Before the Founding of Sigma Nu
Washington and Lee University (W&L) and its hometown of Lexington, VA are two of the most historic institutions in the nation.
The pillaging of the Civil War brought complete destruction to the neighboring Virginia Military Institute (VMI) campus. The W&L campus was used as a hospital for injured cadets and the University would donate classrooms to VMI once classes resumed after the war. This assistance would save VMI from certain failure, and VMI was to become the birthplace of Sigma Nu.Lambda Chapter of Sigma Nu is no exception. Even before the founding of Lambda Chapter in 1882, events were already transpiring at Washington & Lee to support the fraternity.
Robert E. Lee, a president of Washington and Lee University, would further provoke the fraternal spirit. His presidency was of great assistance to the educational efforts of the state. He renewed an interest in education and is attributed to increased enrollments at both W&L and VMI. General Lee would also become the spiritual founder of the Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity founded on the Greek-dominated W&L campus.
Lambda Chapter is Created
Sigma Nu was officially founded in 1869 with Chapter I on the campus of VMI. (More information pertaining to the national history can be found here.) Soon after, Chapter II would be chartered at the University of Virginia and its failure to grow would cause the eye of expansion to turn to neighboring Washington & Lee.
Between the gates of VMI and W&L stood a residence known as Madison House. A middle aged woman named Daisy Madison lived there and she was very close with VMI Sigma Nu’s. On occasion, she also entertained students from W&L. Isaac Poitevint Robinson was one of these students. While a guest at Madison House, Robinson came to meet many of the Sigma Nu cadets. The actives were impressed with Robinson and invited him to become an initiated member and start a chapter at W&L. In May of 1882 Isaac Robinson was initiated in the Tutweiler Building in Lexington. Because his initiation took place so late in the year, it was agreed that an attempt to develop a chapter would wait until fall.Discussions pertaining to the creation of such a chapter began in 1871 and in fact it was in that year that such a chapter was authorized. However, it would take some 11 years for the chapter to materialize.
Then known as Chapter XI, Lambda chapter was chartered. Robinson was successful in his attempt to attract new members, and by November the chapter had six members. Soon after Chapter XI was started at Washington and Lee, the Fraternity system changed its system of identification from the Roman numeral to the Greek letter, and Chapter XI became Lambda.
Lambda Chapter Expands the Fraternity
By 1883, eleven chapters had been chartered but only three of them survived. Among these was Lambda. It was these three that provided the planning and leadership for Sigma Nu to develop into a truly national organization. As John Alexander Howard, first editor of the Delta notes, “…with the arrival of the college year of 1982-1983, our competition assumed a different and altogether more encouraging aspect. Lambda chapter was established at Washington and Lee University. From that time our career has been a prosperous one…”
Lambda chapter is almost single-handedly responsible for the creation of two chapters; the first at Bethany (Epsilon) and the other at Central University (Zeta). Lambda was also instrumental in the chartering of Kansas (Nu) and Bethel College (Omnicron). Isaac Robinson himself was influential in establishing these early chapters, and most significantly in the revival of Alpha Chapter (VMI) in 1909. Lambda alumni Eugene L. Alford would form Upsilon chapter at the University of Texas. Similarly, Lambda alum William M. Robertson a medical student at the University of Virginia would assist in the rebirth of Beta chapter.
Individual Lambda Brothers Give Back
Founder Isaac Robinson is just one of the significant Sigma Nu’s to come out of Lambda Chapter. He served both as the founder and first commander of Lambda Chapter. He proposed and was largely responsible for the first convention (Grand Chapter) in Nashville, Tennessee in 1884. He would later serve as General Secretary and Regent to the national fraternity.
An influential member of the first Sigma Nu’s at VMI was John Carmichael, a veteran and leader among the cadets. He would go on to marry the daughter of the Law Department Head at Washington & Lee University. The family stayed in Lexington and supported both Sigma Nu Chapters. More significantly, they would have a son, John Carmichael Jr. who would become a Lambda brother. Thus, the first Sigma Nu legacy was born. John Carmichael Jr. would go on to make the white rose the official flower of Sigma Nu, pointing out its similarity to the badge.
The roll of past Lambda actives contains a list of interesting characters. A great grandson of Henry Clay was the fifth Lambda initiate. Alumni Bixby Willis would help establish the first national office in Indianapolis. Alum Paul J.B. Murphy Jr. served as a Secretary of the national fraternity and is perhaps best known for the portrait of Robert E. Lee he donated which is displayed in the Lee Room.Interestingly, John Jr.’s son would also become a Sigma Nu, becoming the first three-generation legacy.
Sigma Nu and the administration of Washington & Lee also have an interesting connection. The 21st president of the University was John Wilson (Epsilon Rho) and after a 12 year administration he would be replaced by another Sigma Nu, Mr. John W. Elrod (Zeta Theta). “Having back-to-back presidents at such a historic, prestigious university in the town where Sigma Nu was born, where it now has its headquarters and Ethical Leadership Center, and where one of its oldest existing chapters is located is a source of great fraternal pride,” said Sigma Nu Educational Foundation President Robert L. Marchman, III. Elrod’s presidency would boost Lambda Chapter’s presence on campus. Elrod would go on to become the first recipient of the Regent’s Medallion of Merit Award from the international Sigma Nu Fraternity.
Lambda’s Historical Triumphs
Today, Lambda Chapter can boast 1400+ initiates, and this success is something that has highlighted its history. During the first convention of Sigma Nu, the official “grip” of Sigma Nu was adopted – a grip originated by Lambda Chapter. The chapter has also displayed continued academic excellence. For example, in 2003 Lambda Chapter was awarded the Bronze Cup Plaque, celebrating the second highest GPA of all Sigma Nu chapters (200+) nationwide. In 2009, Lambda Chapter was awarded two Regent’s Awards and two Merit Awards for having the first highest GPA in a term and fourth highest GPA overall of all Sigma Nu chapters. The chapter usually leads all fraternities on campus.
The Significance of LocationThe Alpha Charter was withdrawn in 1915 when the Virginia Military Institute refused to withdraw its ban on fraternities. At this point, Lambda was appointed the “Honorary Alpha Chapter” and given control of the sacred “Alpha Chest” which contained the original documents of the fraternity. Interestingly, the Alpha Chest was the first tangible property ever owned by the fraternity. Currently, the Alpha Chest is on loan to the National Headquarters in Lexington.
Lambda Chapter at Washington and Lee University is a chapter immersed in its own history. Literally within sight of the current house is VMI, the location of our founding, plaques, shrines, and early meeting places of the fraternity. Lexington, Virginia also serves host to the fraternities National Headquarters and LEAD institute. The chapter house itself was constructed in 1930, and has been renovated after a fire in the 1980’s.