In Pursuit of Excellence: A Brief History of the Zeta-Theta Chapter of the Phi Alpha Theta and The History Club at the University of Oklahoma, 1957-1995
By Marilyn A. Terry Hudson, Zeta-Theta Historian (1994-1995)
The story of the history organizations of the University of Oklahoma, Phi Alpha Theta and the OU History Club, begins in 1957. On March 12 of that year, Dr. Homer Knight, Chair of the History Department from Oklahoma State University (then the Oklahoma A & M), traveled to Norman to assist in the formal organization of a history group on campus. The Zeta-Theta Chapter of the National Honor Society for History, Phi Alpha Theta emerged due, in part, to the behind the scenes efforts of several students who had worked to bring the group to the Norman location. According to a letter from Jack D. Haley, 13 January 1992, Robert Eugene Smith, Rau Stephens, Thomas Shang and Haley were responsible for the chapter formation. Robert Eugene Smith served as the first president of the chapter according to the history contained in the letter.
The membership rolls for that year list seventeen names. That first organization meeting is nor recorded in any Sooner annual from 1957-1958. In the 1959 edition, however, there is a photo of the Chapter with accompanying text (page 406).
“Phi Alpha Theta recognizes academic achievement, interest in the field of history…Founded in 1921, Phi Alpha Theta strives to provide recognition for those achieving superior academic records, especially in history, and to encourage an active, scholarly interest in history…Serving as officers of the group this year were Sherman P. Carter, president; Joe C. Ray, Vice-president; Carol Whittels, secretary-treasurer; Dr. Herbert Ellison, sponsor.”
Pictured in that volume were twenty-six people (fifteen men and eleven women). In a time when gender segregation was common and apparent in many campus groups, the presence of these women shows that Phi Alpha Theta and the OU History Club exhibited equality in membership and leadership.
The first mention of the components that came to be traditional parts of the groups appear in the 1960 Sooner annual. The article there notes the annual spring banquet (March 30) with a guest speaker of S.E. Morrison of Harvard University. The Chapter was described as having bi-monthly noon meetings led by facultu (this was no doubt a predecessor to the “Brown Bag Lunches of the mid-nineties). Captured in a photo, in a “meeting with faculty sponsor”, were Marvin Burge, president; Nancy Russell, historian; Barbara Cookey, secretary; Herbert Ellison, Advisor.” The accompanying text defined the groups purpose on campus :…”to encourage high standards of scholarship among students of history, to promote an interest in historical matters, and to foster a spirit of fellowship among its members.”(page 412)
This definition, by 1966, continue to follow the academic tradition of promoting the free exchange of ideas and sponsored “speakers, forums, debates, and seminars.” (page 506). Oficcers were listed as (Mrs.) Maxine Taylor, president; Fred Roach, vice president; Lloyd Roberts, publicity chairman; Dr. Kenneth I. Daily, faculty sponsor. The photo with the entry revealed a twenty-nine people, nine of which were women, in a formal portrait. It is possible some of the people photographed may have been faculty.
Subsequent editions of the annual reveal a sporadic pattern in the chapters’ campus visibility. For many years (1958; 1961-1965; 1967-1994) there is no record of them among the organization pages of the yearbook. Chapter records indicate, however, that new members were taken in during those same years clearly indicating that Phi Alpha Theta was in existence on the Oklahoma campus.
In those formative years, the local Zeta-Theta Chapter began many traditions: the Spring Banquet, the Guest Speaker program, and the noon discussion groups. The noon discussion group were events where faculty members were invited to share with interested students and faculty their on-going areas of interest, current research, or writing projects. Originally, the presentations were limited to faculty but over time it was expanded to include qualified graduate students. This reflected the general shift in the Phi Alpha Theta national structure to highlight encouraging students of history.
Another tradition was a popular event and often included a guest speaker of some note. The Banquet was the forum for the awarding of Departmental Scholarships, Chapter recognitions and socializing. In the early 1990’s the time just prior to the banquet was given over to the initiation ritual of Phi Alpha Theta. When guest speakers were brought in they included notable names: John Franklin of the University of Chicago, Avery Craven and Alan Trachtenberg of Yale University.
Over the course of a school year students would also have opportunities related to the Regional Conference of Phi Alpha Theta, often in conjunction with the Oklahoma Association of Professional Historians. These regional meetings included a time for the presentation of papers (undergraduate, graduate and faculty). Over the years several of Phi Alpha Theta members and University of Oklahoma’s students have received letters complimenting the Department of History, the student and the Chapter on the quality of work presented by papers in these venues.
During the mid-nineties, the Chapter instituted a newsletter to better foster communication and fellowship among all history students; sponsored, with the OU History Club, a shirt logo contest preliminary to fundraising on behalf of the first Chapter scholarship. These all served to increase the amount of publicity about the Chapter and the Club on campus.
[As I concluded my office as Historian, I put together a collection of flyers, letters, newsletters, and other artifacts and left them with the OU Archives (in the Western History Collections) in 1996. There had been no files or records on the organization in the archives to that date. Somewhere I have a photo of the leadership of the chapter for 1995.]