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  • Writer's pictureKip Barton

The era of William “Billy” Levere

William C. Levere committed his life to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and everyone called him “Billy” unless they were angry at him. While the Fraternity was not his only activity — he served his city as a magistrate and editor, his state as a member of the Illinois legislature and the reading public as a historian and novelist — it became the passion, indeed the obsession, of his life.

One may well ask why. The answer appears simple. Levere believed heart and soul in the idea of the college fraternity, that at its best it could offer to young men an opportunity for self-development, for leader- ship and, above all, for rich and lasting friendships. He never believed that fraternity had a monopoly on those qualities, but he was convinced that for college men it provided potentially the best environment for personal growth. He dedicated his efforts to translating the potential of fraternity into reality. In the course of his career, he made Sigma Alpha Epsilon a formidable institution and therewith helped to revolutionize the American college fraternity. During the era of Levere, the college fraternity became the most powerful and influential undergraduate institution on the campuses of America, holding a position of relative prominence not reached before or since. Levere was hardly responsible single-handedly for the importance of fraternities, a phenomenon that had many causes, but he was nevertheless conceded by all to be the most brilliant and creative fraternity man of his day. He was a man whose time had come.

William McKinley is sworn in as President of the U.S. His Fraternity badge is visible on his lapel. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

In more ways than one, Levere made the 1906 Convention a thoroughly enjoyable one, for three years earlier he had discovered one of the original Founders, Col. John B. Rudulph, living on a plantation in Pleasant Hill, Alabama. Rudulph, who had as completely lost touch with the Fraternity as it had with him, was brought to the Atlanta convention as a guest of honor. The old gentleman enjoyed himself thoroughly but was astonished at how the organization had developed from a tiny band of brothers at Alabama to a large national institution. In a quiet moment of that convention, he said to one of the young officers as he thought back to the days of 1856, “We never dreamt of this.”

Among Levere’s many contributions, none was more important than his writing. He saw to the publication of a catalog of membership in 1904, a pocket directory in 1912, a volume called Who’s Who in ΣAE in 1912 and another catalog in 1918. In 1904, he edited and published the original minutes of Alabama Mu. Although he was no musician, he edited a Fraternity songbook and published it in 1907. But unquestionably his most outstanding work as an author was his monumental three-volume History of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity, published in 1911. It was an exhaustive study of the history of the Fraternity, and the task of doing the research and writing had required Levere’s full-time effort for the better part of four years. Fortunately, Levere’s work had been preceded in 1904 by a little book called the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Manual, written by Dr. George H. Kress (Cincinnati 1896), a remarkable compendium of Fraternity information crowded into a volume of small format. One says fortunately because Kress, an indefatigable researcher, did much of the spadework that enabled Levere to move ahead with his own historical research. How Kress did all this while carrying on a busy medical practice in Los Angeles was a source of wonderment to members. From the time that Levere came into prominence until the entry of the UnitedStates into the First World War, the Fraternity continued to grow at a wholly satisfactory rate, about at the same rate as its chief rivals, such fraternities as Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, Beta Theta Pi and Phi Gamma Delta. The last of the Founders was dead, however, by the time the convention met at Kansas City in 1910. It was the Kansas City Convention that adopted a thoroughly revised Ritual, substantially the same as the one in use today. In 1912, the Convention met for the ninth time at Nashville, electing Levere Eminent Supreme Recorder, or executive secretary, Although these conventions were enjoy- able social affairs, their time came to be occupied more and more by the growing business affairs of a fraternity growing more complex by the year.

William C. Levere is the most beloved Fraternity figure after Noble Leslie DeVotie.

When America entered the First World War in 1917, more than 8,000 members responded to the call to arms. They ranked from major general to doughboy, from admiral to apprentice seaman. They fought in the trenches of Flanders, on the high seas and in the air. Some sweated it out in the dusty cantonments in the States, where the enemy was not the Germans but boredom. Billy Levere was determined to join the thousands at the front. Intensely patriotic, he believed he could not stand by and watch others go off to war. Although he was 44 years old and overweight by more than 100 pounds, he spent weeks trying in vain to convince some branch of the service to accept him. Finally, he heard of the important work the YMCA was doing with American troops at the front, signed up at once and by September 1917 was on his way to France. There he served throughout the war, at or near the front in France, and later with the army of occupation in the Rhineland.

Levere served as Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s full-time executive secretary from 1912 until his death in 1927. While he was in France during the war, however, his place in Evanston was taken by Marvin E. Holderness (Vanderbilt 1902), who acquitted himself splendidly as acting Eminent Supreme Recorder.

Not only was there considerable alumni activity among Sigma Alpha Epsilon men who were in France during the war, but also two remarkable initiations of former pledge members were conducted by the alumni. The first initiation of a neophyte into an American college fraternity on European soil was held at Tours, France, in December 1918, when Walter Jepson (Nevada-Reno 1914), a pledge of the Nevada chapter, was regularly initiated. The second was held at Andernach, Germany, on February 18, 1919, when Lloyd Brown (Wisconsin 1921), a pledge from the University of Wisconsin, was inducted. The initiation at Tours took place in an ancient mansion of the city, while the ceremony at Andernach was conducted in a most romantic setting, the ruins of an old castle, the ancient palace of the Palatinate with its round tower ten centuries old.  

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