Enrichment and Inspiration for Beta Sigma Phi Sisters from Marilyn Ross
From the April 1979 issue of The Torch
...Paraphrased by Marilyn Ross...
From an often-pawned typewriter owned by our Founder to a fistfull of pennies from the little brother of a rushee, here are some true stories of the early days of Beta Sigma Phi.
Beta Sigma Phi is today a beautiful organization to behold. Since its founding in 1931, it has become the largest sorority of its kind-a sisterhood of 200,000 plus women, a chain of thousands of chapters in many countries around the world.
But it wasn't always that way.
Perhaps this is a good reason for having Founder's Day. By looking back to the very beginnings of this sorority, members can see more clearly what an outstanding success story Beta Sigma Phi is.
Beta Sigma Phi began as a dream in a young man's head. In the middle of the Depression, with very little money and a lot of enthusiasm, Walter Ross traveled across the country, talking to women about his idea of an organization for them.
"There was no name for the organization and we used one that was not in the least definitive and was certainly not attractive-'The National What-to-Read Club'," Walter Ross wrote. He took the idea to Vinita, Oklahoma, and shared it with Mrs. Leona Schroers. (Mrs. Schroers was very active in the National Federation of Women's Clubs at the time and new much about women's organizations.)
"While I was still trying to explain my dream, she said, 'Young man, give me those papers and come back here to my home tomorrow evening, and I will have assembled the group we want.'"
That was the beginning. But it was not an easy one. Often, our founder found himself filled with aspirations, but somewhat shy of the funds needed to push his dream (and his car) further. Those of you who have visited the International Office of Beta Sigma Phi are probably familiar with a frequent source of income for Walter Ross during those early days.
That "source" is now encased in glass as a lasting reminder of the first days of sorority. It is a black, much-used old typewriter. When gas money got scarce, the typewriter would be hocked-just until business got a bit better, at which time Walter Ross would reclaim it. That typewriter stayed active in its role in the rapid growth of our international sorority until 1953, when it was "retired" to its present place of honor.
Walter Ross was the very first of many people who were on the traveling staff for Beta Sigma Phi. Schoolteacher Eunice Harlan began work for Beta Sigma Phi in 1935, traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho, organizing chapters in towns that had never heard of Beta Sigma Phi.
Olive Towne Murphy was in organizational work for Chatauqua tent shows before she began traveling for sorority in the summer of 1933. Once when she visited International, a new member of the staff greeted her. "Where's home, Olive?" she was asked.
"Where's my suitcase?" Olive replied. It was like that for many women who were members of the traveling staff for Beta Sigma Phi. Freda Dixon was another one filled with "the pioneer spirit needed to start from scratch," as she put it. In 1936, she hit the road with a drawing account of $25 a week. "This paid for a fine hotel room," she said. "I remember that the best meal could be obtained for $1. We traveled by train mostly, sometimes by bus. I had to hitch a ride one time, since there was no transportation between the towns I had been assigned."
Along with a few problems came lots of funny moments for field staffers, too. "Our initiations were always formal," Freda remembered. "Even in those little towns, women had long dresses and loved to get dressed up. They knew the correct thing to do. One chapter wanted to send Eunice and me corsages. Perhaps there was no floral shop in town, so they made the corsages. Would you believe zinnias about a foot long, tied with large bows of ribbon?"
"As I recall, mine completely covered the front of my dress-but they were kind enough to make and send them, so we wore them! It was a lesson in humility and appreciation."
On Freda's first trip out, she rode a wave of beginner's luck, and organized 12 new chapters in just 12 weeks! Other journeys proved not quite so easy, and sometimes downright frightening. "Olive was driving me to my first town in Idaho, via Yellowstone National Park," Freda recalled. "Driving over the mountainous, unpaved, one-way roads, we found ourselves suddenly stranded when Olive's car just came to a halt, and refused to start. I was panicked-but not Olive! She took the situation in hand and started to back down the mountain so she could find a 'turn-around,' she said. "Me? I got out and walked. I disliked the walking on that high and winding road, but Olive's complete control was something to behold. She found a spot, turned the car around, and coasted down!"
It took several days to repair the car, during which time the two enjoyed their stay in the park. "But Mr. Ross always teased me about being the only field staff member who had a vacation before going to work," Freda recalled.
Even in later times, when field staffers were not "roughing it" quite so much, unusual events did occur. Field staffer Helen Gravatt recalled conducting a Pledge Ritual in 1969 for a Lubbock, Texas group that looked a bit worse for wear and tear. "Five pledges had been skiing and had their legs in casts, and five others had broken arms in casts," she said.
The lifestyle was a surprise a minute. Field staffers seldom spent more than a few weeks anywhere, and learned to live out of suitcases. Sometimes even the most practiced packer can make a little mistake, though.
It happened to Alice Edwards, who was working in Georgia in the spring of 1979. She had been invited by a town to attend Founder's Day there. "I just took my long dress for Founder's Day with me," she said. "I had this dress awhile, so my aunt had taken the top and bottom parts of the dress apart so she could clean the white top of it for me. She sewed it back together afterwards, and I, of course, didn't have time to try it on. But with just 30 minutes' time to get dressed, I slipped into the outfit and found out to my dismay that the top would not come together to button-in fact, there was about a 3-inch gap!
"Being on the field staff, I used my improvisational abilities, got out my scissors and cut out the entire back of my dress to I could button the front. Thank goodness the dress had a long black and white beaded jacket to it-it saved my life! The city council representative came to pick me up a few minutes later, and said I wouldn't believe all the things that had happened to her that night," Alice remembered. "If she had only known about my last 30 minutes!"
The stories of our field staff are varied, but the aim of one and all of our travelers was the same-to spread the word of Beta Sigma Phi, and to develop our organization into the worldwide, respected group it is today.
Perhaps the story that sums it up best is the one about a field staffer whose specialty was pledging Nu Phi Mus. She had found a perfect candidate for Beta Sigma Phi. The rushee told the staffer she wanted to be a member very badly, but she could not afford even a modest fee at that time. The traveling staffer said she hoped that something might come up for her soon, so she could join.
The next day, something did. The staffer heard a knock at her motel door, and when she opened it, a young boy stood in the doorway, asking if she was "the sorority lady". When she nodded, he told her his sister had been crying all last night because she could not join. He gave the staffer a fistfull of pennies and asked if that would be enough. The staffer gravely looked over the coins, and again nodded. After the boy left, she made up the difference herself, so the boy's sister could join sorority.
These stories of the early days of Beta Sigma Phi are something to think about-not only on Founder's Day, but every day of your sorority life.