By Bob Linnenberg ’63
From the day Withrow opened in the fall of 1919, social clubs were part of the fabric of high school life. Chapters of existing fraternities and sororities from other Cincinnati schools were quickly established by incoming members at Withrow. In the 1920s, new social clubs were established; and chapters of organizations from Hughes and Walnut Hills were added. Fashioned after college fraternities and sororities, the groups had secret rituals, initiation ceremonies and traditions that presumably would bind the members together. These clubs were not sanctioned by the Board of Education and members met out of school, often secretly. However, pins and other insignia could, and would, be worn by member students at Withrow.
The clubs remained “underground”, or unsanctioned, until November 1949, when the Board of Education accepted the social club rules that had been established after long and careful consideration. It was not without controversy that the Board decided to let the clubs exist inside the schools. Technically, high school fraternities and sororities were illegal in the state of Ohio. Cincinnati Mayor Murray Seasongood and many others vehemently opposed them as insidious, undemocratic organizations. The Board of Education, desiring to exercise control over the social clubs, determined how the clubs could be in compliance with Ohio law and went forward with their recognition.
When the social club rules were accepted by the Board in 1949, 24 percent of the girls and 19 percent of the boys at Withrow belonged to social clubs. (This percentage was far exceeded by Walnut Hills, where 72 percent of the girls and 83 percent of the boys belonged.) The takeover of school social life at Withrow was immediate. Many dances and parties held by the clubs were opened to all Withrow students. Intramural sports contests between the groups continued, but now could be reported on in Tower News. The social clubs could now be featured in the Annual, at a cost of course, as they had to pay for the spots just like any other school organization.
As part of the conditions laid down by the Board, social clubs were now overseen by faculty advisors. The club’s constitutions had to be approved and accepted by the Board, and membership in any organization could not exceed 48 students. Under the agreement, academic rules were established and members had to maintain a “C” average to be allowed to participate in club activities. If a student member failed a course in a grading period, they were suspended from the social club until the next grading period. Club schedules for social events had to be approved by the advisors, so as not to conflict with another club’s activities. If a club had an unscheduled activity, the entire club was suspended from social events for a grading period. Illegal activities such as drinking or gambling would bring a suspension. Chaperones were required at all fraternity/sorority events. The faculty advisors enforced these rules as best they could.
As a byproduct of the academic rules, social club members often maintained a higher grade point average than non-members. As with intramural sports competition, there was also stiff competition among the clubs for scholastic superiority. The clubs also played an outsized role in the life of the school. Usually social club members were the most active in extracurricular activities such as Tower News and the Annual and held most leadership positions in many organizations throughout Withrow. Indeed, in the senior girls service organization Dux Femina, 87 percent of the girls selected for membership during the “legal” period belonged to a sorority. In fact, almost 40 percent of the girls belonged to one particular sorority. Between 1950 and 1963, 72 percent of the boys in the senior service organization Sigma Gamma were fraternity members; and half of these boys were members of the one fraternity whose rules forbade smoking and drinking in high school.
One of the requirements laid down by the Board was the continuation and encouragement of charitable works by the clubs. Many social clubs raised money for charity, provided and distributed Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets for the needy and visited shut-ins and the sick. Several of the clubs had been established for this philanthropic purpose in addition to providing a social network for the members.
However, after 14 years of school supervision and guidance, a new round of studies by the Board recommended that the decision of 1949 be reversed. There was also the threat of a lawsuit challenging the support of such clubs, which the Board wished to avoid. Social clubs were to be banned effective September 1,1963. It had been determined that public funds could no longer be used “to nurture, regulate or control the formation and operation of such clubs.” Unlike in 1949, when the clubs had been flourishing, membership in social clubs had been declining for years. Those clubs remaining at Withrow in 1963 either chose to disband or go back “underground.” Membership under student and parental direction continued for about a decade, but social clubs no longer held the sway they once had.
One cannot deny that the social clubs were often discriminatory and elitist. Whether or not to join a social club was a difficult decision for many Withrow students. The rush period could be very stressful for prospective members. Until 1954, freshman rush occurred in the spring. With the opening of several junior high schools that year, sophomore rush was moved to the fall. One was not always invited to join the desired group. Indeed, singer/actress Rosemary Clooney wrote in her autobiography of the social tension of rush, and the fact that she was “blackballed” by a sorority at Withrow.
Nevertheless, social clubs helped foster strong, lasting friendships with people one might not have otherwise known in such a large school as Withrow. They provided a sense of place in the turbulent teenage years. An editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer on January 10, 1963 averred “There is much evidence that the clubs contribute in a vitally important way to the social and civic development of the young people who choose to be affiliated with them.” Whether they were good or bad in the life of high school students remains debatable to this day.
Sororities at Withrow during the “legal” years were Aliquippa, Alpha Beta Kappa, Alpha Beta Chi, Alpha Delta Gamma, Alpha Theta Alpha, Altruist (Alpha Chi Delta), Beta Omega Chi, Chi Lambda Chi, Iota Sigma Chi, Ivyettes, Kytyves, Phi Gamma Sigma, Tally Ho (Gamma Delta Alpha), Theta Omega Chi, Sigma Delta Chi and Zeta Beta Kappa.
Fraternities during this period were Beta Tau Omega, Chi Omega Sigma, Chi Sigma Chi, Delta Sigma Chi, Iota Sigma Pi, Kappa Tau Kappa, Omega Kappa, Phi Beta Gamma, Tau Sigma, Tri Chi, and Triginta Optimi. Fraternities known to exist before 1949 include Beta Omega Beta and Delta Beta.