Pi Lambda Phi History

The early history of Pi Lambda Phi can be divided into two periods. The first, known as the Founders’ Period, began with the inception of the fraternity at Yale University in 1895. In a few short years the fraternity grew to a position of enviable promise and achievement only to totter and collapse with equal suddenness.

The second, or Revitalization Period, dates from 1908, when the Alpha chapter was established at Columbia University. It is from this chapter that the current Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity developed-young, vibrant and energetic-into its current status among the great collegiate fraternities.

Founders’ Period


The Founders of Pi Lambda Phi sought to create a “college fraternity on lines broader and more liberal than those employed” at the time. It was their purpose to establish:

“a fraternity in which all men were brothers, no matter what their religion; a fraternity in which ability, open-mindedness, farsightedness, and a progressive, forward-looking attitude [would] be recognized as the basic attributes.”

In 1895 at Yale University, a group of men were denied the right of admission into college fraternities because of their religious and racial backgrounds. The leaders of this group were three gentlemen, Frederick Manfred Werner, Louis Samter Levy and Henry Mark Fisher-our Founding Fathers. Werner, Levy and Fisher had a vision of a fraternity where neither sect nor creed shall ever act as a bar to admission for any man. This is how Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity was established. In the preamble of the Founders’ Bulletin, dated March 1895, it states:

“We students at American colleges appreciating the need of a fraternity which shall eliminate all sectarianism do hereby associate ourselves in this Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity.”

The Early Years – 1895 to 1900

The early period of Pi Lambda Phi is wrapped in a veil of mystery and has, thus far, defied efforts to research thoroughly. Many of the early archives have either been lost or destroyed. This can be attributed to the erratic character of the fraternity in and around its creation. Chapters sprang up overnight and disappeared with equal haste, leaving scant records of their short-lived careers. Not even membership rolls have been found.

We only know pieces of information about our earliest chapters at Yale, Columbia, College of the City of New York (C.C.N.Y.) and New York University. Furthermore, we know almost nothing of the Delta chapter, which existed between 1895 and 1900 at the University of Pennsylvania, Epsilon at Harvard, Lambda at Cornell or Nu at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Microcosm, a yearbook published by the C.C.N.Y., class of 1899, has a page devoted to Pi Lambda Phi, which lists the eight chapters named above.

Establishing the Ideals

From the beginning of Pi Lambda Phi, our founding fathers resisted tendencies toward discrimination. In reply to a suggestion that it would be a good idea to have twice as many Gentiles as Jews in chapters, the Grand Master of Pi Lambda Phi, Louis S. Levy, and Frederick M. Werner, Secretary Grand Council, stated that “existing Pi Lambda Phi chapters are non-sectarian.” This was addressed in a letter written in 1896 to Myers Solis-Cohen, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Founders went on to advise Brother Solis-Cohen as follows:

“Your argument (for rushing) should consist of your principles, your cause and your aim. To back this up we will send you the records of our successes at other places. But set to work, get your men immediately, determine your own course of action and constitute yourselves a living active branch of Pi Lambda Phi.”

In writing of the 1897 convention in New York, the Founders continued,

“If your delegation goes to New York in a body, our representatives will be on hand to receive you. This will be our first chance to establish that brotherly feeling, which we mean to exist between every individual member of Pi Lambda Phi.”

It is interesting to note that the same ideas expressed to chapters during the late 19th Century, are identical with those found throughout Pi Lambda Phi’s existence and they remain in our fraternity today.

During the Founders’ Period of most fraternities, the guidance and advice on a national scale came from the “Father” or “Parent” chapter. Gradually, as the fraternity grew in size and responsibility, the desire for continuity caused the establishment of a national office and governing body.

The Letter that Shook the Fraternity World

Founders Werner, Levy and Fisher felt a need for Pi Lambda Phi. Why is best explained by the following letter presumably written and circulated during the school year of 1895 at Yale:

"Dear Sir:

In the early part of this year, a number of students at Yale met to consider a college fraternity on lines broader and more liberal than those employed at the present time.

It appeared feasible to found such a fraternity, having for its cardinal principles non-sectarianism and the recognition of men on the basis of ability above all consideration.

Appreciating the obstacles that present themselves to the success of such an unprecedented undertaking, they proceeded with the utmost caution.

Yet their purpose was such as to elicit the enthusiastic interest and co-operation of many liberal men.

The following article, which appeared in the C.C.N.Y. Mercury, briefly explains our position:

‘The long felt want in college life has at last been filled. The influence and workings of college fraternities, admirable as they are, have up to now been limited in their scope. And this, not because of the ineligibility, or non-qualification of those not reached, but rather by some narrow and illiberal clause utterly at variance with the original fraternal idea, has defeated the true purpose and aim of fraternity. To counteract this, there have been at times, other fraternities founded by sects not included in the existing fraternities. These naturally have served as counter-irritants, rather than as remedies. Now, however, there has been founded the fraternity which seeks only the most broad-minded, liberal, and progressive men. As will be seen in the account of this fraternity in another part of this issue, the organization does not present itself as an experiment, but as an established fact. The fraternity seeks no members, save those seeking it. And only the best of those who are progressive, industrious, and non-prejudiced, can seek it successfully.’

Considerations of this character led to the establishment of a chapter at Yale, which was followed by the formation of chapters at Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, College of the City of New York and New York University. Others are being established at the University of Chicago, Union and Harvard. The undergraduates constituting these chapters are young men who have gained distinction during their college career.

They have been prominent in classical, scientific and literary studies. Moreover many of them are athletic and social leaders in their respective institutions.

Now the fraternity is striving to extend its influences that it may ultimately be represented at all the larger universities and colleges. In the undergraduate world, the success and acceptability of the organization is assured.

However, we are especially desirous of securing the support of college graduates who have gained distinction in their particular departments.

Your name has been suggested and it is in accordance with this purpose that you are heartily invited to extend us your cooperation by becoming a graduate member. It is expected that graduate members will be in accord with principles which occasioned the establishing of the fraternity and they shall be allowed every privilege usually enjoyed by fraternity members no longer in undergraduate life.

The committee trusts that you will approve of their efforts and will honor them by submitting your name for membership in the near future.


Frederick Manfred Werner
Louis Samter Levy
Henry Mark Fisher"

Several noteworthy inferences may be drawn from the content and tone of this letter. The Founders recognized, from the birth of Pi Lambda Phi, the necessity of having mature alumni guiding an undergraduate chapter and providing the continuity needed to keep a chapter alive as its leaders graduated year after year. They were without alumni members and therefore found it wise to rush and initiate older men into their brotherhood to fill this void.

It is also apparent that Pi Lambda Phi was established as a protest and living example against the tendency of fraternities to discriminate against students for religious and racial reasons. Discrimination had been growing in colleges and the result was the formation of sectarian fraternities by members of the minority groups who were being discriminated against. This action was frowned upon by many who saw in it the widening of the social breach between students.

The Original Chapters

The “general” chapter at Yale was known as Alpha; Columbia (1896) was designated Beta; the C.C.N.Y. (1896) chapter was lettered Gamma. According to the C.C.N.Y. Microcosm, the Lambda Chapter at Cornell and Nu at M.I.T. were the next two chapters. No further information on the early University of Chicago or Union College chapters can be found.

It appears that internal difficulties presented themselves to the chapters at the very beginning, for we found in correspondence between Founder Werner and Rex Max Lowenthal of Beta (Columbia), that Beta’s charter was revoked and the chapter disbanded in hopes that two “undesirables” might be expelled. The chapter was immediately reorganized as Beta Deuteron (Second), minus these two “undesirables.” There is also evidence of a chapter at the University of Pennsylvania from 1896-97. Some specifics, such as the establishment dates of each chapter, who presided at the installation, when and why each chapter disbanded, are questions which remain unanswered.

We do know that Yale and C.C.N.Y. chapters ceased to exist after 1898. Columbia and N.Y.U. presumably struggled along until 1901. Pi Lam was dormant until 1906 when an attempt was made to revive the Columbia chapter. Though it failed, it paved the way for the more successful attempt of 1908, with which the Revitalization period begins.

Revitalization Period

In 1908, Max Frank, Moritz Jagtndorf and Joseph Hyman, students at Columbia, set out to establish a non-sectarian fraternity on their campus. They succeeded in interesting Brother Arthur Diamant and Brother Arthur Schwartz, and in obtaining from them permission to use the name of Pi Lambda Phi. The chapter at Columbia soon realized that it could not exist alone and that they would have to expand. In 1910, negotiations began with a local fraternity known as Sigma Iota at N.Y.U., and shortly thereafter, they became the Gamma Chapter at N.Y.U. Cornell was installed as Delta Chapter in 1911, and from there Zeta at Pennsylvania (1912), Epsilon at Michigan (1913), Gamma Sigma at Pittsburgh (1915), Lambda at Lehigh (1915) and Theta at Steven’s Institute of Technology (1916) were chartered.

The original Fraternity magazine, The Frater, published its first issue in 1915. The Frater was published four times a year and included articles on every chapter of Pi Lambda Phi.

During the fall of 1916, a group of alumni organized a convention to discuss centralization of authority, administration, and general national policy. The result was a new national constitution, which provided for government of the Fraternity through a National Council, similar to the way we operate today.

December of 1917 marked the return to our founding site at Yale. Approximately twenty years after the expiration of our original chapter, the Iota chapter was established. Iota flourished for a short while by initiating respected area citizens as honorary members.

Pi Lambda Phi first expanded outside the Northeast United States in 1919 with the Omicron chapter at the University of Chicago. The following year Pi Lambda Phi became an international fraternity as the Eta chapter was established at McGill University in Montreal.

By the 1920s, Pi Lambda Phi had established an annual Summer Conference and an annual Convention in December to address the business of the Fraternity. Many of these gatherings were highlighted by famous keynote speakers and elaborate social gatherings.

The founding of the Endowment Fund marked a fraternity milestone. In 1924, the “Knights of the Cavern” donated $1,640, proceeds from a theater benefit. The purpose of the Endowment Fund was to assist chapters with financial issues, create scholarships and establish foundations for the benefit of the fraternity and to lend financial assistance to fraters.

In 1928 we see that Pi Lambda Phi was living up to the expectations of our Founding Fathers. After receiving an invitation to our 1928 Founders’ Day celebration, Henry Fisher responded:

“…As I look back over thirty years I recall the humble beginnings of our fraternity. I realize that we, who founded Pi Lambda Phi, built better than we knew. The fraternity has grown beyond our fondest dreams. That this has come to pass is due, of course, entirely to those who came after the founders and who have labored so zealously. Need I tell you how deeply I appreciate the spirit that actuated Founders’ Day and may I venture to hope that from each year there may come increased devotion to the aims of our fraternity.”

Establishing the Foundation

In the late 1920s operational issues that continue to this day, were addressed in earnest by fraternities. During this era, college faculties began working with local interfraternal boards to create guidelines. Columbia, Yale and Dartmouth were quick to establish regulations which postponed the initiation of students until their sophomore year. This type of deferred recruitment remains policy on many campuses today. Concerns regarding hazing and alcohol are first mentioned in Fraternity documents during this period.

By 1930, our chapter roll included the University of Toronto, Brown University, West Virginia University, Creighton University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Wisconsin and the College of William and Mary, which brought our chapter total to nineteen.

Councilmen from the National Headquarters began visiting chapters in 1933. Low membership due to the depression and concerns of hazing led the Fraternity to require councilmen to visit a minimum of two chapters during the 1933-34 academic year. The visits consisted of a chapter business meeting and financial planning session followed by a gathering of chapter alumni. During this time, the Educational Foundation began taking on a larger role in operations and development of our current International Headquarters.

Early Awards and Fellowships

The Fraternity believed it was important to recognize those individuals who were dedicated to our ideals of non-sectarianism, tolerance and equality. The Pi Lambda Phi Foundation was the first fraternal organization to present a gold medal to the individual who “gained worldwide recognition as an exponent of true humanitarianism and brotherhood.” The first Pi Lambda Phi Tolerance Award was presented to Mr. James G. McDonald, High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany, in 1934.

Other early recipients of the award included Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Mayor of New York, and Dr. Everett Ross Clinchy, Director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Rounding out a decade of firsts was the introduction of the Scholarship Key in 1938. This was awarded to the highest scholar of each class and replaced the earlier academic achievement awards.

Pi Lambda Phi announced a series of fellowships for the study of inter-group relations on university campuses in 1938. The Pi Lambda Phi Foundation, Inc. worked with a group of professors at Columbia University to study the relations between different religious, racial and nationality groups on the campuses of American Universities. The announcement of the project was made by Brother Joseph C. Hyman, who stated, “The increasing response which demagogic appeals to chauvinism and race hatred that was found in universities overseas, indicated the advisability of a study to determine whether similar appeals have been made to North American college students, and if so, what has been the student body’s reaction thereto. An objective study of the students’ attitudes as they manifest themselves in inter-group relationships, will be a valuable contribution and a necessary pre-requisite to any program designed to counteract ill-feeling.”

The First Merger-Phi Beta Delta

February 1, 1941 witnessed the union with Phi Beta Delta Fraternity, which had been founded by eight men at Columbia University in 1912. The purpose of Phi Beta Delta was “to inculcate among themselves a spirit of loyalty toward their Alma Mater, promote a love for higher learning, and cultivate a spirit of unselfish fellowship.” Phi Beta Delta brothers sought “higher idealism and tolerance of mind and spirit” throughout their lives.

The merger was successful because Phi Beta Delta was similar to Pi Lambda Phi in many areas. Both fraternities shared a belief in non-sectarianism and placed a heavy emphasis on scholastic achievement. The merger was particularly inviting to Pi Lambda Phi because of the potential to have a West Coast presence. In addition, there were only a few campuses where both Pi Lambda Phi and Phi Beta Delta were represented.

By the time of the merger, Phi Beta Delta had chapters throughout the United States including the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Southern California, University of Wisconsin, University of Illinois, University of California at Berkeley, Temple University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Florida, University of Cincinnati and Washington University in St. Louis. It became evident that the chapters being located so far apart geographically presented a problem to the governing board of Phi Beta Delta.

Pi Lambda Phi was impressed with the quality of the individual chapters of Phi Beta Delta, even if the national organization was having problems. The UCLA chapter, Upsilon, built the first house on their campus and marked the beginning of a fraternity row. The Tau chapter at the University of California at Berkeley had been recognized as having the highest scholarship rating of any fraternity on campus. The Delta chapter at the University of Florida, under the guidance of Dean Joseph Weil, had maintained the highest fraternity scholarship average on campus for six consecutive years. The strength of the individual chapters of Phi Beta Delta and the organization of the international operations of Pi Lambda Phi made this merger a success for both fraternities.

At the time of the union, Pi Lambda Phi had 20 active chapters, while Phi Beta Delta had 16. Deducting duplicate chapters, the united fraternity at the time of the merger had a total of 33 active undergraduate chapters. Placing the prefix of the state before the Greek-letter designations of active chapters, adding the star from Phi Beta Delta’s fraternity pin to Pi Lambda Phi’s pin and changing the title of the fraternity magazine from The Frater to The Tripod are a few of the results of the merger.

For over half a century now, many of the chapters from Phi Beta Delta have remained strong chapters of our fraternity.

The Kovner Quote: The Legacy of “Koko” Kovner

Alfred "Koko" KovnerIn 1942, Alfred “Koko” Kovner, a model of leadership at the PA Alpha Delta chapter at Temple University, like many other Pi Lams, enlisted in the military to serve his country. During his tour of duty in the Army Air Corp, his letters home continued to focus on his chapter and its brothers.

In 1944, Kovner was killed in action over Germany while serving as navigator on a B-17 bomber, but his spirit lives on through his profound words and letters. The men who were fortunate enough to know him found in him wisdom beyond his years, strength of character, leadership and humility. He had qualities we as Pi Lams strive to emulate.

His best known legacy is an eloquent quote that truly capsulizes the fraternal experience.

“Joining a fraternity means nothing. But when you have really worked for it, sweated for it, cursed it, and loved it, as well as the men in it, you have something.”

Regrouping After World War II

The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Pi Lambda Phi was scheduled for March 21, 1945. A global war and more than 3,000 brothers in the armed forces changed the plan. The Executive Council postponed the Golden Anniversary celebration until the fall of 1945, but held an informal gathering at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York on March 21. Brothers from the classes of 1898 through 1949, from almost every chapter, enjoyed an evening renewing old friendships and making new ones in the spirit of brotherhood. Oscar Gottfried was the chairman of the celebration that included an inspiring welcome by Brother William Melniker, Chairman of the Executive Council. Brother Jerome Alexander, initiated in 1895, offered a prayer in tribute to the brothers who had lost their lives on the field of battle and for the safety of those brothers in the service. Finally, Brother Joseph Kraus, Vice-chairman of the Council, read the Creed of Pi Lambda Phi and the Preamble from the Founders Bulletin. The postponed celebration finally took place on December 27, 1945 at the Essex House in New York.

The post-war era helped to revive a fraternal system that struggled to keep afloat during the Second World War. The influx of servicemen returning to civilian life and college campuses provided a well-needed boost. Pi Lam chapters that were forced to suspend their operations due to the war were revitalized with renewed commitment to the ideals and principles on which they were founded.

Merger with Beta Sigma Tau

In November of 1960 Beta Sigma Tau Fraternity merged into Pi Lambda Phi. Beta Sigma Tau was founded in May 1948, at the National Conference of Intercultural Fraternities held in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first national interracial and interreligious college social fraternity to be organized following World War II. As mentioned in its Constitutional Preamble, Beta Sigma Tau was founded “to level, not raise barriers among people” and to have a foundation based “upon a brotherhood and democracy which transcends racial, national, and religious differences.”

Although Beta Sigma Tau expanded rapidly to seventeen college campuses from 1948 to 1952, only six chapters remained by 1959. Of these six chapters, three were voted into the brotherhood by the Pi Lam active chapters. These three chapters were located at Ohio State University, Ohio Wesleyan University and Baldwin Wallace College. Unfortunately, Ohio State and Ohio Wesleyan did not survive the early 60s.

Pi Lam Thrives in the Tumultuous 60s and 70s

George Beck 1966The 1960s were characterized by campus unrest brought about by the Vietnam War and the controversies it provoked. It was a time of “dropping out” and this included fraternity participation. An anti-fraternity atmosphere was pervasive and there was fierce competition for new members. Some chapters literally disappeared overnight, and the age of drug experimentation was ushered in on many campuses. Despite the times, we engaged in a period of unparalleled expansion, but our growth was also coupled with contraction.

In April 1969, we reactivated our Virginia Omega Alpha Chapter at the University of Virginia (UVA), which had been forced to close during World War II. True to our Creed, Pi Lambda Phi initiated the first African-American into an NIC fraternity on that campus.

Martha Fuldauer, who had literally run the fraternity as our office manager since her hiring in 1933, was an unbroken link between the earliest Pi Lams, and those who followed. She passed to the Chapter Eternal in 1971. Thousands of brothers were Martha’s “boys.” Her life was devoted to our fraternity.

Beta Sigma Rho Merger

Beta Sigma Rho BadgeOn December 12, 1972, Beta Sigma Rho merged into Pi Lam. Beta Sigma Rho was a national fraternity founded on October 12, 1910, at Cornell University. Beta Sigma Rho was organized under the name Beta Samach, the Greek Beta and the Hebrew Samach suggesting the application of the Greek society idea to the social and cultural life of the Jewish undergraduate. The founders were M. H. Milman, M. M. Milman, Nathaniel E. Koenig and Lester D. Krohn.

Simplicity was the keynote of the founders and exhibited itself in the absence of initiation fees, dues, constitution and even formalized ideas. Time, experience and new ideas of a later generation, however, brought fees, a constitution, a ritual and other surface attributes of fraternity. When the Gamma Chapter was established at Columbia University, the name of the fraternity was changed to the all-Greek Beta Sigma Rho. The estimated total membership at the time of the merger was 5,400.

Today, Founders’ Day is celebrated on March 21st, honoring those fraternities that have merged with Pi Lambda Phi. Soon after this merger, our national office relocated from New York City to Norwalk, Connecticut.

Restructuring the International Office

During the last fifty years, Pi Lambda Phi has successfully fulfilled its commitment to the Creed by breaking down prejudicial membership barriers which had existed on countless college campuses.

In 1991, in order to facilitate modernization of our organization, we adopted a new International Constitution that among other things reduced the unwieldy size of the National Council from forty-two members. The new International Executive Council consists of twelve alumni members and one undergraduate member with full voting power. 1991 also saw the creation of the new Pi Lambda Phi Educational Foundation which shortly thereafter absorbed the assets of the old Pi Lambda Phi Foundation and Endowment Fund. In 1992, a new initiation ritual was approved for use by all chapters. In addition, the International Headquarters relocated to larger, more modern facilities in Danbury, Connecticut.

1992 marked the retirement of Executive Director George A. Beck, who had served the fraternity longer than any other member of the professional staff, from 1966 to 1992. His contribution to our fraternity and the interfraternity community will long be remembered.

The Second Century and Beyond

In March 1995, the fraternity celebrated its milestone 100th anniversary with a tribute to our Founders, at the site of our founding, Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Now, as the second century of our history unfolds, we are still facing countless challenges. Faculties and administrations are questioning the relevancy of fraternities on today’s college campuses. Alcohol and drug abuse, excesses of hazing during what had been the traditional orientation period for new members have spotlighted some fraternities as reluctant dinosaurs.

As Pi Lambda Phi begins the new millennium, we must strive to be the innovative fraternity that Henry Mark Fisher, Frederick Manfred Werner, and Louis Samter Levy laid the cornerstone for in 1895. The legacy for our future is in our hands.