The Founding of the Sigma Chi Fraternity

Fittingly, Sigma Chi was born out of a matter of principle.

It was the autumn of 1854 at Miami University. One of the twelve members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon chapter at the Oxford, Ohio campus looked for the support of his brothers in his quest to be elected to [the office of “poet” in] the school’s literary society, the Eurodelphian. He might have assumed a promising result, given that the majority of men in his DKE chapter were also members of the Eurodelphian. But four of his brothers declined to cast votes for him in the literary society’s election. In fact, they supported another Miami student who they believed possessed superior poetic talents. This perceived lack of allegiance caused a deep rift among the Dekes, half of whom (including the member in question) felt the candidate deserved their votes on merit or loyalty to a brother or both. The original dissenters won the moral support of the two remaining Dekes who, though they were not members of the society, admired the four for their courage of conviction.

The feelings on both sides of the argument were so strong that friendships grew apart and the chapter’s meetings and activities were strained and increasingly rancorous.

Six brothers favored reward based on merit and wished to find compromise and reconciliation after months of division, so they proposed a friendly meeting over dinner. James Caldwell, Isaac Jordan, Ben Runkle, Frank Scobey, Tom Bell, and Dan Cooper waited expectantly for the arrival of their estranged Deke brothers, believing that an evening of good food and good company would help restore fraternal bonds. They would be disappointed.

Instead of being joined for the meal by all six of their brothers, only one of them, Whitelaw Reid, appeared. But he was not alone. Reid was accompanied by a DKE alumnus who immediately altered the planned tone of the gathering by announcing sternly, “My name is Minor Milliken … I am a man of few words.” True to that statement, he assumed an air of authority and, based solely on the one-sided account of the controversy from Reid, he declared that the six hosts of the evening were wrong on every point, and that the only suitable solution was for the instigators of the “rebellion” to be expelled from the chapter, with the others allowed to remain following appropriate chastisement.

This proved to be a turning point for the Deke chapter at Miami of Ohio and a defining moment in the history of Sigma Chi.

In response to Milliken’s harsh and undemocratic stance, Ben Runkle dramatically pulled off his DKE badge and tossed it on the table where the conciliatory meal was to have taken place. Looking Millikin in the eye, Runkle fumed, “I didn’t join this fraternity to be anyone’s tool. And that, sir, is my answer!” He then stalked out of the room, followed resolutely by his five colleagues, and leaving Reid and Millikin to ponder their failed scheme to intimidate the defiant brothers.

Ultimately, though, that occasion made the schism irreparable. At a meeting several days later, Whitelaw Reid called for the expulsion of all six “recalcitrant” brothers from the chapter. With every vote deadlocked due to the equally divided positions, Reid’s new attempt to banish the offending brothers was unsuccessful, but it proved to be the final meeting of the twelve active members of the Kappa Chapter who had begun the school year as DKE brothers. In April of 1855, after prolonged correspondence with DKE’s parent chapter at Yale, Caldwell, Jordan, Runkle, Bell, Scobey, and Cooper were expelled from the fraternity. However, those six young men undoubtedly had by that time already shifted their thoughts from hope of changing minds at DKE toward the prospect of forming a new fraternity altogether. Given the circumstances, it is no wonder that these men had in mind an organization that believed a commitment to fairness and honesty was key to the success of brotherly friendships.

Indeed, the cause of justice became a central idea in the formation of what would become the Sigma Chi Fraternity.