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Reprinted from The Phi Gamma Delta
Volume 80, Number 4, March 1958, p. 235-241

Omicron Chapter Rounds Out Century

Founded at the University of Virginia 100 Years Ago, Unit Has Been Bright Link in Our Fraternity's Golden Chain

By James R. McKeldin (Virginia 1925)

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Comes now Omicron Chapter at the University of Virginia to celebrate her centennial. January, 1959, marked the rounding out of the first hundred years.

Omicron, sixth existing active chapter on the roster, eighth fraternity to be installed at the university, narrowly missed being our third oldest chapter and Phi Gamma Delta the oldest fraternity on the Lawn,* for, believe it or not, on May 10, 1851, according to the minutes of the Grand Chapter, "a letter was received from Mr. Spence [probably John Spence (Jefferson 1850)] enclosing a petition for a charter signed by Messrs. W. B. Hamilton, O. Atkinson, H. B. Stephenson, C. G. Gassani, W. L. Davis, students of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. On motion, the petition was granted."

* Ante-bellum Greeks at Charlottesville: Delta Kappa Epsilon, 1852; Phi Kappa Psi, 1853; Phi Kappa Sigma, 1855; Beta Theta Pi, 1855; Kappa Alpha (Northern), 1857-61; Sigma Alpha Epsilon, 1857; Theta Delta Chi, 1857; Phi Gamma Delta, 1859; Chi Phi, 1859; Chi Psi, 1860; Sigma Chi, 1860; Delta Psi, 1860.

Not only was a charter granted, but we find in the minutes that a Legate, L. W. Reeves, Jr. (Nashville 1850), was appointed and "telegraphed to" with reference to the organization of the chapter at the University of Virginia.

What happened? History is silent; there is, however, evidence that Legate Reeves did not see eye to eye with the petitioners regarding the men they proposed to initiate. Alas for the fact that on November 8, 1851: "On motion the [Secretary] was authorized to have the gentlemen at the University of Virginia informed as to the cause of the delay in establishing their chapter"! *

* Reeves was a student at UVA in 1850, according to the 1878 Students of the University of Virginia: Semi-centenial Catalogue. He appears to have departed by the time the Grand Chapter authorized him as legate, and may have had difficulties getting back to Charlottesville. Correspondence between brothers at Jefferson dated May 21, 1851 states, "I think there ought to be a fund raised and kept to defray the expenses of traveling for the legates as you are doubtless aware of the difficulty respecting that matter in regard to the University of Virginia. . . ."  The December 19, 1855 minutes of the Grand Chapter note another petition from UVA.  However, no other information is given.

LIFE BEGINS IN 1859

Omicron, in the mysterious immutability of history, consequently becomes Omicron rather than Zeta or Eta and her formal life begins with the establishment of the chapter in January of 1859. *

* The original article said 1858, but this has been found in error. See this article for information.

Terah Major Freeman, 1861; Charles Gachet, 1859; John Thomas Jones, 1861, and Thaddeus Clement Watts, 1861, together with Major Dowell Sterrett, 1861, who had been initiated at the Mu Chapter at Howard College in Alabama, as Legate, were the brothers who brought the new chapter into an existence that was shortly to be exposed to the perils of war and reconstruction, to undergo the ordeals of varying fortune, but which was destined always to possess a vitality needing but a touch of aid at its lowest ebb to spring upward with amazing strength.

SOME PICTURES OF THE EARLY MEMBERS OF OMICRON CHAPTER -- While an undergraduate, Howard W. R. Biers (Virginia 1925) gathered these pictures of some of the early members of his chapter. Freeman, 1861; Jones, 1861; Sterrett, 1861; Watts, 1861, and Gachet, 1859, were the five founders. The others were initiated shortly after the establishment of the chapter in January, 1858. NOTE: The link takes the viewer to a digital copy of Biers' original at the University's Special Collections Library.

All of the five founders are known to have served in the Confederate armies, as are all of the Deltas who were initiated prior to the outbreak of the war. Luther Rice Bell, 1861; John Thomas Jones, Harrison Tillinghast, 1860, and Louis M. Rogers,* 1861; met heroes' deaths on the battlefield – Jones and Bell within three days of each other. Bell was killed at the second battle of Malvern Hill, while Jones fell at Cold Harbor; each was in his twenty-second year.  (Bell was initiated at UVA in 1858, and transferred to North Carolina by 1859.)

* Rogers' badge, pictured to the left, is stored at the University's Special Collections Library. The same style of badge was dug from the ground at the site of a Civil War encampment; read about Major Dowell Sterrett's lost badge.

Brothers Freeman and Gachet resigned from the university in 1859, as the aftermath of a duel in which Gachet, seconded by Freeman, successfully defended his honor. Gachet served as captain of Gachet's Company of Alabama Cavalry. Sterrett was also a captain, while Freeman rose to the rank of assistant inspector-general under the Stars and Bars.  See a listing of Phi Gam Confederates.

In war-time there were naturally no initiations, but we find as early as 1866 three initiates in Omicron's list, one of whom, Henry Withers, 1867, later drew up the charter of Kansas City. *

* This statement is in error. All the known members departed during or at the conclusion of the 1859-1860 school year. See this article. Thus, it appears that the chapter ceased operation shortly before the war. On October 13th, 1867, a correspondent from DePauw wrote the chapter at Hanover, "We have received from Bro. Geo. B. Baskerville [DePauw 1868] . . . an application for a charter from five students of University of Virginia, Charlottesville. I sent it last week to [the] Grand Chapter."

Fulfilling the motto on her coat-of-arms, Omicron continued prosperous for 16 years, initiating in unbroken line men who were destined, as their records show, to lives of outstanding worth in service to their fellow-countrymen.*

* This is also in error. Omicron Chapter failed after the class of 1872 graduated most all the members and the rest did not return. A transfer from Roanoke restarted the chapter in the mid to late fall of 1872.

When the Ninth Convention was held under the auspices of the Ohio Wesleyan Chapter at Delaware, Ohio, in 1870 (the first occasion at which more than nine chapters were represented) Omicron sent her first accredited delegate, John Fitzgerald Lee, 1869.

Shortly before the 12th in 1874 the Grand Chapter issued the following announcement: "The fact that the meeting is to be held with the Omicron Chapter at the University of Virginia should be sufficient to insure a full representation."

The 12th Convention was held in the Town Hall of Charlottesville, lit by kerosene lamps. It was followed by a dinner given by Omicron at the Farish Hotel, where, according to the memoirs of the late Major Frank Keck (City College 1872, Columbia 1875) "champagne flowed like water." Active members of Omicron at the time included the Honorable Charles W. Dabney, 1873, later to become president of the Universities of Tennessee and Cincinnati; U. S. Consul Samuel Pierce Bayley, 1874; the Honorable Henry H. Downing, 1874; Colonel Granville Gaines, 1874, and the Honorable Henry Venable Strayer, 1874.


THE HOME OF OMICRON CHAPTER JUST OFF MR. JEFFERSON'S LAWN -- Acquired in 1913, this stately home of the Virginia Chapter was extensively remodeled in 1931. It stands on Madison Lane, not far from the university's famed rotunda. The Fijis at Virginia call themselves the "Gams."


Mention of Omicron is frequent in the minutes of the Conventions and the pages of the magazine, until 1882. Thus we find Nathaniel L. Bronaugh, 1882, was delegate to both the 13th (1877) and the 18th (1882) Conventions and that George E. Nelson, 1866, and Winfield S. Amoss, 1877, attended the banquet, Brother Nelson being admitted as a delegate from Omicron.

The report of the Chief of the Southern Division to the Ekklesia stated that ". . . one drawback is the lack of railway facilities . . . [but] chapters in Virginia are sound in principles and finances."

The magazine carries an article in the issue of April, 1881, stating that "our law and traditions are largely the result of our Southern origin,* and it is hoped no effort will be spared to recover the possessions which are our birthright."

* Of the first ten chapters of the Delta Association, seven were founded in Dixie and in both the Jefferson and Washington Chapters there were splendid representations of Southern men.

The same issue carries a letter, presumably by S. B. Dabney, which is highly illuminating in the case of events to come: "It has been some time since Omicron has made her appearance . . . some apology is necessary for the little communication we have with the outside world. This is largely a post-graduate and professional school. We are scattered through the different schools of a large university, and quartered in rooms far apart . . . it is impossible for us to hold that constant social intercourse with one another which is necessary. Our chapter here is largely sustained by sister colleges. Would it not be advisable to make strenuous efforts for extension in the South?"

A PERIOD OF SILENCE

In 1881 Omicron had 107 members, 11 of whom were active. At the Convention of 1882, two initiates were reported. At the conclave of 1883, the report of the committee on Condition and Extension of the Order read: "The Grand Chapter, Section Chiefs, Journal and all the chapters have failed to hear from Omicron. Your committee recommend . . . more prompt attention or the surrender of their charter."

The effect of Virginia's rigid standards of scholarship upon the leisure of her students can be traced back even before 1881 – a letter from George M. Ragsdale, '78, tells of how the fraters, even in 1880, had not the leisure to pass as much time in the fraternity hall as some of the young members of Omicron's sister chapters. (In the same year, thirty members of Phi Beta Kappa were "assaulted by a policeman in Boston, and charged with being drunk and disorderly!")

THE PRESENT UNDERGRADUATE CHAPTER AT VIRGINIA -- Social, extracurricular and scholastic leaders at the University of Virginia, the mark of the Fijis is definitely on The Lawn, as the campus at Charlottesville is called.

"In the matter of Omicron Chapter [says the report of Grand Chapter to 1884 Convention] it appears that during the past year none of them have attended college. Dissensions arose and the chapter seems to have been abandoned, if not disbanded, as is usual."

The February, 1884, number of the Sigma Chi Magazine, in an article on fraternities at Virginia, says "the vital spirit of fraternity interest is sadly lacking."

The Section Chief's report for 1886 mentions: "I have never heard directly from Omicron. I have, though, heard indirectly that we have a few men there."

In 1887, the Rainbow of Delta Tau Delta reported that "the University of Virginia chapter of Beta Theta Pi is now reduced to one man."

The causes are not far to seek, for the Delta of Sigma Nu explained in 1889:

"A student is permitted to graduate at the University of Virginia as soon as he can pass the required examinations. The percentage required for graduation is very high. The system of marking is very rigid. If this percentage is not exactly reached in every branch of study the candidate is not allowed his degree, and no further examination is allowed for an entire year."

Small wonder that the students in what was to all intents a graduate school had no leisure for the development of extra-curricular associations! Yet in March of 1889, there were five Deltas at Virginia and the strength of the chapter was recognized by its rivals. In May, our magazine speaks of how the "South is growing wondrously, and with it grows the strength of the fraternity." In September, we read: "Brother H. G. Avery of William Jewell is now at the University of Virginia, where, with the help of other Deltas, an effort will be made to restore old Omicron to her former prestige and power."

A NEW DAY DAWNS

We turn next to the minutes of the Convention of 1890: "We [the Grand Chapter] report the revival of the Omicron Chapter, . . . and are promised a lively organization there during the coming year . . . ."

And an editorial in The PHI GAMMA DELTA (January, 1891) records: "Brothers Farrar and Shelton of Rho Chi, who were pursuing advanced work in the university, in company with Brothers Coles and Sayers from Beta Deuteron and Delta Deuteron, respectively, soon associated with themselves a half-dozen men who seemed composed of the right metal and the chapter was soon on its feet again, doing battle with the other societies. Since then the old alumni have been interesting themselves . . . and the new chapter seems to possess those elements of vitality which are bound to make it permanent."

In the fall of the same year the Section Chief reported to the 43d Convention that "the old charter, which had never been revoked, was extended to the new following and now the fraternity has regained her own," an observation supplemented by the following comment by the Grand Chapter: "Chapters at . . . University of Virginia . . . and others are in first-class condition."

Since then Omicron's history has been one of uninterrupted progress, succeeding generations having raised the chapter even higher in the starry fellowship. For the greatest all-around efficiency in scholarship, fraternity relationships and extra-curricular activities, Omicron was awarded the coveted Cheney Cup for the two-year period of 1917-19.

The Omicron Chapter-House Society was incorporated on May 4, 1909, and in 1912 a new house was acquired in a choice location on Madison Lane. In 1929 the home was extensively remodeled and enlarged and today the Cavalier Fijis are in a lodge second to none at the ancient Jeffersonian center of learning.

SOME NOTABLE OMICRON MEMBERS

In the various fields of public service, the names of many Virginia Fijis have been inscribed upon the roll of achievement, including the following men listed in a recent edition of Who's Who in America:

George D. Andrews, Jr., 1924, foreign service officer; Howard W. R. Biers, 1925, consulting engineer; James B. Bullitt, 1897, professor in the medical school at the University of North Carolina; John E. Corette, Jr., 1929; Colgate W. Darden, 1918, president of the University of Virginia; Armistead M. Dobie, 1902, Federal judge; Clarence B. Hanson, Jr., 1929, publisher of the Birmingham News; Randolph Harrison, Jr., 1923, foreign service officer; James B. Orrick, 1922, publicist; Lindsay Rogers, Faculty Initiate, professor of public law at Columbia University, and Lawrence B. Sheppard, 1920, business executive.

PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY -- Colgate W. Darden, Jr. (Virginia 1918) has been president of the University of Virginia since 1947. Prior to that he was governor of the Old Dominion and a representative in the Congress of the United States. President Darden has pledged $1,000 to help extinguish the mortgages on Omicron's home.

Listed in prior editions of Who's Who were the following: Willis C. Campbell, '04, orthopedic surgeon; Eustathius A. Chancellor, 1876, physician; William E. Darnall, 1895, surgeon; Charles G. Davis, 1873, physician; Guy L. Edie, 1876, colonel U. S. Army; William L. Estes, 1876, surgeon; William E. Farrar, 1890, educator; Julius C. Gunter, 1876, lawyer and former governor of Colorado; J. Tate Mason, 1905, surgeon (and at his death president-elect of the American Medical Association), and Gregory L. Smith, 1871, lawyer.


The name of Colgate W. Darden stands out luminously in this roster. A former Congressman and governor of Virginia, he became the president of the University of Virginia in 1947 and has served with marked distinction since that date. He has also been United States representative in the United Nations.

Barron F. Black, 1919, served a term as rector (presiding officer) of the trustees of the University. Another notable name on Omicron's roster is that of William S. Hildreth, 1916, past president of the University alumni association.

Thus Omicron, in her centenary year, joins a vital and dynamic present to a past enriched by noble tradition.


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