Lambda Chi Alpha History in the Making: The Merging of Theta Kappa Nu

Taken from “Our Story: A History of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity” 

Theta Kappa Nu, in contrast to Lambda Chi Alpha, had preferred small college campuses. The Great Depression hit the smaller schools, and thus Theta Kappa Nu, harder than others. Men simply could not afford even modest “extra” costs.

The early 1930s saw chapters of Theta Kappa Nu become inactive for the first time. Simultaneously, although the number of chapters remained just short of 50, the number of active members dropped from 1,118 to 753. Even worse from the perspective of national finances, initiations dropped from more than 500 annually to just 206 in the 1932-33 academic year.

In order to maintain strength of numbers, the Grand Council reduced fees in 1933 and again in 1935. In addition, chapters were authorized to accept notes in lieu of cash for initiation fees. The result—an increase to about 350 initiates and 800 active members in 43 chapters for each year from 1933- 1936, but at a cost of a substantial annual operating loss to the General Fraternity, which exceeded $6,000 in 1935-36. After obtaining the recommendations of leading financiers, the Council decided to cover the operating losses by use of the “permanent funds” of the fraternity.

The Great Depression had a long and devastating impact on the nation’s economy. In its struggle to maintain its organizational existence the permanent funds of Theta Kappa Nu were reduced over seven years from $28,500 to about $12,200.

Grand Archon Feist stated in 1938, “At the beginning we were faced with the necessity of balancing our budget. Drastic steps had to be taken. It was necessary to cut expenses until every man on the Grand Council was asked to sacrifice. We reduced our paid working staff, and at the same time resolved to give the chapters more service than before.With this in mind, each of your national officers volunteered to give of his time and energy. We have each taken our vacation allotment of days and given them to Theta Kappa Nu. There have been more chapter visitations than in any previous period.”

In the fall of 1937, restoring fees to the statutory level found both reduced initiations and a smaller
active membership. Although chapter debts incurred prior to June 30, 1935, were cancelled, by 1938-39
only 36 of the 54 chapters were operating, many of these in serious financial difficulty. Chapters
still in arrears were notified that the General Fraternity would not visit them unless travel to a nearby chapter that had paid its fees permitted the visit at little or no financial burden. Yet the same Grand Council meeting awarded the usual scholarship for graduate study and authorized a new academic award—a Grecian lamp to be retained permanently by the chapter whose grade-point-average for the year was the farthest above the all-men’s average. Even in dire financial straits, academics were a top priority.

Although Lambda Chi Alpha was in markedly better shape financially, it also clearly needed to expand its roster of chapters in this same climate. In the late 1930s central figures in Lambda Chi Alpha considered some form of “merger” with Alpha Chi Rho and Acacia to be mutually beneficial, while the chapter roll of Phi Pi Phi seemed to fit less well with that of Lambda Chi Alpha. Discussions with the leaders of these groups in each instance led to the mutual conclusion that the groups should remain separate. In Theta Kappa Nu, Grand Archon Feist reported to the 1938 Grand Chapter at French Lick, Indiana that “we have entered into a new phase of expansion.

During the earlier years of our existence the older fraternities had ceased to expand; as time went on they changed their expansion policies because they, too, were losing chapters. As a result, today a good local in a good school can, if they desire, choose any one of a half a dozen fraternities. This situation places Theta Kappa Nu at a serious disadvantage, and the result has been no expansion. In March of this
year we successfully colonized a group at Mississippi State. Yet this method89 does not solve our problems, because only a very few schools will permit this method.” Feist identified four methods of expansion:

1. Going into normal schools (teachers colleges).
This is not sanctioned by the National Interfraternity
2. Absorption of smaller, weaker national
fraternities. This is a dangerous procedure, as very
often you increase your trouble more than you do
your resources.
3. Become completely absorbed by an older and
larger fraternity. In such a plan Theta Kappa Nu
would lose everything and cease to exist; it would
simply become a part of the parent group.
4. Form a union with some group of about the
same size and strength as Theta Kappa Nu.

Feist also reported on discussions about union with three national fraternities: Acacia (idea dropped by mutual agreement); Beta Kappa (discussions suspended for a period); and Tau Kappa Epsilon.

Planning for a possible merger with Beta Kappa began as early as 1932. Edward W. Cragin, a member of Maine Alpha, preserved a large collection of Theta Kappa Nu documents dating from the late 1920s up to its merger with our fraternity. One fascinating document in this collection is a three page proposal for the possible merger of Beta Kappa and Theta Kappa Nu fraternities.

The name of the new fraternity would have been Beta Kappa Nu. Overall, the new organization would have been composed of 85 chapters, well placed throughout the country, with about 9,500 members.
The Cragin Collection of documents91 provides some remarkable insight into a little known episode in the history of Theta Kappa Nu fraternity.

A working paper that would have established a weak-central-control, confederation-style union with ΤΚΕ , and possibly other groups, was discussed at length and overwhelmingly rejected by the delegates.

The Beta Kappa and ΤΚΕ merger proposals reflected the concerns that plagued many fraternity and sorority leaders during the American Depression. Obviously, the survival of their organization, under the stress of limited resources, was a key concern of these leaders. But, it is also clear that just “any old merger” would not work for them. Many factors played a part in their decision making process, such as the number of members and chapters, geographical locations, the quality of the organizational leadership, and the compatibility of their beliefs and values. These factors were just as important to them as the future financial stability of any merged fraternity.

Talks and plans for a merger must have weighed heavily on the minds and spirits of the Theta Nu leaders. While loyal to Theta Kappa Nu they concluded that its survival in some form could
only happen through a union with another fraternity.

The 1938 Grand Chapter went on record as desiring “to proceed with a program of expansion, even to the point of merger, if necessary, so long as our complete identity of name is not lost.” Deputy Grand Archon Leroy Wilson (Rose-Hulman) suggested Lambda Chi Alpha as a merger possibility to Grand Archon Lybarger; the latter approached Lambda Chi Alpha Administrative Secretary Bruce McIntosh during the National Interfraternity Conference meetings in November 1938. This led to a luncheon meeting and then to a formal negotiating committee.

Theta Kappa Nu and Lambda Chi Alpha were quite similar in basic purpose and ritualistic principles, although from slightly different perspectives: Theta Kappa Nu from mainstream Protestantism and Lambda Chi Alpha from the less emotional, more intellectual Anglican tradition.

In the Theta Kappa Nu initiation chamber, on three small tables surrounding the central altar, were placed a model of clasped hands, a Grecian lamp, and a small United States92 flag. The central altar bore an open Bible. On the shield of the Lambda Chi Alpha coat of arms appeared three of these emblems—the different element was the balance in place of the American flag, indicating less of an emphasis on patriotism in Lambda Chi Alpha before the union.

One thing Theta Kappa Nu and Lambda Chi Alpha could agree on was that ritual was central to the ideas of brotherhood and fraternity. Another part of the answer no doubt lies in the frequent, pleasant contacts between the two groups from the beginning. Bruce McIntosh was a featured speaker at Theta Kappa Nu’s second Grand Chapter. Lambda Chi Alpha recommended Theta Kappa Nu affiliation to several local fraternities. When Bruce McIntosh was president of the Fraternity Executives Association in 1933, his vice president was Theta Kappa Nu’s Don Lybarger.

As Grand Treasurer Elles Derby (Polytechnic University) stated just after the vote for union with Lambda Chi Alpha, “Those of you who were in French Lick a year ago at the Eighth Grand Chapter know that one of the reasons that a merger proposed at that time was not accepted was that the feeling seemed to be that a favor was being done us by offering the merger. In this case, no favor is being done us. We are joining on equal terms with a fraternity twice our size and considerably older.”

Late in April 1939 the Grand High Zeta of Lambda Chi Alpha and the Grand Council of Theta Kappa Nu unanimously recommended the merger based on the document provided by the negotiating committee. All four “founders” of Theta Kappa Nu supported the merger, McAtee writing “It seems to me the union is the consummation of the things that Theta Kappa Nu has worked for during the past years.”

The Theta Kappa Nu delegates had been pleasantly surprised when Lambda Chi Alpha representatives suggested that the vote be taken first in the Lambda Chi Alpha General Assembly. The issue was so clearly presented there and all questions so cogently answered by Grand High Epsilon Clair Pepperd (Oregon State) that every undergraduate delegate voted for the merger. Grand High Alpha Noel Sargent (Washington) wired the result to Grand Archon Lybarger in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lybarger opened the Ninth Grand Chapter in Birmingham with the statement, “Every Brother here will have the opportunity to be heard upon every question. Nothing is going to be rushed. We have two full days and, if necessary, can stay for two weeks, and we are going to take our time.”

The union agreement provided immediate membership in the greater fraternity for Theta Kappa Nu alumni in good standing, including those who had been members of the six dead and 10 inactive
chapters.93 The groups on eight campuses merged into one larger chapter—only at Washington College in Maryland did the campus situation94 prevent a union.

Alumni and undergraduates not in good standing in Theta Kappa Nu were given two years to remove the impediment and all others were accepted immediately without any fees or special action, although they were urged to witness the initiation ritual of Lambda Chi Alpha at their convenience.

Naturally, a major concern was the Ritual of Initiation. “Dad” Krenmyre reported that he had reviewed the Lambda Chi Alpha initiation script and fully supported the merger. He and Jack Mason had decided against trying to combine the two rituals; instead, Krenmyre was to condense the Theta Kappa Nu initiation so that it could be used as the Pledge Degree of the new fraternity and the Theta Kappa Nu badge would become the basis for the new pledge pin.

After considerable discussion of the details of the merger, a roll call vote found the Grand Scribe and the delegate from Washington College “passing;” with all other votes “yes”—including the delegates not officially entitled to vote due to fee delinquencies—the two “passing” voted “yes” to make the decision unanimous.

It is apparent that both fraternities were fortunate to have men who were sensitive to the feelings and needs of each group. The sense of brotherhood and mutual respect helped them to forge an incredible union that incorporated Theta Nu core beliefs and values into a new and enriched fraternal experience for future generations of Lambda Chis.

Grand Archon Lybarger commented, “Brothers, of course this is a time when we have mingled feelings—we can’t help but have. Reluctantly we reach decisions sometimes that common sense imposes upon us. We are now Lambda Chi Alpha. We have but one duty— to create the strongest international fraternity on this continent. It can be done and it will be done. (Applause.) We have seen big institutions, banks and businesses, fold up overnight; things that we thought were the very cornerstones of strength in this country have disappeared. It is little wonder, therefore, that an institution composed of college men would have difficulties, but, by and large, I feel those difficulties are now behind us, and I feel that we have assured the perpetuation of those ideals which we had when Theta Kappa Nu was founded—the establishment of a brotherhood of good will among men, a brotherhood based on the highest social standards, a brotherhood where men can come together on that intimate basis of friendship.”

The union agreement provided for three members of Theta Kappa Nu to be elected to the Grand High Zeta for a transition period. In addition, the Executive Director–designate of Theta Kappa Nu, Ben Parnell (Drury), served for two years as a traveling secretary for our fraternity. In order to make the transition as smooth as possible, Tozier Brown, with three years of experience on the road, was persuaded to remain another year as the traveling secretary designated to visit the former Theta Kappa Nu chapters.

On behalf of the merger committee, Grand Treasurer Derby stated, “If you are planning on initiating men immediately and can’t wait for the new Ritual to come out, you can use the Theta Kappa Nu Ritual, but simply remember when you get to the words ‘Theta Kappa Nu’ to make it ‘Lambda Chi Alpha’. Now, in regard to house signs. Our very diligent brothers from Birmingham-Southern have already changed the sign on their lawn. (Applause.) That is just the way you ought to go about it. The minute you get back take the Theta Kappa Nu sign off the house because you are not Theta Kappa Nu— you are Lambda Chi Alpha.”

After telegraphing the favorable vote to the Lambda Chi Alpha General Assembly still meeting in San Francisco, the Grand Chapter conducted two final items of business: a charter for the Mississippi State colony and one final use of the Theta Kappa Nu ritual to initiate pledge Willard Hatfield of Iowa- Alpha as a brother of Theta-Iota Zeta.

What did Theta Kappa Nu bring to Lambda Chi Alpha? At one level the answer is 7,000 initiated members and 28 new chapters. This increase to 106 active chapters located in 39 states and one province permitted the expanded group to endure the difficult
years of World War II.

This union is still the largest in the history of Greek-letter organizations. When Theta Kappa Nu and Lambda Chi Alpha united in August 1939 our fraternity tied with Phi Delta Theta fraternity as the third largest fraternity. At that time, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, with 113 chapters was in first place with Kappa Sigma in second place with 110 chapters.

The union also contributed the two oldest chapters of our fraternity. It is noteworthy that these chapters are significantly older than the traditional founding date of Alpha Zeta in 1909. Our chapter (Kappa-Mu) at Culver-Stockton in Canton, Missouri, can trace its lineage through Theta Kappa Nu (1926), to Alpha Delta Theta (1915), and finally to The Hawkins Literary Institute (1867). In addition, the Culver-Stockton chapter can lay claim to being the successor of the first local student organization founded west of the Mississippi River.

In 2013, Kappa-Mu celebrated its 146th anniversary as a local group. The other former Theta Kappa Nu chapter is Kappa-Phi at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. This chapter can trace its origin to the Schiller Literary Society founded in 1868. In 1919, it adopted the name Sigma Phi and on February 19, 1926 it became Ohio Beta of Theta Kappa Nu. In 2013, Kappa-Phi celebrated its 145th anniversary as a
student organization.

At another level QKN provided leadership. Freely elected to the Grand High Zeta were founder “Doc” Anderson (Grand High Tau 1942-46), former Grand Archon Van Feist (Grand High Pi 1942-46), former Grand Treasurer Elles Derby (Grand High Alpha 1946-50) and former province archon Carlos Spaht (Grand High Gamma 1970-74). Executive Director– designate Ben Parnell served on the board of the Educational Foundation (1978-90). The spellbinding “Dad” Krenmyre served as associate historian and highly-prized speaker until his death in 1951. And the delegate from Ohio-Gamma (Wittenberg) to the last Grand Chapter was the incomparable “Duke” Flad, our second chief executive (1942-68).

At still another level the answer is a tradition of emphasis on scholarship and patriotism, a beautiful Associate Member Ceremony condensed from the initiation ritual by Krenmyre [it is astounding that Lambda Chi Alpha lacked such a ceremony prior to the union], the elegant symbolism of a lion rampant holding a white rose, and the challenge to live according to the open motto Vir Quisque Vir— Every Man a Man.

Grand Archon Lybarger closed the final Grand Chapter of Theta Kappa Nu with these comments: “We have met now with men from the Atlantic to the Pacific, North and South. We have worked here together for a short period of time, but yet very harmoniously and effectively. We have accomplished something parallel to that which was accomplished in a similar period of time at Springfield, Missouri, in 1924, when Theta Kappa Nu came into existence. So, you are founders of this fraternity. You have helped found, you have helped establish this fraternity, established it upon a higher plane, a
broader base, a more secure foundation. When the record is finally written I think you can agree that you have played an honorable and important part in the history of Lambda Chi Alpha, yes, and in the history of the fraternity movement, by bringing together two strong, self-respecting national fraternities under one banner.

“Life goes on a very even plane, just as when you go out through the West you cross the prairies and gradually come to higher land, and then you look way across and see out there a great peak. It is not given to everyone to scale that peak. Zebulon Pike, as he crossed the plains in the early days, looked far ahead and saw the peak that bears his name in Colorado. He never scaled that peak; he only saw it
from the plains.

“To a certain extent, I feel in this Grand Chapter we have reached the heights. We have risen from the plain and we have stood upon the mountain and have been able to look into the future and as we have done so, we have seen a great fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha— our fraternity, and we have seen it extending its benefits to college men throughout coming generations.

“You and I will be old. We will have passed out of the picture, but this fraternity will abide and we will be benefiting college generations, perhaps as yet unborn.”

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