From the Archives: Discovering the Fraternities of Poly’s Past


Jordan Millar, Managing Editor

Few people at Poly are aware of the school’s history of fraternities. From their establishment in 1880 to their conclusion in 1950, the fraternities served as one of the major centers of student life, doing everything from establishing strong social connections to advocating for clubs, athletic opportunities, and other student-driven events. 

Poly’s fraternities date back to 1878, when, at the St. Paul’s school in New Jersey, three former Poly students were initiated into the Sigma Psi fraternity. According to the 1950 issue of the Polyglot, Sigma Psi was the oldest high school fraternity in the United States. Junior James Brandmeyer, who studied the history of Poly’s fraternities for an archival public history project last year, said that the student alums “came back and decided to found [Sigma Psi] at Poly.” Two years later, in 1880, Sigma Psi became the first and oldest fraternity at Poly when a Beta chapter was organized. Sigma Psi’s first faculty advisor was William E. Golden, the Head of the English department, who held the position from 1913 until his death in 1930. 

 “There were four more fraternities that were founded from 1880 to 1902,” Brandmeyer said. As stated in his research paper, in the mid-1890s, Poly students began pushing for a school experience shaped around students. According to the Polyglot, this led to the chartering of the four additional fraternities at Poly — Beta Phi in 1898, the Gamma Chapter of Alpha Iota Epsilon in 1900, the Epsilon Chapter of Omega Alpha Pi in 1909, and Sigma Delta Psi in 1909. James Blundell, who graduated from Poly in 1947 and Columbia University in 1951, was a member of the Alpha Iota Epsilon fraternity and the swim team. The fraternity’s “members [were] involved in sports and [were] mostly captains. Only juniors and seniors were members,” Blundell said in an interview with Donna Muoio, director of alumni relations. He first learned about the fraternities “from other students, particularly athletes.” “Most private schools had fraternities at the time,” Blundell added. 

Fraternities typically consisted of about fifteen male upperclassmen, as Poly did not go co-ed until 1977. Each had its own secretary, treasurer, president, and vice president. In 1913, according to the Polyglot, “fraternities added faculty advisors to their membership.” While Blundell does not recall “doing anything special to join”, other fraternities had initiations. As stated in Brandmeyer’s paper, the Head of Sigma Psi would order the initiate around, asking questions such as, “do you still desire to become a member of Sigma Psi fraternity?” The Initiation of Sigma Psi mentioned that initiates must “discard all things and dedicate yourself to a noble brotherhood” and “obey without questioning,” and that “he who cannot be silent (or obey any of other fraternity rule[s] mentioned in the imitation ) is unworthy of the confidence of sensible men.” After more fraternal rituals, the initiate took the pledge and was welcomed into the fraternity. Sigma Psi also had songs that reinforced the deep connection that fraternal brotherhood created. 

All fraternities were overseen by the Interfraternity Council, which consisted of the fraternity presidents and the Headmaster. The Council conducted weekly meetings to discuss controversial points and fraternity activities and coordinate interfraternity competitions, such as academic challenges. As stated in the Polyglot, during the final year of fraternities in 1950, the Sigma Psi fraternity held the record for the highest scholastic average ever achieved. 

However, the main purpose of the fraternities was to establish a thriving social life at Poly. “They were purely social; the members would meet a few times a month, usually at someone’s home,” said Blundell. “Some fraternities planned parties.” Interfraternity Dances, organized by the fraternities and funded by the Interfraternity Council, were held from late winter to early spring, indicating the beginning of the Poly social season. They also held Interfraternity Relay Races which have since been transformed into the field days that Poly holds currently. 

Each fraternity also held celebratory alumni events and fundraising banquets. Fundraising was important because fraternities were expected to provide the school with gifts at the end of the year. According to Brandmeyer, Beta Pi provided the basketball plaques on the gym rafters, while Sigma Psi provided andirons for the fireplaces in the Trophy Room and a flag in memory of Mr. William E. Golden, the fraternity’s faculty advisor. In addition to presenting gifts, fraternities presented their own prizes to students. The presentation of these awards was the fraternities’ longest-lasting and arguably most important tradition. Cups were awarded to Poly teams’ most valuable players, including football (Sigma Psi), baseball (Omega Alpha Pi), lacrosse (Sigma Delta Psi) and track and field (Alpha Iota Epsilon). Beta Pi sponsored the only non-athletic prize, the Hawes Prize, for excellence in translation. 

Reflecting on fraternities during his time at Poly, Blundell recalls that about half of the junior and senior classes were members. “Parents in general were not fans of the fraternities, [they] felt more strongly about academics. Fraternities are a part of Poly’s history in that they existed, but the importance was always on education and academics as being the number one priority.” While the fraternities did not take away from the emphasis on learning, Blundell adds that they served a greater purpose: “creating groups of young men with like minded interests.”

The fraternity culture at Poly was incredibly strong during their existence. As stated in the Sigma Psi Triangle, a book published in 1901, twenty years after the fraternity’s creation, Sigma Psi represented the “friendly and social side of student life.” Despite all the work that fraternities did to improve students’ experience at Poly, though, they ultimately ended in 1950 according to the Polyglot, with no documented explanation. However, Brandmeyer has a theory. “At that time Poly was starting to think about reforming their ideals to [become] more friendly to progressing times,” Brandmeyer said. He recalled that the Sigma Psi Handbook stated that to be a “sensible” man, everyone was to obey fraternity rules without question, which he believes are “gender roles that Poly didn’t want to support.” He adds that “the end is kind of a mystery.” 

Although it has been over 70 years since the end of Poly fraternities, they still remain an important part of the school’s history. “I learned about the start of student life and social life at Poly, because before 1880, it was just an academic school. Fraternities invented the social side of life at Poly,” Brandmeyer said. “So even though fraternities are over, I learned that their legacy is still impactful today.”