A brief history of Alpha Theta with excerpts from the 1927 History, the 1958 Pledge Manual and other house documents.
This document is maintained by Geoffrey Bronner '91 and Chris Robinson '86, House Historians Emeritus, and Peter Moran '82.
The current incarnation of Alpha Theta began in the Spring of 1979, when a small, all-male fraternity was rushed by a large group of '82s. These people didn't like what the existing fraternities had to offer, and wanted to start something a little different. They wanted an alternative; a house not quite the same as other fraternities... a place where men and women could work together and have fun.
Following the block rush, the people who took over made Alpha Theta a coed organization during the winter of 1980. By the Spring of 1980, Alpha Theta was a totally different fraternity. Within a year then-President of Dartmouth John Kemeny called Alpha Theta "the leading edge" of the greek system at Dartmouth.
But a lot of things happened before this...
On February 15th, 1920 a group of Dartmouth seniors met together in a dormitory and "discussed various ways of binding themselves together in a more tangible form of organization." The result of this discussion was the founding of the Iota Sigma Upsilon fraternal association on March 3rd of that same year.
The seven founding members were:
- Robert L. Farwell
- James W. Frost.
- Howard A. Hitchcock
- Robert L. Loeb (Alpha Theta / Theta Chi's first president)
- Robert J. Minor
- Burdette E. Weymouth
- Ralph K. Whitney
The organization survived through the next year and "in June 1921 the members of Iota Sig fraternity voted unanimously to become Alpha Theta chapter of Theta Chi. The Iota Sigma Upsilon house corporation was reincorporated under the name Theta Chi house corporation for the purpose of owning a fraternity home for the Alpha Theta chapter."
It should be noted at this time that Theta Chi fraternity had a national clause limiting membership to "Caucasians." As Michael Cardozo '32 told House Historian Chris Robinson '86, "We never thought about it much. There was only one black in my class." Theta Chi, however, had no religious clause... Another house wouldn't let Mr. Cardozo rush their house because he was Jewish, so he joined Theta Chi.
The early years of the Alpha Theta chapter of Theta Chi went by quietly. The most famous member at the time was John Sloan Dickey '29, who would later become the President of Dartmouth College and who is remembered by the John Sloan Dickey Foundation. The current membership of the house works to raise funds for an annual Alpha Theta scholarship managed by this foundation.
Alpha Theta chapter prospered under the guidance of Theta Chi and became one of the top houses on the Dartmouth campus. Then a very tragic accident occurred on a cold night in February 1934 when everyone sleeping in the house was killed by coal gas escaping from the furnace. Over the fireplace in the library of the current house there is a plaque remembering those who died that night.
"In 1939, the Theta Chi house corporation, which by this time had developed into a group of alumni members of Alpha Theta chapter, held an emergency meeting at which it was decided that the only way to keep the fraternity going was to replace the house completely. With the proceeds from a bond issue sold to the alumni plus a rather substantial mortgage, the old house was torn down and the present structure erected in 1940 - 1941."
A number of people apparently seriously believed that the house was haunted by the ghosts of the dead '34s, and that the only way to remove the curse was to raze the house to the ground and start from scratch. The only part of the original house that remains is the section of the foundation that is now a section of the basement that houses the laundry room. Many members and alumni believe that this section of the house is still haunted.
"Following the war [That's World War II, people!], a growing dissatisfaction with the national arose, the main point of which was the Caucasian clause in the national constitution."
The story is too complex to tell fully here... Briefly: in 1951 a resolution was passed by the student body stating that fraternities should attempt to eliminate all racial clauses from their constitutions. The administration interpreted this to mean that they should all send a letter to their alumni explaining what they were doing about their racial clauses. (Most did send a brief letter, and kept their discriminatory policies right into the sixties.) Theta Chi did not, and the Undergraduate Council voted to suspend Alpha Theta chapter of Theta Chi from intramural competition. All were expecting Alpha Theta / Theta Chi to appeal. But Alpha Theta had something else in mind...
On April 24th, 1952 "Theta Chi fraternity at Dartmouth called a special meeting and voted unanimously to no longer recognize the Caucasian clause in the Theta Chi national constitution, and to no longer consider it binding in the selection of new members to the fraternity. The chapter went on to state, 'Although precipitated by steps taken in the undergraduate council, the action to declare the clause restricting pledging to members of the Caucasian race not binding on the Dartmouth chapter has been under consideration for over a year. The Alpha Theta chapter of Theta Chi has been battling this clause for four years without any material progress. The chapter believes that being bound by such a clause is intolerable.' The news of this action spread rapidly and the next day papers all over the country carried the story."
This was one of the first, if not the first, examples of a fraternity in the country deciding to voluntarily break with its own national over a racial clause. The national organization didn't like this turn of events at all and placed a number of sanctions of the chapter. However, the membership would not reverse their decision and on July 25, 1952, Alpha Theta chapter was thrown out of Theta Chi for failing to "conform to the requirements of the Constitution" of Theta Chi.
"Perhaps the spirit of the brothers of Alpha Theta chapter might best be summed up by the words of E.T. Chamberlain, speaking for president Dickey: 'Our local group is already going ahead for alternate plans for their fraternal society in adherence to principles which they prefer not to compromise.'
"Letters were soon sent out to all alumni to vote for a name for the new fraternity. Alpha Theta was chosen. So Alpha Theta began to function as a new house on the Dartmouth campus in September 1952.
Dartmouth went coed in 1972 but did so by initially admitting female transfer students and enrolling female freshman in small numbers starting with the class of '76. When Dartmouth went coed, Alpha Theta, unlike most of the other fraternities on campus, thought it was only logical to let women in, and thought most of the other fraternities would soon follow suit.
Each year the percent of women admitted increased but those early years must have been very difficult for the first women at Dartmouth. (It would be very interesting to find some Alpha Theta alumni from the classes of 1972-1976 to provide insight on what was happening in the House during those critical years. Email us!)
After a few years of being coed almost all the women in the house became inactive and anti-coed opinion grew to the point where it was possible to vote the house all-male again on the night of November 10th, 1976. A number of reasons were given for the decision, including declining membership.
At the time The Tabard was also considering a return to all-male status and the general opinion on campus was that coed fraternities were a failed experiment. Alpha Theta's decision was mostly ignored by the campus except for a brief letter of protest on the opinion page of "The Dartmouth."
The decision to go all-male didn't really help membership at all. Things got a little better after 1977, and the house sustained a small but tight membership. But the decision to return to an all male status had not been a unanimous decision.
The movie "Animal House" came out in 1978. One of the primary screenwriters was a Dartmouth alumnus and member of Alpha Delta. At that time, the Animal House behaviors from that movie were celebrated on college campuses, and certainly on Frat Row at Dartmouth.
Alpha Theta was one of a small number of fraternities which did not promote or exhibit that behavior. There was certainly plenty of partying going on at Alpha Theta in the late '70s but the feeling of being at the House was about the feeling of belonging to a social group which cared about one another and which not only accepted but celebrated differences between the members of the House.
Alpha Theta often attracted new members who had decided not to rush a fraternity in their freshman year, later seeing advantage in the non-conventional atmosphere present at 33 North Main Street. Even the pledge activities generally had the goal of building relationships among the members and definitely were not degrading acts of hazing.
Though small, the Alpha Theta membership during the late 70's was both diverse and skilled. It had some of the best Bridge players on campus, a Chess Master who would put on exhibitions on the Green, a brother with the skills and tools to take down the huge, diseased elm tree off the South porch which threatened to destroy the House with its inevitable demise, and more. To improve their financial situation, the membership decided to rent a few unused rooms to nurses working at the then-nearby Mary Hitchcock Medical Center. Having the House become a coed residence foreshadowed the future decision Alpha Theta would make in 1979.
In the spring of 1979, a group of '82s identified an opportunity, had discussions with the house officers, and "block rushed" the house. The influx of new members (and money) came with some conditions - the house would go coed (again), and be non-exclusive. Anyone who wanted to join could do so. The existing house officers and members had few hesitations about returning to co-ed membership, apart from losing the close-knit feeling amongst the house members, and wisely gave the green light to this proposal.
Ultimately, the vote to invite the block rush of the Class of '82 was an easy one. It was a relief to find that the 'block' was far from a homogenous group, but they were as different from one another as the membership had been. The growth of membership and infusion of cash certainly changed things at Alpha Theta, but together we worked to continue the values which were the foundation of the House: building supportive relationships, celebrating the uniquenesses of the individual members, and being unlike the 'mainstream' fraternities.
The notions of coed living and "fraternization", diversity, inclusiveness, and just plain having fun resonated with the ensuing classes, and dozens more members of the classes of the early 80's joined the house, making it the largest on campus at one point, with 135 members.
Alpha Theta was one of five coed houses on campus at the time, the others being Tabard, Phi Psi, Foley House, and Phi Tau.
One intramural "jock chair", responsible for drumming up house member's participation at college intramural sporting contests, took advantage of the large membership, and was able to sign people up for any and all events, including inner tube water polo, chess, ping pong and Scrabble. House members also participated in the usual events like softball and touch football. The house won the yearlong college intramural title based on sheer participation.
To be continued...