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  Chapter History

The Formation Period

The Chapter’s optimism for the future - and its determined dedication to ideals of the fraternity‘s founders - is grounded in its history. Basing our foundations upon brotherhood, we stand upon a firm foundation built by three veterans of the Civil War who founded our fraternity back in 1865. “No North, No South, No East, No West” was their hopes and dreams when they gathered at the Virginia Military Institute to form the fraternity.

The young men responsible for obtaining the charter for the Zeta Beta Chapter at the University of Southern California had a similar vision.

The earliest fraternity founded at USC was Sigma Chi in 1889.  After Dr. Rufus B. von Klein Smid became president of USC in 1921, he encouraged many other fraternities to charter chapters on campus to, among other things, provide housing to students.  


Between 1921 and 1946, 17 new fraternities and 9 new sororities were founded at USC.  Immediately after World War II, from 1947 to 1948, as a result of the GI Bill, which brought many new students to campuses nationwide, seven new fraternities chartered chapters at USC.  After its chartering in 1951, ATO was the last national fraternity to colonize at USC until 1976 (Pi Kappa Phi) and 1985 (Sigma Pi).

Although the chapter received its charter on April 30, 1951, the story of its founding began several years earlier. In the spring of 1947 a young man by the name of Marv Lester enrolled at the University of Southern California. He was a transfer from the University of Oregon, where he had joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. Since there was no ATO chapter at USC, he joined the Stray Greeks, an organization for students who had belonged to fraternities at other schools but which had no chapter on the USC campus.

Marv met many new friends in this organization but soon noted that whenever two of any one national fraternity showed up, those two would dash off, form a Colony and be well on their way to installing a chapter of their fraternity on the USC campus. So, Marv was losing friends as quickly as he was making them.

Finally, Marv asked, why can’t I do that? Unfortunately another ATO never showed up so he decided to go hunt some down. The Counselor of Men, Dr. Albert F. Zech, allowed Marv to search all the men’s registration cards, which list any prior affiliation with a national fraternity. There were thousands of cards to plow through, and it took days, if not weeks. Marv ended up with several names, which he placed on 3x5 index cards

These students became the initial members of the Alpha Tau Club, the precursor of the local chapter.  Although Marv attempted to get the group organized, it never got off the ground. While there were a couple of dozen men on his list, he never was able to get more than one or two together at any one time, as many were former GIs with wives and families.

In the fall of 1947 Marv moved into Hall’s Hall, a rooming house on 28th Street, right in the middle of Fraternity and Sorority Row. Among the students he roomed with were Bob Kennedy, Lee Holcomb and George Burke. Several of his new friends had formed The Phoenix Club, made up of disenfranchised members of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity.

The members had resigned in protest over how the chapter was being managed and formed the Phoenix Club so as to “rise again from the ashes and fly again” in the greatest tradition of Greek Mythology. Other members of the Phoenix Club were Pat Hillings, later to become a U.S. Congressman and Paul Kennedy, later a president of the USC Alumni Association and a member of USC’s Board of Trustees.  All these men, including Bob Kennedy, George Burke, Jerry Jones and Herb Hynson were very active students on campus, having memberships in Trojan Knights and Squires or involved in student government.

Over the next few months several ATO transfer students got together for social events, among them Kipp O. Pritzlaff (Wisconsin ’46), Kenneth C. Younger (Nebraska ’42) and Ed Beaumont (Illinois ’41). The Alpha Tau Club struggled along, in the hope that one-day it would lead to the installation of an ATO chapter on the USC campus.

By the fall of 1948 Marv had become friends with several members of the Phoenix Club, which had a large and active membership. The Alpha Tau Club, on the other hand, was quite small and not very active. During a meeting of the Phoenix Club, held at a garage apartment on 36th Street, Marv made a pitch that the two groups join forces. He convinced the members of the Phoenix Club that although they had a strong group they had no real future ahead of them. And he assured them that the Alpha Tau Club, while small in membership at that time, had a definite future as an active chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity. The group voted to merge with the Alpha Tau Club, and the possibility of reaching Charter status was finally a real possibility. The group’s first pledges were taken during the spring semester.

Unfortunately and unbeknownst to the Alpha Tau Club members, there is a strict rule that members of a national fraternity can never join another fraternity at the time, except under some very special circumstances. The decision had been confirmed by a ruling by the ATO headquarters, and therefore Bob Kennedy, the president at the time and a former Phoenix Club member, on September 26, 1949, withdrew the names of all of the former Delta Sigma Phís on their behalf. These men were the original members of the Phoenix Club, and after much hard work and assistance in building the Alpha Tau Club, they were left with no chance of becoming a full member of the Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity. This selfless act allowed the formal chartering process of the ATO chapter at USC to move forward. 

The local alums were very much in support of allowing the Phoenix Club members into ATO and there was intense lobbying on the part of Warren Danforth, ATO Province Chief. In addition, the president of the Los Angeles Alumni Association, Judge Evelle J. Younger (Nebraska ’37), wrote an impassioned letter pleading that the national fraternity reconsider their decision not to allow the Phoenix Club members to join ATO.

His letter stated that “our voice should be heard and our opinion given serious consideration at the time the decision effecting the group at USC is made. We have approximately 800 active dues paying members in our organization. We love our Fraternity dearly. We are at the scene and we have given the problem constant and serious attention. We feel that we know better than any other ATO group, board, council, or association, official or otherwise, outside of this area what is best for our Fraternity in Southern California.” He went on, “The men of the Alpha Tau Club at USC are outstanding men - we know them, we like them, we respect them.” Alas, the efforts of the local alumni were not enough to change the minds of the national fraternity. The ex-Delta Sigs were not allowed to join the ATO fraternity no matter how deserving they were of the privilege. Although Younger’s plea was unsuccessful, it is heartening to know that the future California State Attorney General had been such a strong advocate on behalf of these young men.

By the spring of 1950 Marv Lester had graduated from USC and the responsibility of pursuing the ATO charter status fell to others. Lee Holcomb, who had replaced Bob Kennedy as president when the old Delta Sigs tendered their resignations in the fall of 1949, became the group’s new leader. He had also been involved with the Phoenix Club, however, since he was only a pledge at Delta Sigma Phi and not initiated into that fraternity he was eligible to join ATO. Over the coming months he took several steps that would help lead to the installation of the chapter in the spring of 1951.

Bob Harvey became president of the group during the fall 1951 semester and Lee Holcomb, although he had graduated in the spring, made it a point to stay involved to be certain that the dream of so many would finally become a reality.

During the fall semester Richard Moore and John Perme were among the approximate 14 young men who made up the pledge class. They knew they had a good chance of receiving their charter within the coming year, so it was an exciting time for all those involved in the organization. Both Dick Moore and John Perme would become leaders on campus and in the fraternity, eventually both serving as president of the ATO fraternity at USC.

Alpha Tau Omega at USC