High School Frats Focused on Dancing

As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, May 15, 2011

By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society

It was about fellowship, but mostly it was the dances.

Charter members of the Sigma Phi Omega high school fraternity.  The fraternity president, Charlie Byrn, is in the front row middle.

Charter members of the Sigma Phi Omega high school fraternity. The fraternity president, Charlie Byrn, is in the front row middle.

The Epsilon Chapter of Sigma Phi Omega was the first high school fraternity in Rutherford County.  The national SPO organization was founded in 1904 in Sewanee.  The Epsilon Chapter, chartered 1936, had Murfreesboro Central High School members, but was not an officially recognized by school organization.  (No pictures appear in the school yearbooks.)

“As new members, we had to memorize the names of all the 1936 charter members,” remembers Tommy Hord (CHS, 1954).

Among the charter members, according to Hord, were Tommy and Burney Lee Tucker, and Ben and B.B. Kerr.  The early chapter officers were Charles Byrn, president; Tommy Tucker, vice president; Burney Lee Tucker, secretary-treasurer; Val Sanford, grand usher; and Dan Patterson, grand sentinel.

“We also had to memorize the Greek alphabet and the names of the national officers including some grand poobah P. Hubert Kuhn,” notes Hord.

From offices at 500 Douglas Street in Chattanooga, Kuhn served as “Chancellor Commander” for the fraternity’s national chapter during the 1930’s, and was directly involved in establishing the local chapter in Murfreesboro.  National dues for the chapter totaled $10.

In 1954 the Inter-Fraternity Congress, a national association of non-college fraternities, named Kuhn the “Fraternity Man of the Year.”  He  was recognized as “the man who has done the most to promote the welfare of the non-collegiate fraternity system.”

Bill Smotherman, president of the Epsilon Chapter, attended the 1954 IFC convention in Pittsburgh and reported back in Rutherford County that SPO had won the trophy for the “national high school fraternity sponsoring among its members an outstanding program to encourage scholastic work in its chapters.”  (SPO required “a passing grade in all studies” before initiation-a relatively modest standard.)  The fraternity motto was “School First-Then Your Fraternity.”

Other local SPO officers in 1954 were Tommy Smith, vice president; Jim Parks, secretary; and Henry Butler, pledge master.

A lot of the annual activity for the fraternity involved recruiting and initiating new members.  “The informal initiations were fun for the members,” recalls Hord.  “We would usually go to someone’s farm.”  (Convenient, since the informal initiation ritual often involved barnyard soil.)

“The new members had to make and bring a wooden paddle to the informal initiation,” explains Bobby Huddleston (CHS 1949).  Each upperclassman would give the new member a lick, and then autograph the paddle.  “I still have my SPO paddle.”  Chancellor Commander Kuhn also wrote the original lyrics for the fraternity song “My Sigma Phi Omega Girl.” Set to music by C. Roland Flick (Flick Music Pub. Co. 1931).

The popular ukulele version was arranged by Grady Moore.  The lyrics went, “Into my life you came one day, I never shall forget just what would this world be to me if we had never met.”  The real business of SPO was the dances — a Spring Formal and a Christmas or Winter
Dance.  (The public schools during this period did not organize or sanction dances.)  Annually, or for each formal dance, the members would select an SPO Sweetheart-usually a member’s girlfriend or sister.

In the early years the favorite dance venues were the James K. Polk Hotel, the Sky Harbor rooftop, the Armory and the Cox Gymnasium.  In the early 1950s, the Stones River Country Club became another popular location.  A live band was a necessity.

“We didn’t do much fast dancing, and no individual dancing,” recalls Hord.  Touch dancing was the preferred style. “We wanted to get a hold on her and stay close,” explains Huddleston.

“It seems like we had more social life back then, more get togethers,” explains Hord.  In addition to SPO and at least one other high school fraternity, Sigma Sigma Phi, the young women were also socially organized and sponsoring dances.  “There were the “Underpups” (young girls), the DDD’s (“We called them Daddy’s Darling Daughters.”), the Sub-Debs, and the Cotillion Club.  Each age group had a schedule of social events, mostly dance parties.  Around Christmas and in the spring, there were numerous dance opportunities.  Sometimes two or
three on a weekend.”

SSP alumnus Jim Haynes (CHS, 1955) explains: “We went to some of the SPO dances and they came to ours.”  The SPO formal dances would involve a lot of decorating.  “We would completely mask the Cox Gym ceiling with twisted crepe paper,” remembers Huddleston.  The
dance would start at 10PM, have an intermission at midnight, and then run until 2AM.  All would then go to a big breakfast at someone’s home.  The Hord farm on the Nashville Pike was frequently the breakfast location. All the dances were chaperoned by members’ parents.

A popular dance format was the “no break dance card.”  The term “no break” meant that a man would dance with the same woman for an entire song without being replaced by another man.  The “dance card” was an actual card filled out for each dance participant.  It was the man’s responsibility to fill out the dance cards for himself and his date before the dance.  Each dance party would have a set number of “no break” songs usually interspersed with open dancing.  (“Open dancing” meant that a man without a dance partner can replace a man who is dancing by “breaking” or “cutting in” on a dancing couple and replacing the male partner.)  As shown on the dance card, the man would begin and end the evening in a “no break” dance with his date.  For all “no break” dances in between, however, both the man and the woman have a predetermined list of different dance partners.

“Sometimes it was hard to line up enough guys to fill out the card for your date,” notes Hord.  “You had to kind of swap out with your  buddies.”  If Burton Nelson, for example, was having trouble getting a date, but still planned ahead, the dance cards for his peers might include a “no break” number with “Burton Nelson’s date.”  The “dance card” format was also used for almost all “Student Dance Programs” at the State Teachers College in the war years, and was the preferred format for the annual “Barnwarmin’” dances sponsored by the University of Tennessee Agriculture Club during those years.

David Parsons (CHS 1972, Kappa Sigma Phi) remembers that in the last years before Central High closed there were still at least three fraternities, including SPO.  “They were officially off-campus, not a sanctioned school activity.  Meetings were not on the school grounds.” As the local high schools began sponsoring and organizing “prom” and homecoming dances, the role of the social fraternities diminished.

Today, according to Rutherford County School Superintendent Harry Gill, there are no high school social fraternities in Rutherford County.

Greg Tucker can be reached at gregorytucker@bellsouth.net.

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