|William Levere as an infant|
|William Levere c.1880|
|William Levere with his brother Frederick, c.1885|
|William Levere c. 1887|
Levere eventually left Northwestern to join the temperance lecture circuit full time. He was increasingly interested in politics and his own literary career. He was elected Magistrate of the Evanston City Court while still a student at Northwestern in 1897. Levere ran on the Republican ticket that was headed by another subject of this blog, Mayor William A. Dyche.
William Levere ran unsuccessfully for Evanston City Treasurer in 1899 but was finally elected to that post in 1901.
The 1900 US Census has William C. Levere living at 1577 Sherman Avenue in Evanston. The former Chandlers Building occupies that site today. He correctly reported (for the last time) that he had been born in October of 1867. He reported his occupation as "Justice of the Peace."
Levere served as Evanston City Treasurer from 1901-1903. During this period, he also pursued his passion for writing. He was a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post and served as editor of the Evanston Index from 1901-1905. He also edited the “Greek Quarterly”, was founder of the College Fraternity Reference Bureau, and was editor of SAE periodicals “The Record”, and “Phi Alpha.”
In 1906 William Levere decided to expand his political career beyond the borders of Evanston. He ran for, and was elected Illinois State Representative. Springfield didn't suit him, however, and he declined to run for a second term.
Levere’s love for Sigma Alpha Epsilon began to consume increasing amounts of his time. From 1902-1906 he served as Eminent Supreme Archon, the highest elected position in the fraternity. He was elected Honorary Eminent Supreme Archon from 1909-1910 and also saw to financial affairs for a time as Eminent Supreme Treasurer.
|William Levere - 1910|
William Levere was a prolific author during this period. For SAE, he was the author of the SAE Publications Catalogue 1904; the Original Minutes 1904; Songs of Sigma Alpha Epsilon 1904; Life of Noble Leslie DeVotie 1905; SAE Year Book 1906-12 History of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in three large volumes 1911; Who's Who in SAE 1912; and the SAE Pocket Directory 1912.
Levere’s non-SAE fraternity/sorority work during this period included: delegate to Chicago Greek Conference 1913; Inter-Fraternity Conference 1913; elected member of the Executive Committee of Ten of College Fraternity Reference Bureau; elected National Secretary of same by Executive Committee; editor of the Greek Quarterly since 1913; editor of the Bulletin of the Reference Bureau 1915; organized Northwestern chapter of Kappa Delta sorority which is named in his honor; and gave the annual address before the Northern Illinois Pan-Hellenic Association.
His non-fraternity publications include: Imperial America 1900; Twixt Greek and Barb 1900; The Evanston Poets 1903; Vivian of Mackinac 1911; Mackinac Days 1915; and Leading Greeks 1915.
The 1910 US Census shows the now younger William C. Levere living at 600 Davis Street in Evanston.
|600 Davis Street, Evanston|
He gave his age as thirty-seven; he was actually forty-two. He listed his occupation as “Writer of History.”
William Levere attempted to enlist in the military when the US became involved in World War I in 1917. Admitting to being 44 (he was really 49) and being almost 250 pounds, his application was rejected. After his rejection by the military, he turned to non-governmental entities, thinking that their requirements would not be as strict. So Levere was surprised when his application to the Red Cross was rejected. As a last resort he applied to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and to his delight was accepted. Billy Levere had found his niche with the YMCA. He operated a canteen in France and served the American “doughboys” in much the same way he provided care and comfort to collegiate fraternity members across the country. His involvement with the YMCA was so significant that Katherine Mayo dedicated an entire chapter to Levere in her 1920 book on the YMCA in World War I entitled That Damn Y. Mayo described Billy Levere so perfectly that instead of trying to summarize what she wrote about him, I am going to let her tell you herself:
Chapter IX – “What in Hell is Billy’s Other Name?”
MEANTIME, here and there over our war-map, many Y’s had started, notable among them “Billy’s hut” at Neufchateau.
Mr. William C. Levere, of Evanston, Illinois, late city magistrate and State assemblyman, after having vainly tried to persuade the Army to overlook its age limit and give him a chance to enlist, after having vainly tried for acceptance by the Red Cross, came to France in September, 1917, in the service of the Y.
Mr. Levere’s characteristics are, in part: Complete unselfishness; a love and sympathy for boys in which father and mother love and sympathy combine; a wide experience with boys gained as the national head of the Sigma alpha Epsilon; an upright character; a well-balanced, well-stocked, God-fearing mind; a gift of wit and humor and ready speaking; immense good nature; unflagging energy and high spirits; a genius for cookery, and a very noticeable avoirdupois.
Possibly a different equipment might be found equaling in value to our doughboy the equipment of Mr. Levere. Other Y men, quite different in character, won, in fact, an affection as warm as that which he inspired. But none, it is safe to say, spread wider service or conquered quite so many hearts. For “Billy’s hut” for many months was the roadhouse of the A.E.F. and “Billy’s” cheer illumined the passage through France. When first he came, they sent him over to Hareville to comfort Company “D” of the First United States Engineers, building camps for troops yet to arrive.
Then, in advance of the coming of the Twenty-Sixth Division, the Y called him to Neufchateau, where an old round tent of the circus type, half covered with green and red and brown camouflage, sat bottomless in a sea of mud.
First for the troops of the Advanced Headquarters of the Service of Supplies, then for the Twenty-Sixth Division, “Billy,” as the Army at once entitled him, made that miserable tent a home. Later, as the cold increased and as rising winds more and more often swept the tent flat to the ground, a summer beer garden attached to the Hotel Agriculture, in the middle of the town, beckoned with the lure of roof and floor. So Billy, uprooting his tent, wrapped it around the beer garden’s latticed sides, and continued to shine in the desert until Christmas Eve brought the practical completion of the famous “Billy’s hut.”
Overnight, equipment flew into it – including the piano and the gramophone without which no true hut can exist. Also a Christmas tree, from the neighboring woods, a tree that reached the roof.
And Billy, by the peculiar grace that is in him, conjured Christmas food into being; and the Y box from Paris, that should have held solid gifts, gave forth instead a deluge of ballet-girls’ costumes, paper coats and hats and bonnets; turkeys and champagne bottles of papier-mache, whistles, balloons, and comic masks and games and toys. And the gramophone squealed and the piano banged, and the boys, arraying themselves in pink and yellow petticoats, cake-walk jackets, strange hats and stranger faces, whistled and yelled, danced, ate, drank, and played harmless rough-house to their hearts’ content, while Billy, hilarious master of revels, urged them on. So that Christmas Day at Neufchateau was one big romp.
“Billy’s” was a double hut of standard type. Its one half contained a stage and an auditorium, for shows, while its parallel twin held scores of small tables where boys might eat and drink, or sit and smoke and chat, or play a game of cards. Billiard-tables filled one end of the second part, writing-tables the other, a long canteen counter occupied half of one side, and a sufficient number of stoves kept the place really warm.
To say that the hut was at any time clean would show an ignorance of what was possible or even desirable there. The boys for whom it existed were not clean. The mud of France, in cakes and smears and bunches, covered them. They worked in mud, they slept in mud, they ate in mud, they traveled in mud, they waded through mud to get to the place. Cleanliness, next to beating the Boche the thing they most immediately longed for, was just the thing they could by no means have.
Several permanent units, including some hundreds of Army bakers, fifteen hundred motor mechanics, a host of Headquarters clerks and of Military Police, presently settled in around town. Troops in force, as the Twenty-Sixth Division, made it their temporary home. As the war wore on troops in passage continually marched through. An endless procession of camions, coming and going, laden or empty, thundered past the door by day and by night. And in and out of the moving mass, like beads of quicksilver, the dispatch riders forever flew.
Now, nobody who could control his movements ever passed Billy’s hut without a stop. More than once an entire regiment, moving to the front, was halted by its officers and marched through the canteen in squads, to be fed hot coffee, sandwiches, doughnuts, and cakes until the whole command had been satisfied. And the crowds as they came, man by man, brought the mud, the slimy, slippery, slithery, sticky grey mud, and shed it all over the place.
They shed it down the counter aisle; they shed it under the tables, and on the chairs; they shed it all over the auditorium, when they packed the evening show or lounged there during daylight hours to listen to someone playing ragtime or playing Debussy or Schubert, as the case might be with equal ease.
Always some doughboy sat by the piano, always playing to a crowd, sometimes with the skill of a distinguished professional, sometimes just with the knack of rhythm. Always the billiard-balls clicked, always the stoves glowed, always tobacco smoke bloomed through the air, and, except when some evening show was on whose success its noise would disturb, always the canteen ran full swing.
But never, month in and month out, the round of the clock, would Billy permit that any boy in France be asked not to track in mud.
Billy’s canteen contained, of course, the usual supplies of cake, chocolate, tobacco, matches, and all the odds and ends of the Post Exchange. But Billy’s canteen contained, above all things, good and varied homelike food – as much and as varied as he could invent, forage, or by any means provide – dispensed with hearty friendship and kind laughter guided by a keen, sympathetic eye. No one ever suspected Billy of a desire to “save a soul,” to drive a moral, or to hand out a tract. Nobody ever heard Billy preach – except when the boys themselves asked for a Sunday service and Billy had to take the job. Then he did it and did it well.
But nobody ever saw Billy too tired or too busy to see and provide for the last lad’s need of body or mind, nobody ever saw him turn a lad empty away for lack of money to pay for his wants, and nobody ever saw him give, excepting only the recipient. For no woman was ever more sensitive to the sensitive shrinking of a boy’s pride. When Billy gave that which might have been paid for, he did it so quietly, camouflaged it so delicately, that the next in the line caught no hint of the act.
Nor was it necessary for a boy to speak of his needs and his empty pocket, for Billy, by some divine instinct of love, knew both without being told, and acted, even when sore-hearted resistance met his advance.
Two cages full of canary birds chirped at each end of his counter. Big cups of hot soup, stout and savory, hot coffee, strong and good, hot chocolate, solid sandwiches of various kinds, pies, puddings, and doughnuts were always on hand, and drinks and larger articles for five cents (twenty-five centimes) apiece. Piccalilli, made in the hut, and a salad of finely chopped cabbage well filled with dressing tasted like manna to boys fed up with “canned willy,” “gold-fish,” and beans. And when Billy started a course dinner of excellent soup, beefsteak, fried potatoes and two other vegetables, salad, dessert, bread and butter, and coffee of chocolate, for two and a half francs, every soldier for miles around abandoned his mess, and, A.W.O.L. if need be, came to Billy’s for chow.
“Billy’s bug-juice” – a combination of lime-juice and fruit syrups – was known all over the A.E.F. when thirsty time set in. Billy’s griddle-cakes spread comfort like a poultice where they softly fell.
And Billy’s hand in it all became a sort of trademark and surety of worth.
“We’ll all have soup,” said the spokesman of four hungry camion drivers, for the first time visiting the hut.
“Quatre soupes!” called the server at the counter to the cook behind the scene.
“We don’t want no cat soup!” indignantly protested the four and shot out of the room.
But the roar that followed them rose scarcely less at their folly in suspecting Billy’s provender than in joy at the helpless joke.
Without any manner of doubt, by the way, somewhere in France, America, or on the Rhine, those four camion-drivers, if they still live, to this very day are innocently imparting to horrified audiences their personal knowledge of the kind of soup that was served by “that damn Y.”
“Billy’s hut” was one of the dirtiest huts in France – because forever and always it was packed with dirty, hungry, needy boys. But Billy’s kitchen had an oilclothed floor; and everything in it, including the floor, got scrubbed several times a day; and Billy’s pots and pans shone like the sun. For, by hook or crook, he accumulated twelve French servants.
Also the Army gave him ten German prisoners, further to supplement his little staff of Y aides. And those people worked.
“Come along into the kitchen,” he would say at the end of a cold, wet evening to a shivering lad whose flushed face and too bright eyes told a tale of trouble hovering near – or, “Come along into the kitchen,” to a boy with that in his look which bespoke to Billy’s instinct the need of a friend.
And once behind the door, in the homely scene of skillets and bowls and spice-boxes, warmth and cleanliness and pleasant smells, Billy would pull a chair before the range, open the oven door and say:
“There, settle down, son. Put your feet inside and get ‘em hot.”
The servants and the prisoners would all have gone, by then. Y people, knowing the game, busy on games of their own, would steer away. And Billy, alone with his boy, would mix him a hot egg-nog, or feed him a plate of some extra dainty set aside for just such a chance, and gently extract the thorn from his soul.
Then he gave advice, gratefully received; gave medicine, thankfully taken; made a promise, faithfully to be kept; or leant money, almost always to be returned – as the case might be. And, in the end, he sent away, or put to bed, a lad with a heart full of peace instead of misery, or with a body tided over a dangerous hour.
Almost every day he asked one or two boys to dine with him in his own little room behind the canteen. Only one or two at a time, because – and this was his secret – he wanted them to feel themselves “company” – his personal guests, invited not from duty, but for his own pleasure, and so to give them a touch of home. Then Billy would exert himself, with jokes and stories, and with extra tid-bits piled on heaping plates, to make those boys know that to him they were not Serial Number 537 and 1003, but his own particular, chosen friends.
“I want to be married,” a lad one night confessed. “I suppose it couldn’t be here in the hut? It’s the nicest place in France.”
Billy turned instantly grave. He asked a question or two. The girl, he happened to know, was right.
Finally he began his verdict.
“You could be married in the hut,” he said, slowly, “but on one condition only – one which you may not like.”
The boy’s face fell.
“That condition is,” Billy continued, “that you let us give you a real wedding – the whole – regular – full-blown thing.”
So they decorated the auditorium hut, had music and ushers, and a best man, and concluded the ceremony with a wedding breakfast and dancing for all the guests. Billy himself gave away the bride.
As he walked up the aisle to the blare of the wedding march, Billy himself was the most radiant of all the party. Invitations included the A.E.F. and though the function began at eight o’clock in the morning, all the A.E.F. that could get there took part in the entire proceedings with thrills of joy.
But Billy was radiant all of the time, as far as the A.E.F. could see. No boy got ever a cold or unaffording word or glance from him, whatever the hour, whatever the press of work, whatever his fatigue. And if he was not fatigued – dog-tired, more often than not – that was solely because his spirit eclipsed his earthly part.
He seemed not to know he was incarnate as along as a lad within his reach remained in want of word or deed. In times of heavy stress, he worked through periods, as through Saturday to Monday, without sleep and without a bite to eat. If the food of the hut was famous all over France, it was because Billy himself taught the French servants to cook, and himself brooded over the pot. Many another Y man on his staff broke under the pace he set. No one could last there who had a single desire beyond the service in hand – who was not ready to spend himself to-day as though to-morrow would never dawn. Up in the morning while yet the night’s exhaustion hung heavy on his limbs, he would be over in the hut kitchen at six o’clock making biscuits and cinnamon buns by rafts, with his own hands, to cheer up his jaded boys with a snack of “something like home.” And his constant preoccupation was the discovery of a possible new dish.
Birds of passage his boys often were, for Billy’s hut was indeed the roadhouse of the A. E. F. But sometimes his birds flitted past again: As dispatch riders, stopping late to-night for a snatch of hot food, or late to-morrow night, white and drawn of face, coming again to his door. Not a mouthful would they have tasted in the interval. Not a mouthful could they then have got but for Billy’s ever-open hand.
They did not say much, those weary, road-worn, hungry lads that swarmed in Billy’s hut. But they carried the fame of the Y at Neufchateau all over France. And they filled its registers, kept as tracers of friend for friend, with tributes of boyish love and gratitude. Some entries expressed the thoughts of cultivated minds. Some innocently mangled the tongue that served them. But none, perhaps, more truly conveyed the kernel of the thing than did that simple outburst over the signature of a private of Marines:
“What in hell is Billy’s other name?”
Here's a photo of Billy Levere from his time in France:
Levere is on the right. The other man is unidentified.
Another photo of him in uniform from the same period:
When the war ended in November of 1918, Billy Levere returned to Evanston where he threw himself into fraternity work even more than before. For years, Levere's apartments in Evanston had served as the national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and when he came home he was more convinced than ever that SAE needed an official national headquarters building. He also wanted it to serve as a national memorial for SAEs who died in the Great War. At SAE's 1920 convention he was able to put his plan into action. The convention voted to centralize the government and offices of SAE, fund the construction of a "Central Office Building," and create a fundraising program to cover the costs.
The 1920 US Census finds William Levere living at 703 Davis Street in Evanston. This is around the corner from where he lived in 1900 - space occupied by the former Chandler's building today. He listed his occupation as "Literary Work."
With the centralization of the Fraternity under way, Levere began to pursue his dream of an office building. From the start, his plans included a library and a museum. In 1923 SAE purchased an old home on Sheridan Road in Evanston. The Fraternity finally had its office building and in the process became the first national fraternity to have a national headquarters building. But Levere was already dreaming of the grand structure that would one day replace the existing office. Levere then declared that he would begin to collect for SAE's Library in earnest. It turns out that Levere, as a passionate collector, had begun collecting material for years. By the end of 1924 he had amassed a huge library of works written by SAEs. It was reputed to be the second largest fraternity collection, behind the William Raymond Baird collection at the New York Public Library.
In December, 1926 Levere revealed the preliminary sketches of the Memorial Building that would replace the current office. He asked a fellow SAE, architect Arthur Knox, to submit designs for the structure. The initial modest plans were revised to increase the size of the library, and include a museum, memorial chapel, lecture hall, dining hall, residence space, dormitory, and office space. Levere's new memorial building took its first steps to completion that same month when the national convention voted to construct the building and created a non-profit corporation that would own the building and collect donations for construction and maintenance.
Levere's passion for his work, unwillingness to delegate tasks, and lack of recognizing his own limits finally caught up with him.
|Said to be the Last Photo of William Levere|
In January of 1927 he was admitted to Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston with a nervous breakdown, from which he never recovered. William Levere died on February 22, 1927.
Here is Levere's obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of February 23, 1927:
Here is his Death Notice from the Tribune of February 24th:
The evergreens have grown quite a bit since 1927 - and the vases on each side of the center medallion are gone.
|The Levere Memorial Temple, Evanston, Illinois|
As you can see, it is an imposing building from the outside, but the thousands who pass by it every day have no idea of the beauty and splendor within. I could do a whole writeup on just the Levere Memorial Temple itself, and some have, but I'll just touch on a few high points.
The Grand Foyer contains stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany donated by Billy Levere's brother Frederick. The two side windows depict scenes from the life of Billy Levere:
and the middle window is the Good Samaritan:
and in the basement - the Panhellenic Room:
The entire room took 3 years to paint with murals and the coat-of-arms of 60 Greek organizations in order of their founding dates,
The Tower Room, where admission is limited to members of SAE:
But my favorite part of the temple is the magnificent chapel:
All around the chapel are Tiffany windows depicting the history of North America. But the jewel in the crown of the chapel is the magnificent "Pax Vobiscum" window depicting Christ reaching out to a Union and a Conferderate soldier:
The Levere Memorial Temple is open to the public, so if you can get to Evanston, by all means take a tour. If you can't get there in person, you can take a tour through YouTube:
and you will get to see the striking painting of Billy Levere watching over all who enter his temple: