Psi Chapter History - 1917-1937

Theta Chi  • 1915-19161917-19371941-19491950-19641965-19841985-2005

At the beginning of the next semester, the members of Alpha Sigma Tau decided to seek a berth in Theta Chi Fraternity, “believing that the ideals and ambitions of the Theta Chi Fraternity most closely correspond[ed] with [their] ideals and ambitions.”

Petition of Alpha Sigma Tau for a charter to the Grand Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity in 1917.

A formal petition for a charter was assembled, dated April 1, 1917, and in it were included letters of recommendation from U.W. President Charles Van Hise, and Harold Browning, who suggested that “the expansion of Theta Chi in the future should be directed mainly to the great institutions of the Middle West.” At this time the only chapter in the Midwest was Rho at the University of Illinois.

A letter from Dean Goodnight, who had known the group since its organization in 1915, praised its “clean, young fellows” for their “unusually high ideals,” “extreme conservatism,” and the group’s “democratic atmosphere,” with no trace of “snobbishness or haughtiness among them.” He noted the group’s academic successes, and concluded that he was “convinced that they will maintain a chapter at this institution of which the national organization will always have reason to be proud.” The names of the 29 members and five pledges were affixed, and copies of the petition were sent to the Grand Chapter to be circulated among the existing chapters.

April 1917 saw many events that would soon come to affect the Greek system in general and Alpha Sigma Tau in particular. The United States formally entered World War I on April 6. On April 7, a Theta Chi National Convention officially prohibited alcoholic beverages in and about all chapter houses and chapter functions. And on April 3, Madison residents voted themselves a dry city as of that July.

Fortunately, no members of Alpha Sigma Tau, or later Psi Chapter, were lost in the war, although almost all were either conscripted or volunteered.6

The lease on the chapter house expired at the close of the 1916-17 school year, and the house committee appointed to secure a residence for the coming year bumped into a big stumbling block. Due to the war, prospects for a large membership next semester looked rather slim. By August, however, it was found that about 75 percent of the members would return, and so a three-story house at 148 W. Gilman St. was leased and ready for occupancy at the opening of the school year in September.

148 W. Gilman St., where Alpha Sigma Tau became Theta Chi Fraternity, 1917-1918.

Twenty-one members returned to the university that fall, but three left for service before the semester began, and they were followed shortly afterwards by nine of their brothers. Despite these disruptions, at the end of the first semester of 1917-18, Alpha Sigma Tau ranked second among all social fraternities academically and third in total membership, and the following semester it placed third in inter-fraternity basketball.

Theta Chi Chapter           

Finally, on March 18, 1918, a message from the Grand Chapter of Theta Chi was read at the dinner table: “Your petition has been granted and you are hereby authorized to organize yourselves into a chapter of the Theta Chi Fraternity to be known and styled The Psi Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity.”

After much correspondence with the Grand Chapter, installation was set for Saturday, May 4, 1918.7 Brothers Joel W. MacGregory (Epsilon ‘13) and Wilbur C. Searle (Epsilon ‘07) arrived on May 2 from Massachusetts, and were joined by Fred Putney of Madison to form the installation committee. Thomas H. Brock, an active from Rho Chapter, arrived from Illinois on Saturday morning to assist them.

The installation ceremony began at 1 p.m. Saturday in the chapter house. Twenty-four men were initiated as active members from Alpha Sigma Tau, and six more were initiated as alumni members. 8

With the installation of the charter members, the officers of the new Psi Chapter were elected and installed. Walter E. Malzahn, who had joined Alpha Sigma Tau only two months earlier, became the first president of Psi Chapter. The new officers then proceeded to initiate their first two pledges. There being no further business, the meeting was closed at 6 p.m. On the official roster of Psi Chapter, Fred Fuhrmann’s name was entered as No. 1 for his position as founder of the chapter.9

The brothers went from the ceremonies to an installation banquet at the Madison Club that evening. Following dinner and a toast by MacGregor, the active members, alumni, and committee members took turns giving speeches, and Dean Goodnight closed the banquet with a speech on “Wisconsin and Theta Chi.”

An installation dance was held the next Saturday evening at the parlor of Lathrop Hall. In according with the tradition of Wisconsin fraternities, the newly installed chapter, the 35th chapter of a national fraternity to be established at Wisconsin, and the 29th chapter of a national social fraternity, invited each fraternity on campus to elect a delegate to attend.

Installation banquet of Psi Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity at the Madison Club, May 1918.

The legal articles of incorporation were amended on May 15, 1918, to change the fraternity’s name to Theta Chi.

When Wisconsin opened again in the fall of 1918, conditions due to the war were evidence about the campus. Fraternity houses had been taken over to be used as barracks for the Student Army Training Corps, and everything in general was upset. The house in which Psi Chapter had lived the last year was not affected by the S.A.T.C. since it was privately owned, yet the owner leased the house to others, and as a result Theta Chi was without a home, and what is probably more, without the need for one, for the number of men returning to school was considerably small, and those that did come back were soon enrolled in the S.A.T.C.

During this period, the members fortunate enough to remain in school managed to get together whenever military leaves were given. In order to have a place where they could meet, they rented a couple of rooms on Lake Street, and there spent the little time off “telling the news”.

With the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the chapter discontinued renting the club rooms and soon afterwards was able to rent the upper two floors of their former house at 148 W. Gilman St. Before the year closed in June 1919, however, plans were launched to get a complete house for the next year. After various attempts were made, a house across the street at 151 W. Gilman St. was leased for four years.

Theta Chi House at 151 W. Gilman St., 1919-20.

The summer months were soon over and the members returned in droves. There were enough men back from service so that on Nov. 1, 1919, the date of Wisconsin’s Homecoming, the Psi Chapter Alumni Association was formed. No Nov. 7 the Psi of Theta Chi Building Corp. was organized as a stock corporation to own and erect any future chapter houses, property, and furnishings, and to buy and sell stocks, bonds, and real estate to enhance its capital. Four members of the board were to be members of the alumni association, and the fifth an active member. The initial capital stock of the corporation was $10,000, consisting of one hundred shares. Every member of the fraternity was required to purchase one share on a part-payment plan.

The fraternity at 151 W. Gilman St., 1919-20.

In May 1920, the members learned that the house they were leasing had been sold, and so they looked for a new house, this one to buy. On June 17 the building corporation entered a land contract for the premises at 140 W. Gilman St. for $1,000 down and $24,000 in mortgage payments, and the chapter moved across the street again.

Theta Chi house at 140 W. Gilman St., the first the chapter owned instead of rented, 1920-25.
The brothers in 1923.
Hard Times party, 1923. The abstentious chapter founders were now gone, and champagne bottles appeared.

Perhaps due to management difficulties, the building corporation was dissolved on March 8, 1924, and reorganized as a non-stock corporation. Each member of Psi would automatically become a member of the new corporation.

A Mansion of Our Own           

The corporation’s first activity was to purchase land for a new and bigger chapter house and to build one. The property was purchased in December, and three mortgages were made for the construction. The members were able to move into the completed three-story Georgian revival mansion at 144 Langdon St. by September 1925. Ronald Mattox was the alumnus who spearheaded the construction drive for the $75,000 house, which was known in its time as one of the best built on campus.10

The house that Theta The house that Theta Chi built: a three-story Georgian revival mansion on the shore of Lake Mendota at 144 Langdon St., 1925-37.
Robert Koehring, David Flambeau, Edward Ziese, Robert B. Sullivan, and Genaro Florez were at the height of college fashion in their raccoon coats in front of the Theta Chi House, 1928-29. In 1928, George Olsen and his band recorded the lyrics to a peppy dance tune called "Doin' the Raccoon," that described how "rough guys, tough guys, men of dignity / Join the raccoon coat fraternity."  Click the "Doin' the Raccoon" link to hear the song.

The next significant event in the history of Psi Chapter came in the midst of the Great Depression. The building corporation retained responsibility on the mortgage for the property at 140 W. Gilman St. as part of its sale. By 1934, Psi was unable to make payments on mortgages for both properties, and it defaulted on the payments for the old house. To make matters worse, the members neglected to rush well enough to replace those members who were graduating. In the 1934-35 year only five men were initiated, and the following year only nine. The active chapter could no longer support the house it occupied with such small numbers, and at the completion of the 1936-37 year the building corporation was forced to evict Psi Chapter so it could rent the property to a sorority. Even with new tenants, the building corporation was unable to make its payments, and the building was sold in 1941 to pay off its debtors.

1935 Badger Yearbook photo -- Theta Chi's last appearance there until 1942.

6 Edwin H. Connor Jr. of Alpha Sigma Tau became the youngest lieutenant in the Regular Army.

7 For reasons unknown today, the official Psi Chapter charter was dated March 8, 1917, an odd date considering that Alpha Sigma Tau did not even submit a formal petition to the Grand Chapter until April 1917, and did not become a chapter of Theta Chi until May 1918. To further the confusion, the names of the spring 1918 membership (some misspelled) of Alpha Sigma Tau are entered on the charter.              

8 Due to their military stationing, two more actives were initiated into Psi Chapter by Upsilon Chapter at N.Y.U. later that month. They are considered charter members.

9 Fuhrmann returned to Dubuque, Iowa, and for most of his life ran his family’s clothing store with his younger brother Carl (‘22). He kept up an active interest in the chapter until his death in 1963 at age 66.

10 Designed by the local firm of Law, Law & Potter, which also designed the Fiji Fraternity house at 16 Langdon St., often erroneously attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright.