"Where Have You Gone Jeffrey Hunter?"
The Changing Face of the Alumni Club

By Jay-Raymond N. Abad, UC Irvine, 2002
August 2008

logo

For those who are unfamiliar with fraternities and even to those who are members of them, the presentation of famous alumni may be met with cyncism in the belief that each individual fraternity is trying to capitalize on their members' fame. Though each individual case can be made, this is not an entirely correct assumption. Indeed throughout the years, alumni of various backgrounds of all fraternities have remained active. Phi Delta Theta's motto, "A Fraternity for Life" is easily recognizable. Phis have continued to be involved in the fraternity long after their college days are over. The alumni club is the basis for their participation. Since the founding of the first alumni club until now, Phis have shared a great sense of comraderie in the clubs with their involvement in Phi Delta Theta as the common thread linking them all together regardless of chapter affiliation or geographic origin. There was a point where involvement by prominent members were the norm and many clubs were scattered not only in North America but also the world. In the past decades, this would soon change. Throughout the years, the alumni club has evolved; whether in good direction or bad, it is up to each individual to decide.

The strength of the ties between Phi Delta Theta and its prominent members has a very strong history. Take for example, Benjamin Harrison (Miami University (Ohio) 1852), Neil Armstrong (Purdue 1955), and Lou Gehrig (Columbia 1925), arguably the fraternity's three most famous alumni. Everyone knows of Armstrong taking his badge to the moon and subsequently donating it to headquarters. Harrison attended three fraternity banquets while he was still President. Gehrig's case is even more poignant. What many Phis don't know is that as an undergrad at Columbia University, Lou Gehrig did not get along too well with his fellow Phi brothers. He was mostly shy and reserved. Also, while the rest of his chapter were from wealthy families, Gehrig was not. So tense was the situation at times that years later, he refused to pay any financial debt he had to the Columbia chapter because of lingering bitterness. However, at the height of Gehrig's fame, he was invited to a Phi Delt gathering in Pittsburg sponsored by the local chapter. What's remarkable is that he actually attended despite his past experiences and busy schedule; a testament to his ties with the fraternity. After his death, the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award was created with the blessing of his wife, Eleanor.

A couple of years ago, while attending the Orange County Alumni Club's Founders Day, about 80 Phis were in attendance. I was told that it was actually one of the largest in the West Coast. However, this number pales in comparison to what Phis were able to do in the 1940s-80s. This is the period which I consider to be the height of the power of the alumni club. Membership in the fraternity signficantly spiked with the WWII and Baby Boom generations and the concept of a fraternity for life was clearly evident during this time.

So were Famous Phis too busy to attend any fraternity function? Simple answer: No. The alumni club has always been the outlet for many Phis. It is remarkable how many of them were active alumni Phis. To give you an example, many years ago a typical combined Los Angeles and Hollywood Alumni Club Founder's Day Banquet had over 250-300 Phis in attendance. Some of those who were regular attendees were Academy Award winning editor Francis D. Lyon (UCLA 1928) who was also a Province President, Wimbledon Tennis champion Ted Schroeder and radio broadcaster Wendell Niles among others. Whenever the Washington D.C. Alumni Club had a Founders Day, a venerable who's who in politics, military and entertainment showed up. In just one banquet, Supreme Court Justices Fred M. Vinson, Sherman Minton, Senators Tom Connally, Elbert Thomas, Harry Cain, Lt. General John E. Hull, Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Congressmen Dwight Rogers, William Widnall, Harold Cooley, Robert Corbett, John Jarman, Peabody Award Winner Elmer Davis and Academy Award winning actor Van Heflin were present. There were many other clubs who regularly had high attendance during Founder's Day numbering in the several hundred. Philadelphia, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Baltimore were just some of the huge alumni clubs. Prominent alumni were scattered throughout the country to attend or be speakers including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright who was a speaker at the Phoenix Alumni Club.

Founder's Day was not the only time of year when alumni clubs were active. Clubs usually met once a month and attendance was also high. Some were very well known. The Hollywood Alumni Club for instance, regularly had visiting celebrities in attendance since meetings were open to the general public. The fraternity also had clubs in far away places such as Shanghai, Manila, Mexico City and central Germany. There are hundreds of examples and stories of Famous Phis regarding their proud affiliation with the fraternity; too numerous to list here.

However, the alumni club has changed. Not because famous members are no longer familiar faces in a typical meeting but because in general the attendance has gone down. Throughout the years, many alumni clubs have closed. The once popular New York City Alumni club which regularly drew over 700 alumni at their popular events, was dormant for years as well as the Los Angeles Alumni Club before being reactivated. Currently, very few alumni clubs have monthly meetings with the typical gatherings focused on a Founder's Day event or the occasional outing such as golf or a family day.

Today, there are more living Phis than there were decades ago yet why have alumni clubs in general been lacking in membership? It's difficult to explain and maybe indicative of the overall trend in the fraternity world. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that every fraternity's active membership in alumni clubs has gone down. In the information and digital age, life often moves at a fast pace. Getting information regarding the status of the fraternity is only an e-mail or website or even blog away. Have we passed the days of the huge Phi Delt alumni club gatherings? More than likely. However, there can be no denial that history has shown that there is indeed a bond between Phi Delta Theta and it's alumni whether or not they are well known.