1900-1920: The Challenges of the 20th Century

Br William Comstock

Br William Comstock

With the advent of the twentieth century, it was clearly time for the fraternity to reexamine its assumptions. Even as the physical reach of Zeta Psi had made great bounds, so too ought the principles underlying its brotherhood. The need for some more centralized structure pressed as chapter after chapter was added to the Circle and their correspondence became too much to handle so chaotically. In 1909, an international publication concerning the affairs of Zetes was first published by Br William Comstock (Ξ 1899) and distributed among the several chapters.1 The periodical, The Circle of Zeta Psi, which is still published to this day,2 contained in that first issue the exhortation which has come to be known as “The Vision of Bill Comstock” for its prescience and wisdom:

We feel that the Fraternity, now that its individual chapters and memberships have grown so strong, is wasting its greatest possibility of strength and growth through the lack of a systematic central organization.

Taking advantage of the recent advances in long-distance communication and ontercourse represented by the steam railroad and telegraph, Br Comstock proposed that a continental unity among the disparate chapters would herald a whole new species of brotherhood.3 His Vision comprised three essential principles, a simplicity which belied the profound reorganization he was advocating. First, that every brother should receive a regular periodical, the fledgling Circle of Zeta Psi, and thus be apprised of the far-flung doings of the fraternity; second, that a travelling secretary be commissioned to traverse the now manageable distance among the chapters and hold palaver with them; and third, that a charitable foundation be established for the pecuniary support of the general fraternity, the several chapters, and the individual members according to need. Bowing to the sagacity of Br Comstock’s Vision, the Grand Chapter moved immediately to implement all three of his mandates, though, like all great sea changes, it would take time for the institution to adjust to the new mindset. But The Circle, first issued through Br Comstock’s own resolve in June of 1909, was quickly nationalized and its publication streamlined and regularized. As soon as a year later, in June of 1910, a central office had been established in Chicago, though it would soon move to New York within the year, seeking a more central location amongst the scattered chapters.4 Mere months later, the newly installed Travelling Secretary first made his rounds, in September of 1910. And the Zeta Psi Educational Foundation was to be instituted within Br Comstock’s lifetime, though still some time in the future.

In Flanders Fields

by Br Dr John McCrae

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

But before Zeta Psi could long pursue its efforts in such collegiate concerns, war again threatened, this time abroad. Though already inured to the horrors and trial that War would wreak upon her from the bloody War between the States, conflict in Europe came suddenly in the 1910s and caught a nation and fraternity unawares. For some time, the United States did not commit troops to the battle, maintaining an isolationist stance, protected by her oceans from the turmoil. But Canada was a member in good standing of Britain’s Commonwealth, and as battle threatened England, the men of Canada were called upon to support their ally abroad.

With the first Canadian chapter only founded at Toronto in 1879, the Canadian Zetes were still relative newcomers when war came. The Theta Xi had but a single sister chapter in Canada, the Alpha Psi at McGill University. And though the United States was not yet in the fight, the Theta Xi and Alpha Psi did not stand alone: by 1914, they were already exchanging letters to the American chapters from brothers heading east across the sea to the war. In 1915, more than half the workers at the McGill Base Hospital in France were Zetes from Alpha Psi, under the command of Col H S Birkett (Αlpha Psi 1886).5 And by war’s end, the two beleaguered chapters had given seventy-five souls in defense of King and Country, out of the 186 who had served during the long war.

Br Dr John McCrae

Br Dr John McCrae

Perhaps most noted (and noteworthy) among the rolls of the brave Canadian brethren who went overseas is Lt Col Br Dr John Alexander McCrae (ΘΞ 1894), a serviceman in the Canadian army, who like so many other men did not return at the close of conflict. He perished on 28 January 1918 while still serving at the McGill military hospital, from the combined ravages of meningitis and pneumonia. But Br McCrae bequeathed to his fraternity more than even his worthy life, but also a poem which has been preserved in great honor as both a historical and literary work: “In Flanders Fields.”6 The words were inspired by real events, elegaic in tone, concise and constrained by the necessities of their authorship in the field. He himself would not even submit them, feeling it to be a personal expression rather than one for the general public; it was left to his compatriots to rescue the poem and share it with the world. The words are a testament to the heroic spirit in man and are treasured still by the brethren of Zeta Psi as the hallowed words of a brother whose time long ago passed.7

This is not, of course, to suggest other Canadian servicemen were undeserving of honor. Capt Br Percival Molson (ΑΨ 1902), a scion of the prolific Quebecois Molson clan and winner of the 1896 Stanley Cup, enlisted for service and received the Military Cross before he was killed at the front on 5 July 1917. His will provided an endowment to McGill which paid for their new stadium, which was named for him.8 And in the wake of the war, the McGill Medical Building would be fitted with a beautiful stained glass casement in memorial of Br McCrae and two other fallen Alpha Psi soldiers, Lt Cols Brs H E Yeats (ΑΨ 1893) and R P Campbell (ΑΨ 1901).9

Br Benedict Crowell

Br Benedict Crowell

Finally in 1917, America entered the war, and with their country, so too did the many Zetes who called that land their home. It happened that the platinum jubilee of the fraternity’s foundation coincided with advent of war in the United States. Thus, at the seventieth convention of Zeta Psi, the brothers adopted a resolution in support of the war—which the United States Congress had itself only declared a few weeks previously—:

WHEREAS, The United States of America has been forced into the World War in defense of its national honor and for the protection of international justice and democracy;

BE IT RESOLVED, That the Zeta Psi Fraternity of North America, at the Seventieth Annual Convention assembled at Raleigh, North Carolina, hereby pledges to the President and Congress of the United States of America its unqualified support of whatever war measures the Government may deem necessary and expedient, and places at the disposal of the Government its national organization, its Chapters, and its individual members, for service in whatever capacities the government may direct.

Nor was the pledge mere idle words nor fatuous boasting. Over one quarter of all brethren of Zeta Psi would serve during the First World War in foreign lands, and many did not return. Zeta Psi also provided the nation its first Assistant Secretary of War and Director of Munitions, Brig Gen Br Benedict Crowell (͝ 1892), noted for his bold reorganization of industrial capacity and materiel production during World War I, for which efforts he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.10 Even after the war, Crowell remained politically powerful, and was later instrumental in engineering the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment.11 When battle and country called, the men of Zeta Psi answered.

1 Br Comstock was also potent in politics, rising to the chairmanship of the Michigan Democratic Party before election to governor in 1933, interrupting a chain of gubernatorial Republicans since 1917— though he would be succeeded by a GOP man two years later. During that time he engineered the “Comstock Agreement” under which the federal government ceded control of Indian lands to State or autonomous regulation. And Br Comstock served as Phi Alpha until his death mid-century, a great statesman and a great Zete. Michigan maintains an archive of Comstock’s papers as governor here.

2 In modern times, The Circle is provided free of charge to every active brother as a feature of membership.

3 The concept of “national” fraternities had arisen as early as Sigma Phi’s chartering of its second chapter in 1831. Zeta Psi occasionally characterizes itself as the first national fraternity for its Iota chapter which first spanned America’s coasts. These semiotic debates, however, dabble with definitions without addressing the importance of nationality. The degree to which a brotherhood is national ought be measured in its organization of its chapters, whether they be spokes of a strong central hub or largely independant islands. Under this most reasonable construction, the first national fraternity was probably Alpha Tau Omega. Indeed, its official materials claim this honor for themselves, since it was explicitly founded directly after the Civil War with the intent of serving a national consensus under which individual chapters, North or South, would be subsumed within strong central management. Certainly, however, its goal could not have been realized without the technological advances that made such central management possible.

4 The first Illinois chapter had only been chartered a year earlier in 1909 at Urbana, and Chicago still stood near the western frontier of the fraternity—barring the Pacific chapters. The center was more in the mid-Atlantic area, between the Chesapeake chapters, those on the Great Lakes, and the profusion among the colleges of New England. The retreat to New York both facilitated the Travelling Secretary, who operated out of the national office, and alluded to the centrality of New York as home to the mother chapter, as well as affording all the conveniences of the largest city in the nation.

5 The Alpha Psi had been established so rapidly after the chartering of the Theta Xi almost wholly to medical student who had arrived after an undergraduate education to pursue a medical degree. Alpha Psi’s history tells that “he painstakingly collected a small group of enthusiastic fellow medical students and petitioned Grand Chapter to grant a charter to the fledgling group. . . . The new brothers were almost exclusively men of the medical faculty, and the Alpha Psi archives testify to the prominence of that faculty, listing the names of illustrious physicians and surgeons in every rank of civilian and military life.” It was then only natural that so high a proportion of the extemporized medical suites during the war would be chosen from these elite doctors.

6 The Guelph Museum in McCrae’s hometown of Guelph, Ontario discusses McCrae, his poem, and the Belgian campaign in general, as does the Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium, and our international headquarter’s treatment.

7 Br McCrae was assigned to the Canadian 1st Field Artillery Brigade, which was deployed to the marshy lowlands of Flanders, in western Belgium. He was moved to elegy by the sudden death by shelling during the Second Battle of Ypres of his longtime friend Lt Alexis Helmer, a former student from his days of teaching at McGill University, and wrote what would become the famous verses the next day, on 3 May 1915. Other men in his company to whom he showed the words, ink still wet, were struck by its uncanny and evocative verisimilitude. Wrote Sgt Maj Cyril Allinson, “The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene”; Lt Col Edward Morrison agreed that “just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us.” McCrae discarded the poem, but Morrison saved it and submitted it to Punch Magazine, where it would be published later that year on 18 December. Cf. Rob Ruggenberg’s excellent article on the poem, and you may view a depiction of the original handwritten manuscript of the poem.

8 A reasonably detailed, if synoptic, article of Br Molson’s life may be found in Wikipedia. McGill University’s history of the 1920s mentions the completion and dedication of the new stadium.

9 The McGill Medical Faculty’s history provides excellent context for the times in which so many of its students were sent abroad to war, as well as a moving reproduction of the stained glass window commemorating the fallen Zetes. The original medical building is now known as the Strathcona Anatomy & Dentistry building.

10 Case Western Reserve University maintains a collection of Crowell’s correspondence and papers; an online catalogue may be found in their electronic collections. The Arlington National Cemetery, where he is interred, provides a minibio of his life and honors, along with his portait and images of his grave site.

11 For more on the national campaign to repeal Prohibition, and Br Crowell’s part in it, the Shaffer Drug E-Library has an article.