Friday, November 27, 2015

SIGMA ALPHA EPSILON WAS HIS LIFE - William C. Levere

If you drive the tree-lined roads of Memorial Park Cemetery in suburban Chicagoland, you may happen upon an impressive monument by the side of the road:


It is the burial site of William Collin (“Billy”) Levere who was intimately associated with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Evanston’s Northwestern University.  This name may ring a bell because there is an impressive gothic church-like structure on Sheridan Road in Evanston called the “Levere Memorial Temple.”  Let’s see what we can find out about this man to deserve such an impressive burial site, and a temple named after him.

William Collin Levere was born October 10, 1867 in New Haven, Connecticut to Charles Frederick Levere (1842-1910) and Mary, nee Collins (1844-1881).  Charles and Mary had been married in New Haven on November 1, 1866.  They had one other son in addition to Billy:   Frederick Edwin Levere (1874-1960).  There are some sources that list another brother, John Levere, but I was not able to find any evidence of him.  Charles Levere was a harness maker by trade.

William Levere as an infant

While researching this article, I stumbled across an interesting inconsistency.  Most every source lists William Levere’s date of birth as October 10, 1872; however he shows up on the 1870 US Census for New Haven, Connecticut.  According to the census he was 2 years old on July 2, 1870.  That would make his actual date of birth October 10, 1867.  He correctly reported his month and year of birth as October, 1867 for the 1900 Census, but for the 1910 Census he said he was 27 when he was actually 32.  From that point on, he consistently reported his date of birth as October 10, 1872 – including when he applied for a US Passport in 1917. 

In grade school, young Billy Levere cultivated a talent for public speaking.  He won several oratory contests and toured New England where he was asked to speak on a wide variety of topics with temperance being his favorite topic.  

William Levere c.1880

When Levere was fourteen years old, his life changed forever after meeting the “First Lady of Temperence” Francis Willard.  She suggested that he move to Evanston, Illinois which was her adopted home town.  Levere’s mother had died in September of 1881 so perhaps he thought it was time for a change. Francis Willard helped Billy Levere gain admittance to Northwestern Academy where he attended high school, and later Northwestern University.  During this time Levere continued to lecture on the national temperance circuit and took odd jobs to pay for his school tuition and room and board.

William Levere with his brother Frederick, c.1885

William Levere c. 1887

Interestingly, at first Billy Levere didn’t have much use for fraternities.  In fact he was the leader of the anti-fraternity movement at Northwestern.  However, Sigma Alpha Epsilon had established a chapter at Northwestern during the fall of his freshman year, and they actively recruited Levere because of his obvious leadership potential.  Levere was hand-picked by SAE expansionist Harry Bunting who first recruited Levere’s roommate and best friend and then pursued Billy directly.  On September 26, 1894 Levere was initiated as a charter member of the new Psi-Omega chapter where he quickly became a chapter leader.   

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:



Billy Levere's wake was held at the SAE headquarters on Sheridan Road in Evanston:


Here is the elaborate monument covering his grave at Memorial Park Cemetery in Skokie.  This photo was taken shortly after the monument was erected in 1927:





Here is the Levere monument in 2015:


The evergreens have grown quite a bit since 1927 - and the vases on each side of the center medallion are gone.









In Memoriam
William Collin Levere, Ill., Psi Omega '98
Born October 10, A. D. 1872, at New Haven, Conn.
Initiated Into Sigma Alpha Epsilon
At Northwestern University November 14, 1894
Eminent Supreme Archon of S. A. E., 1902-1906
Y. M. C. A. Secretary in France During World War, 1917-1918
Eminent Supreme Recorder and Editor of
S. A. E. Record, 1912-1927
Died at Evanston, Ill., February 22, A. D. 1927
Beloved and Mourned by the College Youth
Of Our Country, To Whose Advancement He
Devoted His Life, His Talents, and His Love


So now you know the story of William Collin “Billy” Levere.  He started his time at Northwestern being opposed to fraternities and all they stood for, and ended up becoming “Mr. Fraternity” as he dedicated his life to the past, present and future of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

He is fondly remembered even today by his SAE brothers, and they have posted a short video to You Tube about Billy Levere and his contributions to SAE:


We can't say goodbye to Billy Levere without discussing the Levere Memorial Temple.  As stated above, it was Levere's goal in the mid-1920s to collect the funds to enable the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity to construct a memorial building in honor of the SAE boys who died in World War I. 

After his sudden death in February of 1927, SAE found that Levere had left $25,000 for a new building.  This, coupled with the fact that Levere had spent his life dedicated to the fraternity, prompted the decision to name the Memorial Building after him, and so the Levere Memorial Temple was born.  It was announced by Al Chase in his real estate column in the Chicago Daily Tribune on January 28, 1928:


PLAN $200,000 MEMORIAL TO “BILLY” LEVERE

With the transfer of the southwest corner of Hinman avenue and Sheridan road, Evanston, by Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity yesterday to the Levere Memorial foundation, it was disclosed that a $200,000 white stone memorial building is to be erected in memory of “Billy” Levere, for many years national secretary of the fraternity.

Arthur Howell Knox, an alumnus of the Northwestern chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, has designed a gothic structure with tower, which will front on Sheridan road.  This will be on the site of the present national headquarters at 1856 Sheridan road, which, it is expected, will be torn down within a year to make way for the memorial.  It will contain a two story chapel, with stained glass memorial windows in the east wing, a library and museum on the first floor, and the national offices of the fraternity on the second floor of the west wing.

Known As “Smiling Billy.”

William C. Levere, popularly known in Evanston as “Billy,” who died a year ago, left a fund of $25,000 for a new building.  Since then it has been decided to make it a memorial for “Smiling Billy,” as he was called during his overseas service as “Y” secretary.  At that time he was decorated by the French government. 

Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity has 100 chapters and a national membership of approximately 35,000.  Lauren Foreman of Atlanta, Ga., is president, according to the Evanston Review.  Judge A. K. Nippert of Cincinnati is chairman of the building committee.

It was the “Roaring Twenties” and times were good.  It was a time of unparalleled prosperity, and donations came flooding in from SAE members and alumni nationwide.  By September 8, 1929, the Chicago Daily Tribune was able to report that construction had already begun with a projected dedication date of December, 1930:

EVANSTON WILL GET $250,000 WAR MEMORIAL

Work is under way in Evanston on a $250,000 war memorial to the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity who lost their lives in the civil, Spanish American, and the world war.  It is the design of architect Arthur Howell Knox, an alumnus of the Northwestern chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.  It is being erected at the southwest corner of Sheridan road and Hinman avenue, by the Levere Memorial Foundation, which grew from a $25,000 fund left by William C. Levere for a new building for the fraternity.

Mr. Levere, popularly known in Evanston as “Billy,” died two years ago.  He was known as “Smiling Billy” during his overseas service as “Y” secretary.  At that time he was decorated by the French government.  He had held all the offices of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, being national secretary when he died.

Mr. Knox has designed a Gothic structure, with tower, to be built of Wisconsin limestone on all sides.  The main entrance will be on Sheridan road.  The building will contain a memorial chapel with stained glass windows and a pipe organ, an art gallery, a fraternity museum, and a library.  The building also will contain the national headquarters and offices of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

It is planned to dedicate the new structure in December, 1930, when the biennial national convention of the fraternity is held in Evanston.  The last convention was in December, 1928, at Miami, Fla.

When the memorial was first conceived in 1926, it was said to cost $200,000.  By the time construction had started in 1929 the cost was up to $250,000.  The Chicago Daily Tribune of December 29, 1930, reported the dedication of the $400,000 Levere Memorial Temple, twice the original figure:

SIGMA ALPHA EPSILON TEMPLE IS DEDICATED

Dedication of the $400,000 Levere Memorial Temple of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity took place yesterday in conjunction with the biennial convention of the fraternity now in session in Evanston.  Only the 650 delegates to the convention attended the ritualistic ceremony of the dedication, but later a public reception was held at the temple.  Gen. William G. Everson, chief of the United States Militia Bureau at Washington, was the principal speaker.  The temple is a memorial to the late William Levere, who for 27 years was secretary of the national fraternity.  It is located at 1856 Sheridan road, Evanston.




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:



The temple also contains a museum filled with artifacts of the fraternity from the earliest days to today:




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:


"Pax Vobiscum"

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6yHxUvHmlk

and you will get to see the striking painting of Billy Levere watching over all who enter his temple:


William Collin Levere, who probably did more to advance the college fraternity system than any other man who ever lived, fondly remembered today by his brothers and fellow Evanstonians - may he rest in peace.                                                                                         

Friday, November 13, 2015

THE ARMLESS WONDER - Martha Morris

I have often said, when writing stories for this blog that you can’t really tell much about a person’s life just by looking at their tombstone.  You would never guess by looking at the simple tombstones of Al Capone or Michael Heitler that they had led nefarious lives. Conversely, you can’t tell by looking at the simple tombstone of restaurateur Fanny Lazzar that she was the confidant of kings and presidents.  Take a look at this tombstone from Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois:


  
Just from looking at her tombstone, what can you tell me about Martha Morris?  You can’t tell from the stone that Martha Morris was known as “The Armless Wonder.”  You can’t tell that she was a featured entertainer at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933, and you certainly can’t tell that she was in Tod Browning’s cult classic film ‘Freaks,’ yet all of these are true.


Since one of the purposes of this blog is to tell the story buried under the tombstone, let’s see what we can find out about Martha Morris “The Armless Wonder.”


Martha Morris was born October 10, 1902 in Chicago to David Morris (1862-1928) and Jennie, nee Strumpf (1868-1938).  Martha was born without any arms, and shorter-than-normal legs.  David and Jennie Morris had seven other children:  Joseph C. (1889-1959), Louis Frank (1891-1952), Ralph (1893-1963), Dorothy -  called “Dora” (1895-1979), Manuel Edward (1898-1966),  Benjamin - called “Bennie” (1901-1974) and Rose – called “Rosie.” (1907-1966).  Martha was the only one of the children born with birth defects.


Young Martha Morris

Both David Morris and Jennie Stumpf had been born in New York – he in December of 1862 and she on March 17, 1868.  David was from Russian Jewish stock; Jennie’s ancestors had been German Jews.  They were married in Manhattan on August 19, 1888.  David Morris was a tailor by trade, as was his father.  Their first two children were born in New York; the rest in Chicago, so David and Jennie must have moved to Chicago in about 1893. 


The first US Census that Martha was alive for was in 1910.  The Morris family was living at 2141 W. Crystal Street in Chicago:


2141 W. Crystal Street, Chicago

Jennie Morris indicated that she had given birth to eight children, and all eight were currently alive.  David indicated that he was a “Tailor in a Tailor Shop.”


Martha Morris 1918

I was unable to find Martha or her family in the 1920 or the 1930 US Census. Perhaps they were on tour as part of a traveling show when the census taker called – Martha had worked for several different traveling shows through the years.


According to Google there is an eight page booklet published in 1924 called Life History of Martha Morris: The Armless Wonder that may better explain Martha’s travels during the 1920s but I was not able to locate a copy.  We do know during the 1920s Martha appeared as a featured attraction at Coney Island, and was one of the featured entertainers at the traveling Freak City Show.


Martha's circus act - note the large posters of her on the back wall

This might be a good point to talk about Martha’s handicaps and how she overcame them.  As I mentioned at the start of the article, Martha Morris was born without arms and with shorter-than-normal legs, leaving her unable to walk.  I was unable to discover the specific medical diagnosis for what caused her to be born this way.  There are cases of children having severe birth defects if their mothers had taken the drug thalidomide, but thalidomide was not developed until 1954, so there is no chance that Martha’s mother Jennie could have used it. The other causes for this condition are genetic.  The American Journal of Medicine lists a condition called Phocomelia (from the Greek work for the animal the seal), which is an extremely rare congenital disorder involving malformation of the limbs.  √Čtienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the term in 1836.  There is another similar condition known as Amelia with similar results.

Martha Morris was deprived not only of her arms, but a portion of her legs as well.  Her feet appeared just below the hips, leaving her unable to walk or dress herself.  Martha got around with the aid of a wheelchair and someone to push it.


But the amazing thing about the story of Martha Morris is what she did with her life.  Many families would have immediately institutionalized a child born with these severe birth defects, or kept them at home limiting their exposure to the world and its ills, but the Morris family did exactly the opposite.   New Zealand lawyer Rod Haines puts it this way, “I was born armless, not brainless.”  While on exhibit Martha would demonstrate remarkable dexterity with her feet by writing and typing with her toes as if they were full-fledged fingers.  She could even thread a needle.  Rather than hiding her handicap, Martha Morris decided to make the most of it.



Martha’s father David Morris died on September 14, 1928 at the age of 67.  He is buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery at Gate 54, Order Brith Abraham, Row 21, Lot 421, Grave 6:



As I mentioned above, Martha Morris had been on the road since she was a teenager.  By 1930 she was a veteran performer with thousands of performances and thousands of miles under her belt.  All indications are that Martha enjoyed her life as an entertainer, but the high point of her life came in 1932 when she appeared in Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks,’ alongside another famous armless wonder, Frances O’Connor.  Martha was a huge movie fan and any night she wasn't working she was at the movies.  So when the chance came for Martha to be able to star in a real Hollywood motion picture she was thrilled.

Here are two photos of Martha Morris from 'Freaks:'






For those of you not familiar with the film, 'Freaks' is the story of a beautiful circus trapeze artist who agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.  Director Tod Browning had been part of a traveling circus in his youth, so to give 'Freaks' a shot of realism he cast many circus performers as themselves.  In addition to the circus entertainers who were in the film, Martha appeared with seasoned actors Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Roscoe Ates.


The point that Browning wanted to make, was that these people who may not look like everyone else, were, in fact, just like everyone else under the surface - some good, some not so good.  In the film, the physically deformed "freaks" are inherently trusting and honorable people, while the real monsters are two of the "normal" members of the circus who conspire to murder one of the performers to obtain his large inheritance.

All reports were that Martha loved every minute of her Hollywood film debut.

After the release of 'Freaks' Martha returned to her hometown of Chicago where she appeared at the Century of Progress Exhibition in 1933.


Martha at her typewriter


Martha Morris died on April 5, 1937 in her home at 3206 W. Ainslie in Chicago (now a parking lot). The cause of death was pneumonia caused by rheumatic fever.  She was 34 years old.  Here is her death certificate: 




Here is her obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune from April 6, 1937:

 

and here is her Death Notice:



Martha was buried at Jewish Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, Gate 105, Cong. Atereth Israel.  Here again is her tombstone:




Although she did not live a conventional life, Martha Morris packed a lot of living into her 34 years.  Rising above a serious disability that would have kept most people at home, she traveled the country showing just how much a person could accomplish, no matter what the handicap.  She was a featured entertainer all the way from Coney Island in New York to the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago.  And to top it all off, Martha Morris, movie fan extraordinaire, got to star in one of Hollywood’s cult classic films, Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks.’  Not bad for a little girl with no arms and shorter-than-normal legs.  Some might have thought that Martha was exploited by those who put her on display, but Martha, with her positive attitude, would have said instead that it gave her a chance to travel the country and show people what you could do with pluck and perseverance.  Martha Morris is an example to us all. 



Martha Morris - The Armless Wonder - May she rest in peace.