Our Beginning, Growth, and Development
On the cold night of January 10, 1899, students of Illinois Wesleyan University, in the small Midwestern town of Bloomington, had just returned from the Christmas holidays when Joseph L. Settles went to the room occupied by James C. McNutt and Clarence A. Mayer at 504 East Locust Street to discuss the organization of a new society on campus. Joined immediately by Owen I. Truitt and C. Roy Atkinson, these five students created the first set of regulations for the Knights of Classic Lore, a society whose avowed purpose was “to aid college men in mental, moral, and social development.”
Because of his late arrival for this meeting, James J. Love was made the first new member. Love, along with Edwin A. Palmer and George H. Thorpe became the first initiates of this new organization. Although Settles was the leader in organizing the society, Atkinson was elected President and McNutt was chosen as Secretary.
There were two fraternities already in existence at Illinois Wesleyan in 1899, both with more than 50 chapters nationally. Phi Gamma Delta had been established in 1866, while Sigma Chi had begun there in 1883. In addition, two other national fraternities, Phi Delta Theta and Delta Tau Delta, had inactive chapters at Illinois Wesleyan. The Phi Delts existed from 1878-1897 and the Delts from 1877-1880.
A Different Organization
The Founders of the Knights of Classic Lore desired an organization different from those represented by the existing fraternities. Their desire was to establish a fraternity in which the primary requisites for membership would be the personal worth and character of the individual rather than the wealth he possessed, the honors or titles he could display, or the rank he maintained on the social ladder. The Founders of the KCL had little regard for many of the common characteristics of fraternities at that time, including their usual snobbery and disdain for persons outside of a fraternity.
It was not long after their recognition on campus that the Knights of Classic Lore were approached by some alumni of the Illinois Epsilon chapter of Phi Delta Theta, whose charter had been surrendered in 1897. The Phi Delt alumni saw in this new group an opportunity for the restoration of its charter, and interested themselves in converting it into a strong local fraternity. Through the persuasion and effort of Richard Henry Little, for columnist on the Chicago Tribune and one of the most prominent Phi Delt alumni, the Knights presented a petition to the Phi Delta Theta national organization at its convention in New York in 1902. The petition was rejected.
In hopes that their organization might be more attractive to Phi Delta Theta, it was decided that a Greek-letter name should be adopted. The name “Knights of Classic Lore” was therefore abandoned and the Greek letters Tau Kappa Epsilon selected. As a further step, a fraternity house was rented. This was the first fraternity house at Illinois Wesleyan, although Phi Gamma Delta and Sigma Chi had both been in existence on campus for many years. The Wilder Mansion, former home of President Wilder of the University, became the first TKE house.
In the ensuing years, the Phi Delt alumni and some of the undergraduate members continued to press for affiliation with Phi Delta Theta by promoting petitions at the 1904 and 1906 Phi Delt national conventions. In each instance the petition was either withdrawn or postponed. It is reported that one of the petitions came within one vote of being accepted.
The Great Decision
Late in 1907, several undergraduate members of Tau Kappa Epsilon were again preparing a petition to be presented to the Phi Delta Theta national convention in 1908. The wisdom of petitioning, however, was being questioned with increasing frequency. To increase enthusiasm for this fourth attempt, a banquet was held on October 19, 1907, at which speeches were made both advocating and questioning the proposal. One of the most notable and influential speeches given was a blistering address by Wallace G. McCauley, titled “Opportunity Out of Defeat,” in which he advocated the abandonment of the petitioning process and the substitution of a campaign for TKE to become its own national fraternity.
At the banquet, Frater McCauley said, “Someone has said that most victories are defeats. As to the truth of that statement, numerous instances can be cited tending to establish it. But just as true is the converse of that proposition that most defeats are victories, and I truly believe an instance of this was our failure to have reinstated the Phi Delta Theta charter of Illinois Epsilon. I believe this in spite of the fact that no one labored more zealously to that end during the first two campaigns than myself. And, too, no one felt the defeats at the time more bitterly than myself; but now, after an absence of a year or so, I am brought to the conviction that Tau Kappa Epsilon was indeed fortunate in her defeats, because thereby there was reserved for us a large opportunity…”
Interwoven about the sentiments of our name and our pin, and engrained in the fiber of every member is the Teke spirit – a spirit typical of our fraternity – a spirit that does not shrink from sacrifice, that knows no defeat, a spirit indomitable. A spirit which if breathed into a national Tau Kappa Epsilon would spread our organization throughout the schools of our country…”
“But if we keep Tau Kappa Epsilon intact, the Teke spirit…will flow on forever… Let us not lack faith in this project. Remember faith as a grain of mustard will overcome mountains of difficulty. The history of other organizations lends us encouragement. Phi Delta Theta was born a few years before the Civil War in a student’s room in a building of Miami University, less pretentious than the preparatory building on the Wesleyan campus, and today Phi Delta Theta is the fourth largest fraternity in existence…”
“Fellow brothers, Tau Kappa Epsilon was conceived in the early struggles of our existence. Time is now right to start in on a national career, and we, its godfathers here tonight, when it is grown to be a strong and lusty organization, touching student life everywhere with the beneficence of its principles, will obtain a satisfaction inexpressible in the part we had in its inception.”
Although arousing bitter opposition at the time, this speech ultimately reduced the fourth petition to a bare formality and became one of the significant turning points in the history of the Fraternity.
One of the measures advocated by McCauley in his address was the publication of a quarterly magazine called The Teke. This proposal met with immediate approval and the first issue was published in January 1908, with Clyde M. Leach as the editor.
(To view the full history of Tau Kappa Epsilon, please visit TKE.org.)