Palmer’s History Published


Palmer’s History of Phi Delta Theta was published in 1906. A massive and masterful work of nearly a thousand pages and half a million words, it was the result of many years arduous labor. For all its accuracy and its minute and endless detail, the book was imbued with fraternal warmth and aspiration. “The old motto, repeated solemnly with clasped hands in the chapter room, was Greek, but its spirit was modern.” Such feeling permeates the historical record, bridging the years and the generations. In a foreword to the book venerable John Wolfe Lindley wrote: “It will cement a much closer union of our members . . . It will be a great incentive for making our brotherhood stronger.”

Back in 1879, while working on a Phi Delta Theta catalogue, Palmer had learned of historical papers in possession of several of the oldest chapters. The next year, at the Convention of 1880, the office of historian was created, with Palmer, its inevitable incumbent. This tall, slender, reserved, frail-looking man, with one live hand and the other of gloved metal, had an inner strength and an untiring drive and devotion. When he joined Phi Delta Theta, he had joined for life. He could not write a sketchy or perfunctory history. Every name, date, and place was precious to him; every step and misstep of the Fraternity was important. He gathered records, corresponded with many hundreds of men, and sifted and sorted information. Somehow with his single hand, he classified, filed, and indexed a mass of data. He copied countless documents, compiled endless figures, and began writing his narrative.

In 1884 he reported: “It will probably require three years for me to complete the work, it being my intention to publish the book in 1888—our fortieth anniversary.” That would have been a strenuous full-time task, and Palmer had other obligations. He was busy with newspaper work in Nashville until 1892; then, he became a roving agent for the United States Department of Commerce and Labor. “For many years,” he wrote, “the history has been my constant companion. The bulky manuscript (legal cap paper nearly a foot high) has traveled with me over a large portion of the United States and once accompanied me on an ocean voyage.” One night, escaping from a burning hotel, his first concern was to save the Fraternity manuscript.

In 1884 he had pushed his publication date to 1888; then it was advanced to 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of Phi Delta Theta. But his source material kept growing, and by that date, the work was only half completed. In 1899 he was settled in New York, and there he made steady headway with the history. Illness, resulting from overwork, halted his progress in 1904. But at last, in 1906, the book was published.

The History of Phi Delta Theta has four indexes—all the work of Palmer himself—an index of subjects, of chapters, of alumni clubs, and of names. The names begin with “Abbett, M.J., ’07, Indiana Delta” and end with “Baird, W.P., ’02, Ohio Beta.” Sixty-three close-written pages of names from B through Z were ruined by an accident at the press. To index those thousands of names again would require many months of work. So, the book was published with that, and only that, omission. For the briefest summary, we may take the Introductory word of C. L. Goodwin, Indiana 1883: “From the meeting in the woods, in the old foundry or in the dormitory room of the first days, we journey through these pages to the days of the gathering in the luxurious chapter house of the present, with its parlors, library and billiard room. We see the list of chapters grow from an organization in one Ohio institution in 1848 to sixty-nine active chapters and sixty alumni clubs, and its membership of six to its present roll of twelve thousand living men.” From the day of its publication, this consummate book had been “the admiration and despair” of all fraternity historians.

“No undergraduate member is equipped for fraternity work without this book. No loyal alumnus can willingly forego refreshing his memory of other days and scenes in these teeming pages. Phi Delta Theta owes much to many who have contributed to her development and strength, by word and work, much to her distinguished sons who have brought her glory in winning fame for themselves, but to none is her debt greater than to him who has given of his days and nights so lavishly to perfect her laws and rites and customs, to strengthen her chapters and her chapter roll, who besides carried on to crowning success the staggering task of writing the first history of our great brotherhood, writing it so well that it will be a century hence, as now, the admiration and despair of Greek-letter society historians.” –Hugh Thomas Miller, Indianapolis 1888 (PPGC, Scroll Editor)

—The Scroll, Volume 30, No. 2, pages 263–64