George Fredric Pope ’90 was the first. In the ensuing 100-plus years, well over 1,000 have followed. George Pope was initiated November 11, 1887, one of six charter members of the Beta Theta Chapter initiated on that day. Brothers Pope, Jay ’90, Harris ’90, Fostenbaugh ’90, Hamilton ’90, and Brant ’91 started a long tradition that remains with us today. A seventh charter member, Brother Charles Johns ’90, a transfer and founding member of the St. Lawrence Alpha Omega Chapter, was initiated eight days later. Each subsequent member of the Beta Theta Chapter can trace his membership back through a line of brothers to these seven men.
Through the years, the chapter has seen times of glory, tragedy, triumph, and rebirth. It is the cumulative experiences of the past 118 years that make up the DNA of our fraternity. ATO is more than the physical house; rather, it is the collective memories of friendships, trials, and triumphs as we grew into men.
The founding of Beta Theta was the result of the friendship between William Hamilton and founder Otis A. Glazebrook. Dr. Glazebrook was, at the time, an Episcopalian minister in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where William Hamilton lived. Likewise, Hamilton and Brother Pope were childhood friends during Hamilton’s early years in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The two were reunited while attending Cornell. Through Dr. Glazebrook’s influence, William Hamilton decided to form an ATO chapter at Cornell, and convinced the other charter members to join. On November 11, 1887, the chapter was founded, officially organized by Larkin W. Glazebrook (son of the founder and future Worthy Grand Chief) who performed the initiation ceremony in a room off of what is now College Avenue. At the conclusion of the initiation, the first chapter meeting was held, and William Hamilton was elected Beta Theta’s first WM.
His tenure was short lived. On November 26, he resigned his post, and on December 10, he was unanimously expelled from the fraternity. The driving force for the founding of Beta Theta lasted less than one month in the fraternity. The record is vague for the reason for his expulsion.
In those early years, the chapter grew quickly, and by the end of 1890, 47 members had been initiated. These included William Herbert Dole ’94, a student in the College of Architecture, who would design the original house at 625 University. Dole was from Hawaii and “the son of an orange grower.” He also was the nephew of the first President of Hawaii. During its first year, the chapter rented rooms in various locations in Ithaca, including the Unitarian Church, to hold meetings. The connection to the Unitarian Church was through Rev. James Bush, a Yale graduate, who was initiated, at age 65, into the fraternity in 1889, along with his son Harold ’93, an engineering student at Cornell. James is the great grandfather of George Herbert Walker Bush, and the great great grandfather George W. Bush. Brother Harold “Never Hush” Bush is a great uncle to the presidents. Tragically, James died suddenly shortly after initiation.
In 1889 the chapter rented a house belonging to Brother Benjamin Harris located at 136 University Avenue, but it proved to be too small for the growing membership. In 1890, a house on the corner of Lake and University Avenue was rented from Professor Waite. This would be the chapter’s home until October of 1899, when the chapter moved temporarily to a house at 162 University.
During these formative years, ATO quickly became a “force” on the hill, with significant contributors to Cornell’s football, baseball, lacrosse, and crew successes. Brothers were also prominent in honor societies, class offices, and publications. While living in the Waite house, the chapter went through a difficult financial period when the class of ’90 graduated. As the founding class, they represented a large number of brothers, and their departure posed a financial challenge. The house however, survived on credit, hard work, and alumni support, and thrived. By mid-decade, planning and fundraising was well under way for the chapter to build its own house, with Brother Harold Bush leading the effort to establish the ATO Association to assist in the financing of the structure.
In late 1900, the new house at 625 University was completed, and the brothers moved into the house on February 1, 1901. The November, 1900 issue of The Palm reported that the Beta Theta house “…is the first adequate chapter house built by any chapter of Alpha Tau Omega”. Built by the Campbell Brothers of Ithaca, the lot was purchased by the chapter for $2,000 in 1897, and the house constructed for a cost between $16,000 and $25,000, depending on the source referenced. The house had room for 18 men. The first floor included a dining room, a parlor that opened onto a “spacious piazza overlooking the lake,” a music room, and library. A chapter room was on the lower level, and the rooms were arranged as suites, each accommodating two brothers. During the first chapter meeting in the new house, resolutions were passed to: 1) fine any brother who was caught defacing the house (50 cents), and 2) ban card playing on the main floor on Sundays.
The first decade of the new century was marked with the excitement of the new house and a vibrant and growing membership. It also marked an event that, more than any other, defined the character of the house and the brotherhood of Beta Theta.
What started the fire on January 31, 1908, is unknown, but its origin was in the basement and it quickly spread up to the attic and upper floors through an elevator shaft in the center of the building. At 12:20 p.m., Austin Cook, a janitor working in the house, discovered the fire and spread the alarm.
A mechanical engineering student, James Scott Kiehle ’09, born in Scottsdale, New York, and raised in Minneapolis. He came to Cornell as a sophomore after a year at the University of Minnesota. He was initiated October 19, 1906. His memorial plaque carries the inscription “Greater love hath no man than this,” and his memory is revered by every Beta Theta “Tau.”
After the fire, the Ezra Cornell’s turned over their private home to the chapter for two weeks while replacement lodging could be found. This was an act of kindness not soon forgotten. The chapter was finally able to rent the home of Professor Martin, Dean of the College of Architecture, on Edgecliff Way.
On February 22, the alumni met and decided to rebuild and enlarge the chapter house, with the new house to accommodate 24 men. Brother William H. Dole once again developed plans for the new layout, moving the dining room from the main floor to the basement level. The house was ready for occupancy by November 1, 1908. Chapter history records that the house suffered minor fire damage again in 1910, and the lower floor suffered serious fire damage in September, 1916. Little is recorded concerning these events.
Brothers on the main floor rushed to the third floor to extinguish the flames, but the fire was too intense and they were driven back. Fire companies from Ithaca responded, but low water pressure prevented them from reaching the upper floors with water. At that time, it was realized that Brothers James Kiehle ’09, Donald Stewart ’08, and Edward Seelye were believed to be on the third floor. Stewart (the first of several generations of Beta Theta “Taus”), and Seelye were roommates and were thought to be sleeping, having been at junior week dances the night before. Kiehle had been seen in his room less than 30 minutes before the fire was spotted.
Brother George Chapman ’09 went to Kiehle’s room in the northeast corner of the house, and found it empty. He then tried to go to Stewart and Seelye’s room in the southwest corner of the house, but was turned back by the fire. Seelye was finally awaken by shouting from the porch roof below his room, and escaped using a fire rope. Stewart was not in his room, but was taking a shower on the second floor, and also escaped the fire. At that time, a rumor was started that Brother Kiehle was seen walking downtown, and all assumed he was safe.
After the fire was extinguished, the brotherhood gathered at the home of Charles Ezra Cornell (grandson of the University founder, honorary member of ATO, and father of Brother William Cornell ’07) at 508 Stewart Ave. It was then discovered that James Kiehle was missing, and a party returned to the ruined house and a search began. Members of the Ithaca Fire department found the body of Brother Kiehle under debris outside the door of Stewart and Seelyle’s room. It was clear to all that James Scott Kiehle died a hero. He clearly risked the flames and smoke in an attempt to warn his brothers, when escape and personal safety were clearly an option. He cared for their safety more than his own.
At the outbreak of the first World War, 22 active members of the chapter enlisted. Life at Cornell changed rapidly, with significant numbers of undergraduates enlisting. Athletic events were cancelled, and many fraternities curtailed activities due the reduced number of active members present. ATO was no exception. On August 31, 1918, Cornell was designated to be a Student Army Training Corps school, and in September, 1918 many fraternities became barracks. ATO housed army cadets and was headquarters for Company G until the end of the war. The chapter was paid seven cents per day per man housed. It was during this conflict that three more plaques of honor were erected. Although many Beta Theta “Taus” served with great distinction, brothers Gardner ’13, Klein ’13, and Loos ’13 died in 1918 in service to their county. They are honored with bronze plaques on the fireplace in the living room of the house.
The decade of the ’20s saw Brother John “Jack” Watt ’18 set a world record in the 440 hurdles at the Penn Carnival Relays, and represent the U.S. in the 1920 Olympics held in Belgium. Brother Eddie Kaw ’23 captained the football team and was selected to the 1921 Walter Camp All-American team. And in 1925, the chapter initiated Brother Robinson Cox Glazebrook, son of Larkin W. and grandson of Otis A. Glazebrook. He served as WM for the chapter in 1929.
As early as 1920, the chapter began a campaign to raise funds to replace the chapter house. In 1920, a “house committee” was given permission to take an option on a lot if a suitable one was found, and a committee was formed to investigate a new house in 1922. At one point, a motion was passed to have the WM “sell the chapter house and buy another.” This may have been prompted by a number of heating plant failures, forcing the brotherhood to relocate while repairs were being made.
By far, however, the biggest issue for the chapter in the ’20s was whether or not brothers could play bridge on the main floor. The chapter meeting minutes contain near endless references to this issue throughout the decade. The regulations covering cards, who can play, when they can play, and where they can play, changed multiple times each year. It was finally settled when two bridge tables were purchased for $24. A second issue was the attire required for dinner. In 1920, a rule was adopted (after a two week debate) to allow the brotherhood to wear soft white collars to dinner on Sunday, but the rule for wearing white shirts to dinner was still being rigidly enforced in 1928. And WM Mickle in 1928 warned the chapter with regards to singing at dinner, that it must either be “improved or stopped.”
In an effort to increase alumni communications, the first issue of the Beta Theta Bulletin was published in October, 1935, and has maintained a steady flow of information to the brotherhood since that time. It was in the spring, 1936 edition of the Bulletin that Brother Stewart ’08 reported that eleven members of the Zodiac Society were added to the Beta Theta rolls. The Society was a well respected and successful local fraternity, founded in 1904. After a short and unsuccessful relationship with the Beta Kappa National Fraternity, the Zodiac Society brothers were accepted into the ATO brotherhood. Over the next few years, a number of alumni of the Zodiac Society were also initiated into the ATO brotherhood.
In March 1937, the Beta Theta chapter celebrated its Golden Jubilee, with 60 brothers, old and new, joining the three day celebration. Even with numerous renovations to the house’s decorations, the alumni and the undergraduates believed the structure was in need of replacement. Within a year of the Jubilee celebration, the Alumni Association organized and launched a new building program. The original plan called for the demolition of the existing house, and plans were drawn for a new house that could accommodate 36 men. In June of 1939, it was decided, however, that it would be more economic to sell the existing land and building and build on a new site. And, in December 1939, a three-acre lot on Triphammer Road was purchased (believed to be the current site of Pi Beta Phi), and even though the political and economic situation was very uncertain, a fundraising campaign was launched in March 1940. Plans to break ground in the spring of 1941 did not materialize, as the increasing political uncertainty slowed the funds drive. With the outbreak of World War II, plans for the new house were placed on hold.
With a number of undergraduates enlisting or being drafted, Beta Theta once again faced the difficulty of remaining in operation with a shrinking active membership. Although attempts were made to maintain the house, it had deteriorated badly. Finally, in 1944, the house was taken over by the Navy, and Navy housekeeping discipline help stabilize the condition of the house. The Navy, when inspecting the house for possible occupancy, however, commented that it would be “nearly impossible to do anything to the house that wouldn’t be an improvement.” By the spring of 1945, active membership had fallen to ten, down from 40 in 1943, and the chapter had lost the use of the chapter house for the duration of the war. The “rent” paid for the use of the house, however, provided the financial cushion needed to keep the house afloat. In order to continue to function in 1945, ATO, Phi Psi, and Delta Tau Delta joined together and rented a space above a store on State Street. The space was referred to as the “Corn Vat” and each fraternity had use of the space for one weekend a month, with the fourth weekend devoted to a joint party by the three houses. Needless to say, this was a tense time for the brothers, the fraternity, the University, and importantly the country. The March issue of the Beta Theta Bulletin lists Brother Herbert McNeill ’42 as killed in action while a pilot with the air forces in China, and Brother Robert Frost ’43 as being reported MIA in the South Pacific Theater.
With the end of the war, life on campus quickly returned to normal, with many “Taus” returning to resume their studies. A picture taken of the brotherhood in 1947 shows 47 members. Another tragic death occurred in the house, however, on February 23, 1947. Richard “Dick” Kraffert ’49 died suddenly of heart failure sometime during the night, and was found the following Monday morning. Brother Kraffert was 19 and a student in electrical engineering. A plaque commemorates his memory in the house’s library.
As life returned to normal, plans to move forward on a new chapter house also were revived, and the new building campaign was launched in November 1947. The new plans included a 40-man house on the Triphammer Road site. The chapter grew with the number of service men returning from the war, and by 1949, the membership had grown to 88 active members. In the spring of 1951, the chapter started a new tradition of service to the community. Inspired by work done by the Indiana Chapter, the Beta Theta “Taus” decided to replace Hell Week with Help Week, and set to work to renovate two houses of needy families in Ithaca. The nationwide publicity they received in the press helped to spark the ATO national focus to use the pledging process to serve the communities in which the chapters reside. Since that time, ATO has been active within the Ithaca community conducting various community service projects.
In May 1953, the chapter voted to send delegates to the meeting of the Alumni Association with the recommendation to renovate the current chapter house and not build a new house on the Triphammer site. This was adopted, and the complete renovation started on November 23, 1953. The work included new plumbing and bathroom facilities, a new kitchen, a new heating plant, new wiring throughout, and remodeling the rooms. Work was finished in September 1954. During this time, the chapter made arrangements to continue to share meals together at the Straight.
The chapter continued to thrive through the next three decades, excelling academically and on the athletic fields. Numerous team captains, members of national collegiate championship squads, and a number of All-American selections in various sports called 625 University their home. Tragedy struck again in the 1960’s with the sudden deaths of Brothers Lewis Scott ’64, and Steven Kurtz ’63. Their deaths, within two years of each other, are commemorated with bronze plaques in the library.
In the 1970s, Beta Theta became involved in Daffodil Days, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, and has become a sponsoring organization for this annual fundraiser. Each spring, Beta Theta “Taus” can be heard on the local radio stations in Ithaca promoting this fundraiser, and “Taus” can be seen on street corners at 7:00 a.m. on frosty mornings selling daffodils to early morning commuters. Well over $100,000 has been raised by ATO since the inception of this successful, and ongoing, program.
The condition of the house again became an issue in the mid-1980s, as the wear and tear of nearly 90 years of use once again became apparent. A major renovation of the upper floors was undertaken in 1989, and minor renovations to the house continue in an effort to keep it presentable and livable. This included a major renovation to the west porch ceiling and “beach” area in 2002.
The strength and dedication of the Beta Theta Alumni Association once again became evident when, in the 1990s, it was discovered that a significant sum of money was missing from the Alumni Association treasury. Although legal action was taken to resolve the criminal aspects of the situation, the financial impact left the chapter in a precarious position. Once the situation was known, however, the alumni quickly raised sufficient cash to carry the house through a very difficult period.
The end of the last century and the opening of the current century were marked with the loss of two more brothers who are memorialized with bronze plaques on the library walls. Brother Thomas McDonough ’75 died in 1992 and is remembered as “A brother in the true spirit of Alpha Tau Omega.” In 2004, the sudden death of Brother George Boiardi ’04 on the lacrosse field was felt deeply by many Beta Theta “Taus.” A past WM and the team captain, the spirit of Brother Boiardi is best captured by his plaque: “The respect of your fellows is worth more than applause.” That statement also captures the true spirit of the ATO brotherhood.
David Atkinson ’60 (an ATO alumnus) and his wife, Patricia Atkinson, have committed $80 million to provide a permanent center on campus that will advance sustainability research, cultivate innovative collaborations within and beyond Cornell, and position the university to be a global leader in the effort to create a sustainable future. It is the single largest gift to the Ithaca campus from an individual.