Kappa Sigma Tau Chapter's First House
(original size) was completed in 1904.
Article published circa 1959.
The Kappa Sigs are Revolting
By Bill Helmer
One of the many unwholesome ideas (like evolution and liberalism) which traditionally flourish in fertile collegiate minds is the inclination to rebel. This psychological feature has caused the fall of governments, the burning of Mexico City Buses, and — here at UT — the establishment of a fine campus tradition: the annual Kappa Sig Revolt.
Actually, the gunfire, smoke, and flag-waving from the roof of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house every Texas Independence Day is not a revolt at all. The noisy insurrection is, in principle, anti-Texas and pro-Mexico, and therefore it is not a revolt but instead a counter-revolt to return this place to its rightful owners.
(This is fortunate for the Kappa Sigs in that counter-revolution is safely reactionary — hence incurring no legislative repercussions which might arise out of any display of revolutionary spirit.)
But regardless of its political and psychological import, here is the story of the annual Kappa Sig March 2 rebellion from its accidental conception to its present illegitimate existence as a UT tradition:
It was in 1955 that two unrelated factors combined accidentally to cause opposition to Texas Independence Day which has been uneventfully celebrated at UT each year since 1897.
First factor: the location of the Kappa Sig house on 19th Street, directly in line of fire of two cannons which patriotically explode from time to time during the ceremony.
Second factor: the coincidence that two of the good brothers who reside therein, Garth Carroll and Dick Draper, had partied the previous night and were sleeping through their 11 o’clock classes until suddenly aroused by the booming cannons.
"We were non-participating in class that morning,” recalls Carroll. “We were just trying to sleep, and (when the cannons went off) wondered what the hell was going on. We looked out and saw a crowd on the Mall and the two cannons firing right at us… so just for laughs we climbed out onto the roof and started waving a white bed sheet.”
The result was laughter from both the state dignitaries and the small crowd attending the ceremony.
The following year, 1956, the same thing happened but this time intentionally: the cannons boomed, the Kappa Sigs ran up a white flag, and the crowd — a bit larger than before — applauded approval.
In 1957 more theatrics were added. Smudge pots billowed smoke from the house top and a few Kappa Sigs shouted their helpless defiance, but again the white flag was raised to signify surrender.
Then, in 1958, a great change came over the fraternal brothers. Basking in the glory of publicity (the crowds had doubled just to watch for the smoke and white flag), they could no longer suffer the humiliation of inevitable defeat. And so, after holding council, they decided that year to counter-attack.
The crowd gathered. Zero hour came. The cannons boomed. And with cries of “Viva Zapata!!” And “We ain’t lookin’ for trouble!”, Kappa Sig shotgun and pistol crews leaned over the balcony railing and vigorously returned the army’s fire. The battle raged for 30 minutes and smoke belched forth from the fraternity house, but the defenders never struck their colors. (Mid-way through the battle, however, a white flag began waving from the Tower which was in the line of Kappa Sig fire.) The battle was a draw but the crowd went wild.
And so it came to pass, by 1959, that the tradition was firmly established. On March 2 more spectators than ever before turned out to watch the show and the Kappa Sigs fought more fiercely than ever before.
Mexican mariachi music blared from loudspeakers and a Mexican flag flew from the roof. Mexican-costumed Kappa Sigs swarmed about the top deck and waited. They fingered their assorted weapons nervously and occasionally picked off a motorcycle cop or pedestrian on the street below.
Smudge pots were ready, a home-made cannon was packed and primed, and when the first army volley whistled overhead the defenders opened such a barrage that they nearly choked on their own smoke.
It was beautiful!
Our Chapter Houses — A Look Back Over 45 Years
Jim Pritchett '71 shares his memories of the Tau Chapter houses, starting with his freshman year in 1970 as a UT Kappa Sig pledge.
It's Fall 1970. No. 1 ranked UT is in the middle of a 30-game winning streak and we are savoring the recent victories over UCLA (won with a Hail Mary pass in the last eight seconds of the game), OU and Rice. Today the Horns are playing SMU, but more importantly to this Kappa Sig pledge from Dallas, I'm about to experience my first Tau Trustees weekend.
I don't know what to expect as we file into the large living room on 203 West 19th Street to hear the proceedings, but I do know the famous alumni names I'm about to meet. Frank Erwin, Howard Rose, and Lorenzo Taylor. Recent grads are there as well: Robert Spellings, Steve "Cowboy" Murrin and my older brother, Phil.
Frank Erwin has some big news to deliver and he doesn't mince words. The house needs major repairs, is already carrying a lot of debt, the same old guys who have been putting up the money all these years are tired of going it alone, and unless the "young alums" can raise around $250,000 among themselves in the next year, he will recommend that the house be sold. The State of Texas would probably buy it, he says, and we could rebuild on the other side of I-35 by the recently built baseball stadium. But only a lodge, no living quarters. After all, it's the 70s, the age of peace and love. Fraternities throughout the country seem to be obsolete.
Our pledge class totals 28. Many seniors have left before graduation, and the chapter is dwindling in numbers. There are rumors of other problems as well, but for this 18-year-old, living in Austin and going to UT, life is good and I remain optimistic.
Fall 1971 — UT's 30-game winning streak ended in the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame, but we are on a new one and regain our No. 1 ranking. A year has come and gone since Frank Erwin laid out the options for the house. Here we are again: same faces, same living room, but no money raised by the young alums. Mr. Erwin holds true to his word and announces the house will be sold. The room goes silent. He says the state wants it, will pay a good price and, after debts are paid, we will have plenty left to rebuild a new lodge on the East Campus.
Our new pledge class numbers in the low 20s and the entire chapter totals less than 75, even on a good steak night! We start to worry.
Spring 1973 — We decide to have one last party in the house and we book Vince Vance and the Valiants. More than 500 Kappa Sigs and guests attend, including alumni from across the state. It's a great night, but things get a little out of control as people make their way out the door with furniture, light fixtures, trophies, and other pieces of Tau history. More than the end of a house, it feels like a wake for the chapter.
The house sits vacant until it is torn down in August, with no one there to witness the demolition, much less cheer for what's next to come.
Fall 1973 — Two weeks prior to rush week we have no house and no place to meet. Fortunately, Frank Erwin comes to our rescue and rents a closed restaurant call The Trough. Located across the street from the Tri-Towers women's dorm (now University Towers) and next to The Bucket, the hottest bar on campus; it's a great location. This move transports us from the lonely South Mall to the best West Campus location we could imagine.
Although we got a great temporary location at the last minute, with no house and no plans for one any time soon, summer rush was tough. We managed to pledge a great core group, mostly from Houston, but they are few in number. We start the year with close to 30 members total, including pledges, and struggle through the year to pay our bills.
Fall 1975 — Tim Herman, now our young alumni advisor, finds a solution to our housing problem. The Theta Xis had closed their doors and put their house on San Gabriel on the market. We buy it, renovate it, and put in a swimming pool. The 1960s modern architecture evokes a certain George Jetson spaceship look and feel — quite a change from the historic, first frat house built west of the Mississippi, columned red brick mansion on the hill facing the Tower — but it is ours and we were excited.
Spring 1997 — We move to our current location on West 26th Street, the former Sigma Nu house that was sold to a sorority a few years earlier. Membership continues to grow until the Chapter gets in trouble, causing a major setback and a big drop in numbers. But in the end, our Kappa Sigma bonds bring us back together and we resolve our issues and moved forward. I'm happy to say that our numbers have been steadily growing ever since.
Fall 2010 — The greatest move of all proves to be the construction of our world-class lodge. We get our first-ever 50-man pledge class and have met those numbers all but one year since. The Lodge has all the unique features custom designed for a thriving fraternity: large dining hall, commercial-grade kitchen, study areas and gathering places for socializing and TV watching.
Summer 2015 — Phase II is now underway to build a stand-alone residence hall that will be a five-star living facility by any fraternity or apartment building standards. Coupled with the Lodge, we have a campus with everything we need designed for flexibility to adapt to future needs.
As I watched the demolition of the old Sigma Nu house on the webcam, I remember that there was no one to watch the 19th Street house come down. It's gratifying to know that this demolition is something to cheer about and that several hundred members and friends were onsite to witness the bulldozers in action. To me, this represents how far we've come and the promise of what lies ahead for this great fraternity.
It's been great fun and certainly a privilege to have been a part of this Tau Chapter history. No matter what challenges we've faced, we've persevered and have become better and stronger for them. As my friend and fraternity brother George Alcorn told me the other day when I was updating him on things in Austin, "Better take a picture!"
The core group from the 70s remains close as friends and brothers and are active within the chapter. The good times we enjoyed and the difficult transitions we endured helped create a special bond we share today. This same bond has been with Tau Chapter throughout the years and all its members.
Big Frank was wrong about not needing living quarters, but I know he's very proud of his boys for the determination to rebuild the house, while learning the most important lesson of all: It's not the house, but rather the members, and not how many members, but the Tau Chapter Bond that distinguishes us from all other fraternities.
The legacy continues and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Jim Pritchett '71
KS Lodge Highlighted
Stone World Magazine Features the Kappa Sig Lodge in its May 2012 Edition
Limestone provides 15th-century Italian style
By Karissa Giuliano
Photos ©Greg Hursley
Rich in history while still anchored in its modern home at the University of Texas in Austin, the Kappa Sigma fraternity lodge is built of local stone that gives the house a rustic feel. Over the 11-month period of construction, the design goal was to take the 5,390 square feet of space and create a lodge-inspired dining/study hall while keeping the fraternity's unique history in mind.
The brotherhood of Kappa Sigma began in 15th Century Italy and was founded as a society for mutual protection against the violence and robberies being perpetrated on students by the henchmen of a corrupt city governor. The design model for the lodge is deeply rooted in the fraternity's history and culture.
"There wasn't any question about using local limestone for the lodge," said Katheryn Lott, AIA RID, LEED AP BD+C of Katheryn Lott Architects. "There were two fraternity alums that were very involved during the project. One of the alums, from Houston, TX, was involved in the overall design decisions. He said he had seen the regional stone and loved it."
The stonework - both inside and out - including the stately arches, directly reflects the Old World European craftsmanship and style of 15th Century Italy. The entire exterior of the Tau chapter's lodge is made of a native cream-colored limestone from the surrounding Austin area. All of the interior walls are the same native stone as the exterior, split on all sides with random heights and lengths. Sizes include a combination of 25% of 4-inch pieces, 30% of 6-inch pieces, 25% of 8-inch pieces and 20% of 10-inch pieces. "A major concern was making sure that all of the materials used were to be durable, and able to withstand constant wear and tear by fraternity members," said Lott.
The structural stonework was crafted by using a Tuscan-inspired technique of precisely matching the mortar color to the stone and then hand rubbing it into the surface to give it a clean texture and high-quality finish. "For contrast, the fireplace and chimney were built of Tuscany Hickory stone, split on all sides and of random heights and lengths," explained the architect, adding that the stone was dry-stacked. Alternatively, the concrete floor was stained and sealed to provide a marble-like finish, making the Kappa Sigma Crest the focal point of the Great Room.
Though there weren't any other types of stone considered, the selection process was still very in depth. Prior to construction of the stone walls, the contractor built three sample boards on site so that Lott and the building committee representatives could choose the right mortar color and technique.
The architect explained that she spent a great deal of time on the jobsite during construction. "We had weekly construction meetings," she said. "One of the alums lives in Austin and was here to attend the meetings - making decisions and keeping the project on schedule."
The reaction to the lodge has been very well received as the pledge classes have increased in size for the last two years since its opening. "Membership has increased from 66 members in 2009 to 184 members in 2012," said Lott.
The Lodge was completed and dedicated in November 2010 and is said to "embody the strength, character and spirit of the Kappa Sigma Renaissance predecessors of Bologna."
The Kappa Sigma Legacy
A Brotherhood Born in the Renaissance
Tau Chapter – A Legion of Accomplished Men
The Tau Chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity, chartered on September 18, 1884, was one of the first three fraternities established on the University of Texas campus.
The original house on West 19th Street, now Martin Luther King Blvd., was the first fraternity house built west of the Mississippi River. It was Kappa Sigma’s home for nearly 70 years until relocating to West Campus on San Gabriel in 1972, and then to 1002 West 26th Street in 1996, where the Kappa Sig house stands today.
The Tau Chapter boasts a distinguished list of alumni, including international leaders in the fields of medical technology, aviation, business development and the arts. Several legendary Tau Chapter members -- Governor Beauford Jester, Harry Ransom and Frank Erwin, Jr., to name three -- helped make the University of Texas the world-class university that it is today.
A fine tradition of academic and athletic achievement and, above all, brotherhood, sustains the fraternity and is manifested in each new pledge class.
European Origins – From the Land of Dante and Galileo
The history of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity began at the University of Bologna in Italy, Europe’s first university, at the start of the 15th Century. Founded by Greek scholar, statesman and university teacher Manuel Chrysoloras, along with five of his most devoted disciples, Kappa Sigma began as an ancient society of students.
The society was founded for mutual protection against the corrupt governor of the city, former pirate Baldassare Cossa, who often ordered the physical attacks and robberies of university students in the streets of Bologna.
The students used secret words and signs to protect their ranks from betrayal. These forms and rituals became the basis of their organization. It embodied their ideals and allowed for both the safety of their members and the strong unity of the society.
Slowly, the society increased its numbers, taking in those students who desired the protection it could offer. With a strong foundation built on the good character of its members, the ancient order flourished. Over time, its strength and unity transformed the order from a protective society against Cossa into something much greater --- a true brotherhood.
History holds that the society expanded to the great universities of Europe, but, sadly, by the mid-19th century, the order was barely active.
As providence would have it, an American traveler visiting Europe in the mid-1800s was inspired by his noble host -- a Kappa Sigma member lamenting his beloved society’s demise -- to bring the great legacy of Chrysoloras across the Atlantic.
And from there it was, the University of Bologna, the center of learning in Europe, to the University of Virginia, the centerpiece of education in the United States, that the Kappa Sigma Fraternity found its home in North America.
A National Fraternity Begins
On December 10, 1869, five students at the University of Virginia founded the National Fraternity of Kappa Sigma. Adopting the traditions of their Renaissance forbearers of Bologna, William Grigsby McCormick, Frank Courtney Nicodemus, Edmund Law Rogers, John Covert Boyd and George Miles Arnold bound themselves together by an oath and preserved their union with secret work.
The five friends and brothers, none older than 19 and the youngest under 17, drafted a constitution, naming the Fraternity “Kappa Sigma,” providing a description for the badge and giving significance to the emblems appearing on it.
Philosophy: The Star and Crescent, Kappa Sigma's ideals, are centered on four pillars: Fellowship, Leadership, Scholarship, and Service.
Kappa Sigmas are taught to live their lives by the Star and Crescent, which are the symbols of the Fraternity that make up the official badge: "The Star and Crescent shall not be worn by every man, but only by him who is worthy to wear it. He must be a gentleman... a man of honor and courage... a man of zeal, yet humble... an intelligent man...a man of truth... one who tempers action with wisdom and, above all else, one who walks in the light of God."
Kappa Sigma was the first southern fraternity to extend a chapter north of the Mason Dixon line, and today there are more than 300 chapters at major universities and small colleges throughout the United States and Canada.