For many years, the founders of Sigma Phi Epsilon have been lifted up as ideal fraternity men, distancing them from men who followed them into Sigma Phi Epsilon. Perhaps on this Founders Day it would be well to consider them as men very much like ourselves — who had goals to achieve, challenges to address and hurdles to overcome, just as we do in 2016. Perhaps the individual and group experiences we all share are really quite similar.
- Does your chapter actively recruit transfer students? Carter Ashton Jenkens was a transfer student from Rutgers, where he was a member of Chi Phi Fraternity, founded in 1824. The fledgling group at Richmond College petitioned Chi Phi for a charter, but they were refused. Not letting that stop them, they continued with their goal of starting a new fraternity. Of course, Jenkens could not be a member of two national fraternities, so he “solved” the problem by taking on the status of an honorary member of Sigma Phi Epsilon.
- William L. Phillips, “Uncle Billy,” never completed his undergraduate degree. He had a difficult time settling on an occupation and worked in a number of roles before he joined SigEp as a 28-year-old freshman. His passion for the Fraternity grew so strong that he first worked on behalf of SigEp as a volunteer nearly full time until he was elected the first Grand Secretary (Executive Director), serving from 1908 until 1942.
- Does your chapter seek new members among older students? Benjamin Donald Gaw was 30 years old at the time he joined Sigma Phi Epsilon. And Founder Gaw worked his way through Richmond College by serving as the pastor of the East End Baptist Church in Richmond.
- And what is there about the name Sigma Phi Epsilon? Sigma Phi Epsilon was the third fraternity whose founders wanted to name their fraternity Sigma Phi, a name that was already taken by a group from Union College in 1825. The founders of Sigma Chi at Miami University also wanted to use the name in 1855. Interestingly, the Cardinal Principles of all three groups are similar — perhaps because they are so powerful.
- Does your chapter have a nickname on campus? Carter Ashton Jenkens, William Hugh Carter, Richard Spurgeon Owens, Benjamin Donald Gaw, Franklin Webb Kerfoot, Robert Alfred McFarland and Thomas Vaden McCaul were all ministerial candidates whose roots were in rural, middle-class backgrounds. Because so many of SigEp’s founders were studying for the ministry, other groups on campus derisively called the new Fraternity the “Sacred Hearts” and spread the rumor that SigEp only took in candidates for the ministry.
- Does your chapter actively recruit members from among the leaders of other campus organizations? Benjamin Donald Gaw was secretary of the Philologian Club, where Lucian Baum Cox and William Andrew Wallace served respectively as president and vice president. The founders made good use of this practice.
- Robert Alfred McFarland, from North Carolina, was the only out-of-state student among the founders. All the rest were from the commonwealth of Virginia, as were the vast majority of Richmond College students at the time.
- Franklin Webb Kerfoot was catcher for the Richmond College baseball team, where he was particularly good at pickoff throws.
- Founder Kerfoot, a Baptist minister, was the only one of the founders who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Chaplain First Lieutenant Franklin Kerfoot, U.S. Army, never saw overseas service before he died as the result of an automobile collision with a train in 1918. He was on his way to bid goodbye to his mother just prior to shipping out to France.
- Thomas Vaden McCaul had a great love for music and was a member of Richmond College’s Glee Club. He wrote the first Fraternity song, “Our Fraternity,” in 1902.
- William L. Phillips joined the Masons as a young man in 1897, four years before he helped found Sigma Phi Epsilon. Anyone who has ever been in a Masonic Lodge meeting room may notice a surprising similarity in the preferred location of officers during chapter meetings.
- Phillips, an Episcopalian, was the only one of the founders who was not a Baptist. Richmond College was a Baptist institution.
And what of these men’s lives after they graduated? There is an excellent short biography of each man in John Robson’s “Educating for Brotherhood” (1965) that has great detail. You can find the book in the library at Headquarters.
Remember, although these men founded SigEp in 1901, they are not much different than you today. The founders shared similar interests and were involved in many ways on campus. Let’s celebrate 115 years of Sigma Phi Epsilon by carrying on our founders’ vision to be different.