Before Beta Kappa
The history of Greek Letter music organizations at Coe College is a long one. While the path has not always been smooth, the Men of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia have, somehow it seems, always found a way to prevail. The first musical organization at Coe to use Greek Letters was the sorority Phi Omega Phi, founded in the early 1920’s. This organization became the Mu Psi Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon Sorority on May 22, 1926. This must have gotten the men of the Coe College School of Music thinking. By the fall of 1929, under the leadership of Professor of Music Paul Ray, director of the Vesper Choir, a group of 24 students, faculty, and prominent Cedar Rapidians submitted a petition to the faculty of Coe College for review. On December 18, 1929, the faculty gave its approval for the formation of the musical society Pi Sigma Rho. Several of the charter members of Pi Sigma Rho were members of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, including Prof. Ray and a local dentist Dr. Morris Katzoff. Under the guidance of these men, the fledgling fraternity modeled itself after Sinfonian image.
In its first year the fraternity was very active, holding meeting every two weeks. It sponsored many events such as a spring concert of music by American Composers on May 19th. The concert included a special tribute to music department Professor Louise Crawford. On the following day, the men of Pi Sigma Rho hosted the first All-Greek sing, where each of the campus’s fraternities sang in competition for prizes. Choruses from each of the campus’s fraternities (consisting of 12 men each) sang their best fraternity song as well as one verse of Coe Loyalty. Phi Kappa Tau won first place, and were awarded a silver cup. Chi Beta Phi won second place. However, by the spring of 1930, the fraternity was beginning to feel the limitations of being a local organization. Again, under the leadership of Prof. Ray, the men of Pi Sigma Rho entered a petition with Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia that began with a letter that read, in part:
We, the undersigned, having organized and maintained an honorary musical fraternity for men in Coe College at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, named Pi Sigma Rho, and believeing that mutual benefits would ensue from an affiliation with Phi Mu Alpha, do respectfully petition the grant of a charter for a local chapter of Phi Mu Alpha, at Coe College
After extensive investigation, Province Governor Tolbert MacRae wrote the following in endorsement of the petition:
I have just returned from a very pleasant visit to the campus of Coe College… If found two active brothers in Prof. Ray … and Prof. Russell… They have been very active in the organization of Pi Sigma Rho and have brought together a very fine group of faculty and students which I wish to recommend very highly to the Grand Chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia.
The petition was passed in October of 1930 and the Beta Kappa Chapter was installed at Coe College at 5:00 in the evening on November 1, 1930, in the Recreation Room of the Men Gymnasium. The installation ceremony was lead by Governor MacRae, with a ritual cast supplied by the Alpha Delta Chapter of Iowa State College. Supreme National President Lutton was among the national officers in attendance. Following the ceremony, a dinner was held at the Hotel Roosevelt, and a formal reception was held in Voorhees Hall.
The first few years of Sinfonian history are somewhat unclear, but things appeared to go well. By 1932, Sinfonia was a well-accepted part of campus life at Coe. It made its first appearance in the Acorn, Coe College’s yearbook. In 1932, the chapter boasted a membership of 28 men, a combination of student, faculty and community members. Sinfonia’s social calendar was a busy one, hosting the annual American Composers Concert, a tradition that had carried over from the days as Pi Sigma Rho. In addition to the concert, the chapter also pitted the campus fraternities against one another in the inter-fraternity sing, held in conjunction with the annual Inter-Fraternity banquet. Throughout the early 1930’s membership remained in the low to mid twenties, and the chapter seemed healthy.
By 1935, however, a different story seems to unfold. The depression had hit Coe College hard, and men were having trouble meeting the financial commitments of fraternity. In correspondence between Edwin Dike, Chapter President, and Charles Lutton, Supreme Secretary-Treasurer, in the summer of 1935, tense words are exchanged about dues. Mr. Dike expressed doubt that the fraternity would survive the depression years, due to a limited number of men, and even more limited money. Indeed the situation was so dire that the fraternity was omitted from the 1935 Acorn. Happily, Mr. Dike’s grim predictions about the future of the Beta Kappa were false. Indeed, by the next year, the chapter had returned to campus in fine from. The 1936 Acorn reports a healthy membership of 24 men. By 1938, the chapter was on to bigger and better things. Student membership was up within the chapter, with students now numbering 11 (the Acorn in 1938 lists only student members – a tradition that is still carried on to the present). The men of Sinfonia had beefed up the social calendar to include a mixer for all music students in the fall of each year. In March of 1938, Beta Kappa hosted its first Back to Bach party in the Recreation Room of the Men’s Gymnasium. Groups from the Military Band, Women’s Band, A Capella Choir, Vesper Choir, and Orchestra presented stunts. Additionally, Beta Kappa began its role as host on a larger scale. On Saturday, May 7 1938, Beta Kappa hosted its first Province Workshop, for the North Central Province. Highlights of the day-long workshop included an address by Province Governor Tolbert MacRae (Alpha Delta), and address by Charles Lutton, Supreme Secretary-Treasurer, and a broadcast by the Convention Chorus over WMT Radio.
1939 was a banner year for the Beta Kappa. The chapter was to take its mission more seriously now than ever. It began a series of weekly "phonograph concerts". These concerts, where a series of serious musical selections was programmed and presented as a formal concert each Sunday evening were a highlight of the ensuing years. In 1939, the chapter also inducted its first two honorary members. The first was a clear choice. Prof. Paul Ray who had been with the chapter from the beginning was being honored for his work directly with the chapter. The other was a bold move for the chapter. Not only were they to go outside the realm of the music department, but they were headed to the heart of the Coe community. In 1939, the Beta Kappa Chapter conferred honorary membership on Dr. Harry Morehouse Gage, President of Coe College.
Beta Kappa began its second decade with a bang. Unaware of the impending world-wide disaster that would come before the decade was out, the membership skyrocketed to an all time high of 23 student members. Additionally, the Phonograph Concerts sponsored by the chapter had garnered national attention. The Carnagie Foundation donated an electric phonograph and 600 records for use in these concerts. In 1941, the chapter also showed strong membership, 25 students, breaking the record of 1940. The 1941 Acorn noted that the Inter-Fraternity sing was still a tradition, and an equally strong tradition was the cup being won by the men of Tau Kappa Epsilon. They had won the cup every year since 1937. Beta Kappa survived deep into the war years, appearing in the 1942 and 1943 yearbooks.
However, by 1944, the strains of World War II had taken their toll. For the second time in its history, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia faded from the pages of the Acorn. It is interesting to note that in 1944 and 1945, music at Coe was as strong as ever, with women filling the parts of the Vesper Choir, A Cappella Choir, Women’s Band, and Symphony Orchestra. No men are pictured anywhere in the Department of Music. In 1947, however, the Men of Song had returned to Coe, and almost as if nothing had happened, Beta Kappa returned to the pages of the Acorn, hosting record concerts and the inter-fraternity sing. Indeed, at Coe, Sinfonia survived the war years, and seemed on a steady footing for the end of the 1940’s.
The fraternity had been hard-hit in the 1980’s, with dropping enrollment at the college, and a lack of interest in music in particular. By 1992, the music faculty was disenchanted with the fraternity, and the men of Beta Kappa were forced to look elsewhere for a faculty advisor. With the initiation of Professor of Mathematics Calvin Van Niewaal, things began to turn around.
In 1993, the chapter sported a membership of only 4 men, and was deeply in debt to the national fraternity. The ensuing presidencies began to turn this around. In 1997, Peter Schinsing was elected president of the chapter. His enthusiasm led to larger initiating classes during his presidency. In 1998, Mr. Schinsing was succeeded by Travis Shepard, who continued to work with enthusiasm to increase membership. At the same time, Eric "Warren" Hammarsten was elected chapter warden, and brought a tight sense or order to business meetings, as well as continually seeking to improve the quality of the ritual. The chapter had also made the brilliant decision to elect newly initiated Brother Benjamin Work to the existing position of setup chairman. He was charged with acting as a liaison between faculty and the chapter in determining what setups were needed in Sinclair Auditorium. He did an incredible job, and as a result, the chapter solved all of its past financial woes, and regained a firm financial standing. This gave the chapter a several thousand dollar balance with which to work.
In 1999, Scott Shoemaker assumed the Presidency, after Mr. Shepard resigned in order to complete his student teaching. Mr. Shoemaker’s focus was an active "take it to ‘em" campus wide publicly campaign. This included hosting a swing dance for the campus-wide community, donating computer equipment and musical instruments to the music department, increasing its donation to the Jazz Summit, and hosting the first annual Piano Bash, where students and faculty paid for swings at a piano with a sledge hammer. Also under Mr. Shoemaker’s administration, the chapter began a series of honorary initiations. This included Dr. Allan Kellar, Pearl M. Taylor Professor Emeritus of Music History, and Mr. Richard Hoffman, Chairman of the Music Department. When Mr. Shoemaker left office in the spring of 2000, he was succeeded by Mr. Mitch Beahm. Under Mr. Beahm’s tenure, the chapter initiated the largest fall class in living memory.
The chapter also made a bold move, echoing the 1939 initiation of College President Gage. On November 1st, 2000, in honor of the Chapter’s 70th Chapter day, the men of the Beta Kappa conferred honorary membership on Dr. James Phifer, 14th President of Coe College. The event drew much attention to the chapter, and for the first time in many years, news of a Sinfonian initiation appeared in the Coe College Cosmos, student newspaper.
The Beta Kappa Chapter seems to have regained solid standing, in terms of membership, finances, and province interaction. With eyes firmly fixed on the future, Beta Kappa moved boldly into the 21st Century. Brothers, on and ever upward…