John B. Y. Sommers

John B. Y. Sommers, (August 15, 1829 -November 23, 1863),  Phi, 1849, Phi Alpha 1850–1851

John B. Y. Sommers,Phi, 1849. On the first of June in 1847, three intrepid men gathered in a New York home with grand purpose in mind: the constitution of a new greek-letter secret society. Their names were John Bradt Yates Sommers, William Henry Dayton, and John Moon Skillman; the fraternity they founded that day is Zeta Psi.

They met at Br Sommers’ stately home at 82 Madison Avenue. Then students in the class of 1849 at New York University (itself a young campus, having only been founded in 1831), the three men formed the core of the first chapter, to be known as Phi, the mother chapter. The spread of social fraternities was only just beginning to pick up speed in the mid-nineteenth century, and Zeta Psi, auguring its illustrious future of forging new territory, was at the forefront.

Br Sommers, the son of the Rev Dr Charles B Sommers and Sarah Skelding, had been the originator of the idea for a new fraternity, and would remain a leader and model to the organization he had helped create, becoming president at the national conventions in 1850 and 1851. No stranger to secret societies, he had been inducted into the Masonic Order at the Arcturus Lounge in New York City, and would become a Past Master before his untimely passing in 1863.  He was much praised by both Masons and Zetes, and his funeral and interment at the elegant Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was extravagantly attended.

John Sommers entered New York University in the fall of 1845, when he was a little over 16 years old. By diligence and devotion to his studies, he attained and held a high position in his class and was one of the most popular students in his college. There were three national fraternities at NYU, and John Sommers reasons for founding a new fraternity, rather than joining one of the three, are not known.  To complicate matters, a general feeling against secret societies made founding a new fraternity difficult.  Nonetheless, early in 1847, he shared his concepts with two friends, William Henry Dayton and John Moon Skillman: all three were “Class of 1849.” The three met at the Sommers home and matured their plans.  Ill health forced Dayton to transfer to the University of North Carolina, so Sommers and Skillman proceeded with their plans and formally created Zeta Psi Fraternity on June 1, 1847.

Around the time he was organizing Zeta Psi, he was initiated into the Masonic Order in Arcturus Lodge in New York City. Apparently Sommers adopted and adapted some Masonic traditions and practices in formulating Zeta Psi’s philosophy and ritual, which impresses upon its members the importance of profound secrecy regarding the society and its affairs.

Sommers and Skillman worked to perfect and enlarge the Fraternity. Early initiates were George S. Woodhull, Class of 1848, and William H. Carter and George S. Mott, both class of 1850. By 1849 there were seven members, and by 1850 there were ten. Sommers took a personal part in establishing the Zeta (Alpha of Massachusetts) Chapter and the Delta (Alpha of New Jersey) Chapter in 1848, and the Sigma (Alpha of Pennsylvania) Chapter in 1850. Sommers was  secretary of the first National Convention, at Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1849, and served as President of the conventions in Newburgh, New York, in 1850, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1851.

Brother Sommers entered the office of Kirkland & Birdseye as a law student, and was admitted to the bar in 1854. He was made a member of the firm shortly thereafter; the firm eventually became Sommers & Johnson.  On October 5, 1859, he married Emma A. Heath, and they had two sons. Frederick Skelding and Henry Cantine Sommers. Some years before his death in 1863 he became a confirmed invalid.

At the time of his death he was a member of and Past Master of Adelphic Lodge No. 348 of the Masonic Order. The Grand Master of Masons in New York State wrote of him: “His fine intellect, his scholarly achievements, his professional ability, his courteous manners, and his zeal in every cause for intellectual and social advancement were elements of his character which endeared him to all who knew him..”  Another prominent Mason wrote: “He was not actuated by a desire to do the best for his client at all hazards but to do the best that he could with due regard for the rights and equitable interests of those who stood in an antagonistic position, thus showing a characteristic without which no man can be a great lawyer – the love of justice.”

John B. Y. Sommers was buried in the Sommers family plot (of 32 graves) in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A prestigious monument marks the family plot and records his burial.  He was buried with full Masonic honors and the Phi Chapter attended his funeral in a body.

At his death, the Chapter adopted the following resolution of respect:

“The whole Fraternity of Zeta Psi is called upon to mourn the untimely decease of Brother John B. Yates Sommers, the honored and respected founder of our order, which he committed to love and adore to the day of his death. His own generous disposition and the debt of gratitude we owe him as one of those instituted the pure and noble principles of Zeta Psi have made his memory sacred to the heart of every brother.

“While bowing in humble submission to the decree of infinite love and wisdom, we deeply mourn the sad Providence which has deprived us of this revered patriarch of our Fraternity.  While grieving for our own loss we tender our heartfelt to that other circle to which our departed Brother was bound by the fondest of earthly ties.  As a faint expression of our deep regret we will observe the ritual of mourning, drape our hall and shroud our badges in the usual manner, and request our sister chapters to unite with us in this tribute of respect.

“Resolved, That a copy of this minute be sent to the Family of the Brother, to the Grand Chapter, and to the several chapters of the Fraternity”

Brother Sommers is remembered every time Zetes get together on a formal occasion, as one of the traditional pre-meal toasts.  “A toast to our Founder, Brother John Bradt Yates Sommers”