to see, in the near future, a chapter of some thirty or so good Sigma Nus adorning our meeting room.”

Commander Wilhoit paints a fascinating picture of how the pandemic, now forcing campuses to enact quarantine measures, affects recruitment. He goes on to share how it is affecting the chapter house itself.

“By an order of the university, we have given up our house and have our ‘lodge’ in two rooms of one of Athens’ skyscrapers, the Southern Mutual Building. If any brothers should drop over to see us they will find “Sigma Nu’ on the directory, and opposite it 708-9. We are not there all the time but will be there when they give us liberty.”

Wilhoit’s update also shares the impact on campus operations as a whole and even chapter morale.

“There are not nearly so many college activities as usual this year, but we have our share of student non-coms, which is the highest a student can attain.

All in all, we are going to have a good Chapter. Our only regret is that we cannot live together at the house, and so a good measure of brotherhood be lost with a consequent measure of estrangement resulting. But we shall take advantage of every opportunity to get together in the rooms and at smokers and banquets, and so make up, somewhat, for what we lose in being separated.”

The next mention appears in Commander Harold E. O’Brien’s update from the Beta Kappa (Kansas State) Chapter, then known as Kansas State College. In Beta Kappa’s update, O’Brien explains how the outbreak affected the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), which had taken over the Beta Kappa Chapter House.

“Since the induction of the men into the S.A.T.C., we have rented another house, furnishing it with our own furniture, and it is being manned by the five left-overs, three old men, and two pledges. Our matron, Mrs. Bassler, is still with us, although a part of each day she spends in the new S.A.T.C. Community House. The S.A.T.C. is just now temporarily quarantined with Spanish influenza…”

Despite the struggles of quarantine and the war effort, O’Brien signs off his report with optimism and spirit.

“Sigma Nu, as an organization, will be maintained and recognized in Kansas State College. We are determined to ‘Carry on!’”

Over at Stevens Institute of Technology, Gamma Delta’s (Stevens) Reporter, Harold Gregory, was sending his chapter’s update with first-hand experience of the illness.

“I intended to write a week ago, but I was taken with Spanish influenza and that stopped me quick. As it is, I am writing this in bed, and I think I could put myself in almost any mood except that of letter writing. This letter will probably be a day late, but if it is possible will you please do your best to have it published because I know the gang would be disappointed if it were not.”

At West Virginia University, Gamma Pi Commander Alden Winter also reported the pandemic's disruption on his chapter.

“Our reporter, Brother Mark Valentine, is out of town owing to the fact that the university has been closed down for a time because of the Spanish influenza epidemic. I do not know that he did or did not send in a chapter letter and for fear that he did not I am sending one.”

The quarantine soon affected activities across the country. Delta Delta (Penn State) Chapter saw all social activities canceled, Delta Sigma (Carnegie Mellon) Chapter hunkered down in strict quarantine as influenza gripped the entire city of Pittsburgh, and Delta Kappa (Delaware) Chapter saw Delaware College shut down entirely for almost the entire fall semester.

Collegiate chapters weren’t the only ones affected by the pandemic either.

Past Regent Dr. Isaac P. Robinson (Washington and Lee) had been previously appointed as an assistant surgeon for the United States Public Health Service and was transferred from work at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to Housatonic, Mass. to help combat the outbreak there, which was reported in the Berkshire Courier.

“The epidemic of influenza locally has begun to subside. Dr. Robinson, the Government physician, has about completed his work this week. The new cases reported have been few this week and most of those are among children. While the cases reported numbered about 300 in all, there has so far been a small number of fatalities in proportion…Conditions have so much improved that it is expected that the ban on the churches, schools and theatre will be off next Sunday.”

The Cleveland Alumni Chapter, what would today be considered an alumni club, reported the effects on their social calendar.

“The epidemic of Spanish ‘flu’ which is prevalent in our city at this time has prevented us from inaugurating our fall activities after a vacation period of three months during summer. The health authorities have placed a ban on all indoor gatherings, and believing that even our monthly dinner and meeting would be a violation of the spirit of the rule, we have decided to postpone our activities until the restrictions are lifted.”

But not all the reports in this issue of The Delta were as light as schedule disruptions and quarantine frustrations.

Delta Eta (Nebraska) Chapter reported how the pandemic struck their chapter directly in a significant and tragic way.

“Along about the first of October the Chapter was in fine shape with twenty-seven men at the tables. We had planned our first social event of the year, a house party for Saturday, October 5, when the deadly Spanish influenza struck town. Pledge Starret was very sick at the House but had just recovered when Brother Paul Schminke Young was taken ill. The Friday night previous to the party Brother Young took a turn for the worse and Saturday night he passed away. The Brothers gave up the party and were all at the House at the time of the death.”

Sigma Nu’s first encounter with a pandemic saw a disruption to Fraternity activities and operations across the nation. The effects were felt across the ocean in Europe as well, with Brothers serving in the

Allied Expeditionary Force having formed alumni clubs along the Western Front and now dealing with an added cause for concern in an already tumultuous environment.

However, despite this, the Fraternity continued to move forward. Chapters routinely reported an eagerness to support their brothers and communities and an excitement to continue the mission of Sigma Nu despite the situation at hand.

The reports give an interesting first-hand glimpse at how collegiate life was impacted during the pandemic and how the Legion of Honor prevailed despite it.

And it is with confidence in today’s collegiate chapters, alumni entities, and members, that the Legion of Honor does so again.

 

© 2015-2021 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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