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History of the Founding of Omicron Nu

Maude Gilchrist*

ON Centennial

Maude GilchristFor more than one hundred years the highest award in our country for scholarly excellence in liberal arts has been the Phi Beta Kappa key. This society, founded at William and Mary College in 1776, with the motto, “Fraternity, Morality and Literature,” took its definite position as an honor group when the first social Greek letter fraternity was organized at Union College in 1825. More recently Sigma Xi, founded at Cornell University in 1886, has honored scholarly votaries of science. A charter for Tau Beta Pi for scholarship in engineering was given to Michigan Agricultural College in 1892 and one for Alpha Zeta, honoring students in agriculture, was given to this institution in 1903.

Women in home economics, that late addition to the curriculum of Land Grant or State Colleges, looked with interest and perhaps with envy on the keys worn by members of these societies as the outward and visible signs of scholastic effort and achievement. Why should not women be honored by a similar society? This question kept recurring at Michigan Agricultural College, now Michigan State College, during the early years of the twentieth century.

But another question was asked: Is not a liberal concept of education needed in these United States? Is not all education an altruistic pursuit? We study history because, as one has put it, “the wisdom of the ages is on record.” We accept the ideal of the complete life and the use of imagination because “the wisdom of the future is a hope.” We acknowledged the need of discipline, which leads to poise and character. We believe in the higher will—mystery that it is—and we emphasize the need of the religious spirit in everyday life. To these ends, also, was Omicron Nu founded. Every one admitted to its membership must have character and influence and show promise of future achievement as well as high scholastic ability. Let me repeat these requisites: scholarship, character, influence, and the promise of future achievement. Perhaps, too, the faculty founders hoped for greater zeal on the part of all undergraduates in the pursuit of knowledge and for that genuine satisfaction which comes in attaining high standards.

Informal conversations between the president of the college, teachers, students, and friends kept the idea before us. We wrote as early as 1910 to other institutions, to the Home Economics Association, to other societies, only to find that such a society as we had in mind did not exist. Phi Upsilon Omicron did indeed organize in 1909 as an honorary group, but its plans and ideals were somewhat different from ours. The two societies have cooperated on some projects of national interest, as we hope they will continue to do. We saw in imagination something of public initiation, no chapter house, no commercial enterprises, no social affairs except the initiation banquet or tea. Would we be wise to organize at Michigan State in the hope that other institutions would join later in this endeavor? Our college president, Dr. J. L. Snyder, and the faculty committee on societies early gave their support to the idea; the general faculty, when the matter was presented at a regular meeting, heartily approved the project.

Finally, in January 1912, the Home Economics Division faculty met before the open fire in the dean’s office. These were Agnes Hunt (Cade), Professor of Domestic Science; Lillian Peppard, Head of Domestic Art; Louise Freyhofer, Head of Music Department; Grace Stevens, Instructor in Domestic Science; Hazel Berg (Layer), Instructor in Domestic Art; Maude Gilchrist, Dean of Women and of the Home Economics Division. With unanimous enthusiasm they began to work out plans. Committees were named on constitution, on name, purpose, student eligibility, and on colors and pin. Professor Hunt (a member of Sigma Xi) was especially interest in the formation of the society, and her name appears on several committees in the records of 1912 and 1913. To her and her associate, Grace Stevens (a member of Phi Beta Kappa) was given the task of writing the constitution. This was based on the constitutions of the two honorary societies of which they were members. When plans were sufficiently matured and a tentative constitution prepared, all senior women were asked to meet in the old lecture room in the Women’s building. Rumors were afloat as to the reason for the meeting. But this occasion gave opportunity for the first public announcement of the formation of this honor society for women. To these senior students, who for nearly four years had pursued “the high calling of the scholar,” the aims of the new society were stated as the promotion of home economics and of scholarship among its students; and a list was read of the eleven seniors whose eligibility had been carefully worked out and had been chosen as the first members of this honor group: Vera Coffeen, Verna Allen, Fernell Allen, Alida Dearborn, Josephine Hart, Bessie G. Howe, Lillian M. Mullenbach, Helen Louise Norton, Lutie E. Robinson, Helen M. Sheldon, and Philena E. Smith. Then on April 23, 1912, the six faculty founders and the eleven founding seniors—all serious and proud charter members—met in the lecture room for the first session of Omicron Nu.

Picture, if you will, these three meetings. A small faculty group, exchanging ideas gained from their different experiences in Eastern and Midwestern colleges—Illinois Women’s College, Baldwin Wallace, Wellesley, the Universities of Illinois, Missouri, and Michigan; a larger group of interested learners rejoicing in the honors that might come to them or their fellow; the combined membership of seventeen, with the weight of responsibility resting on its collective shoulders, meeting to effect the permanent organization. Can you feel the thrill of enthusiasm as well as the sense of responsibility?

* There is no date on this manuscript, but it may have been written for the 25th anniversary (1937).

Reminiscence of Maude Gilchrist
East Lansing, MI - November 14, 1943

Agnes Hunt Cade

President Hannah, Dean Dye, Members of the Home Economics Division, Friends, and Seniors—It is, indeed, fitting that the name, the Maude Gilchrist House, be given to one or your Home Management houses. As Dean of Home Economics, Maude Gilchrist was one of the pioneers in the education of women at the beginning of the century. Miss Gross (Irma) has asked me to tell you something about her in three or four minutes.

I joined the staff after she was well established at the College (Michigan Agricultural) and there was a fairly progressive course of study available for the some two hundred women in attendance. They were housed, fed, and maintained their social activities, as well as having classroom and laboratory facilities, in the Women’s Building, now Morrill Hall. Rules and regulations were very strict. This meant long and intimate association with girls by Miss Gilchrist. She came to know them well. Her remarkable memory and her systematic mind made it possible for her to know the names of each girl, her room number, her home address, and in many cases home conditions, almost before each was well located in the building.

In this connection may I quote one sentence from Dr. Beal’s History of Michigan Agricultural College. “Co-education at Michigan Agricultural College has proved a successful venture, not withstanding the oft repeated statement of President Snyder that nothing in the College brings up more perplexing problems, and those continually, than the presence of women at the college.” May I add that President Snyder was always very friendly toward home economics.

Miss Gilchrist was a petite, well-groomed woman, with masses of brown hair coiled on top of her head—always a charming hostess to young and old alike. Her family meant much to her, and for years her delightful and witty mother lived with the Dean in the apartment just around the corner from the main entrance to the building. Her sister, Mrs. Roseboom, needs no introduction to this group.

With Miss Gilchrist’s scientific training, first at Iowa State Normal School (now University of Northern Iowa) (where her father was president), then Wellesley College, later attending lectures at Harvard University and Gottingen University (Germany), and a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, she had the approach to home economics that the pioneers of this new subject needed to lay the foundation for its future development.

Her activities were not confined to students alone, but her influence was felt throughout the state in her ability to organize women. Outstanding among these were the East Lansing Women’s Club (she served continuously on committees for the State Federation of Women’s Clubs), the East Lansing Chapter of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae (now American Association of University Women), the Michigan Home Economics Association, and last but not least our own Omicron Nu. She directed the activities of the Women’s Literary Societies, out of which Michigan State has some of the national sororities.

President Hannah, after 30 years I hope I am not betraying a confidence when I tell this incident.

In the summer of 1912, the College entertained the Graduate School of Agriculture. This School attracted many notables to our campus, among whom was Dr. C. F. Langworthy from the Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC. He was much interested in this new education for women attending the Lake Placid Conference, out of which grew the American Home Economics Association. On arriving here he found among others Mrs. Alice P. Norton, University of Chicago; Miss Ruth Wardall, Ohio State; Miss Edna White, now of Merrill Palmer fame; and Dr. Clarence Mendel of Yale. As chairman of a committee on nomenclature, Dr. Langworthy had been requested to settle, once and for all, the name of the new movement. I might explain that each institution had its pet name and was loath to relinquish it. Domestic Economy, Home Science, Household Arts, etc. Pressure was brought to bear on the Department of Agriculture by the Library of Congress. Much material was coming in under various headings—how to catalog it. John Dewey of the Dewey Decimal Classification System needed a name and a decimal as well. Both Dr. Dewey and his wife were intensely interested in this new education and had given their facilities at Lake Placid for the now famous conference. Dr. Langworthy called a conference of the people just named on a hot July afternoon. The duties of acting as hostess, seeing that the notables were fed, housed, and entertained rested heavily on Miss Gilchrist’s shoulders, but she found time as well to appear at intervals at the conference. She furnished the yardstick by which all words discussed were measured:

First: Is the word dignified?

Second: Has the word the correct meaning?

No doubt in the back of her mind lurked such ugly nomenclature as Female Seminary and Domestic Economy (the word domestic then currently meaning hired girl or servant). The debate extended far into the night with no decision. Miss Gilchrist clung tenaciously, as was her wont at times, to the term Home Economics as used at our College. On leaving the next morning Dr. Langworthy, while bidding her a gracious goodbye, whispered in her ear, “You win. Home Economics it is.” And Home Economics it is today!