Brotherhood’s Enduring Legacy

The History of Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity at Thomas Jefferson University

“Brotherhood is an ideal better understood by example than precept!”
—Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, historian, and philosopher

The Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp) fraternity’s illustrious history at Jefferson can be traced back to chapters at both Jefferson Medical College (now Sidney Kimmel Medical College) as well as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. And although the fraternity is no longer active on either campus, its proud legacy is alive and well, thanks to the devotion of active, passionate alumni whose members have made it their mission to give back to their beloved alma mater and its current students. 

Jefferson’s first SigEp Chapter played an important role in the national fraternity’s early years. Washington & Jefferson College, a private liberal arts college in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and the site of the fraternity’s third national chapter, established a medical department in Philadelphia, which would evolve into Thomas Jefferson University. From there, Jefferson’s first SigEp chapter and the country’s seventh, originally known as the Delta Beta Chapter, was established in 1903. All of the members were medical students.  

“I’m very interested in the Chapter’s history,” says inaugural SigEp Pennsylvania Omicron Alumni Chapter president and current secretary Michael Costello ’89, a textile engineering major. “From the early days, the national office published a magazine, SigEp Journal. It was literally a collection of letters from the different chapters. Every quarter, each chapter would write a letter to the national office, and they would publish it in the Journal. What we know of Pennsylvania Delta Beta is from their letters. It’s very interesting reading from a very different time.”

The SigEp Journal’s 1907 and 1908 editions reported important news about Jefferson’s earliest Chapter. The October 1907 edition’s news on that year’s Conclave’s revision of the fraternity Ritual, a secret ceremony performed when inducting new brothers as members of the fraternity that focuses on the fraternity’s founding principles of Virtue, Diligence, and Brotherly Love, revealed that ideas submitted by brothers from Delta Beta were adopted and reflect the Ritual as it is known today. In addition, Jefferson hosted the fraternity’s third Conclave, and the first grand historian was a brother from Jefferson. The Delta Beta Chapter was renamed the Pennsylvania Beta chapter following a new naming convention first quoted in the Journal’s October 1908 issue.

However, the Beta Chapter’s soaring trajectory was short lived. In the fall of 1909, tragedy struck at Jefferson’s football rival Medico-Chirurgical, when a student died from a concussion in a game against the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. The fallout resulted in football’s ban at both Jefferson and Medico-Chi, a crushing blow to the Betas, who had three brothers on the team and celebrated the rivalry game between Jefferson and Medico-Chi as their event of the year. In addition, discussions at the sixth Conclave posited that medical schools were “out of place” in the fraternity, an insurmountable issue for Jefferson as purely a medical school. This sounded the death knell for the group, and notwithstanding the fact that it clearly played a critical part in SigEp’s early years, it was only active until 1912. 

The next chapter of Jefferson’s SigEp story continues a little more than 50 years later on the East Falls Campus of Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences. The textile industry, which had traditionally been headquartered in the North, moved south. In response to the dramatic shift in location, Northern schools dropped most of their textile courses. 

The future of fraternities on campuses like Textile began to unravel. The Phi Psi fraternity, whose Alpha Chapter resided on Textile’s campus, introduced new restrictions on membership via the national office, requiring that all members be textile majors. This was a challenge, given that at that time, the Chapter included members who majored in other courses of study, such as business administration, and these new restrictions would eliminate their membership eligibility. This policy shift sparked an idea—starting a new, separate, social fraternity on campus, and moving Phi Psi to a strictly honorary professional textile fraternity. Phi Psi’s Alpha Chapter decided to form a committee in the spring of 1962 to research possible social fraternities to colonize.

The following fall, Philip Spanninger ’65, a double major in chemistry and textile chemistry, was named its chairman. The group collected a list of 13 possible fraternities to investigate. “We looked at all kinds of fraternities that would carry on our culture, values, and ideals, and we narrowed it down to two, Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) and Sigma Phi Epsilon,” he says. “During the process, I married my wife Janet. She was very much involved and was my typist.” 

“We decided on Sigma Phi Epsilon because it had the requirements that we felt were important to us as a group,” Spanninger shares. After voting in April 1963, the committee sent a petition for colonization to SigEp National headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, in June. There was still no word on the request upon the students’ return to school in September, but on October 22, the group was elated to receive a letter notifying them that the petition had been accepted.

“This allowed us to organize ourselves,” Spanninger continues. “We put together the organization, I became president of the Colony, and we initiated a pledge class.” On November 15, 1963, the new fraternity was announced to other students and fraternities at the college.  The Inter-Fraternity Council was approached to recognize Sigma Phi Epsilon as a competitive fraternity on campus and to note Phi Psi’s move to an honorary fraternity. “My wife and I sewed together bedsheets into a banner, spray-painted the SigEp announcement, and hung it from Althouse Hall, which was the gymnasium at the time,” Spanninger recalls. “Everybody could see it, and we had a lot of cooperation from faculty members, especially the head of athletics.”

The founding slate of officers included Spanninger as president as well as vice president Joseph Burke ’65, treasurer Philip Jawski ’66, and secretary Kenneth Takvorian ’65. The fraternity’s launch was a bit rocky, and a few members dropped off. Nevertheless, just two weeks later the group was formally installed as a colony by leadership from Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national office.  

In February 1964, elections were held for new officers. The updated roster included Spanninger as president, Takvorian as vice president, Don Careatti ’66 as secretary, Walter Ruemmler ’66 as comptroller, and Roger Fetterman ’66 as recorder. The Colony petitioned to become a Chapter in April of 1964, and a 22-member pledge class was inducted that May.  

The petition was approved, the Colony became a Chapter and the Charter was signed on November 14, 1964. On that day, members of the Pennsylvania Delta (University of Pennsylvania) and Pennsylvania Epsilon (Lehigh University) initiated their new fraternity brothers in a ritualistic ceremony, and that evening the Sigma Phi Epsilon’s grand president presented the Charter of the Pennsylvania Omicron Chapter, installing Chapter officers. Omicron became the ninth SigEp Chapter in Pennsylvania and the third in Philadelphia. The installation was followed by the Sweetheart’s Ball, a celebration and fundraiser for the Heart Fund. “We held these fundraisers and community service projects because the symbol of Sigma Phi Epsilon is a heart,” shares Spanninger.

The Pennsylvania Omicron Chapter remained active for about 35 years, initiating approximately 416 brothers in that time. The final pledge class, consisting of two brothers, was initiated about 25 years ago, on October 18, 1998. Unfortunately, as the Chapter struggled to maintain the minimum number of undergraduate brothers required, it was forced to disband, returning the Charter to the national office. 

Although the fraternity is no longer active on campus, its dynamic alumni remain involved. Today, there are more than 300 living alumni of the SigEp Omicron Chapter, with an active board dedicated to partnering with Jefferson in keeping the alumni connection alive through regular communication and engagement.

For Alumni Association Chapter President Christopher Padova ’89, a business major, his time as a SigEp brother extended far beyond his years at Textile, and the caring, compassion, and camaraderie have been a constant even until today. “I have had such wonderful experience as a member and brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon,” he says. “I met a lot of wonderful people, and still keep in touch with some of them. I had the opportunity to serve on the Executive Committee as the comptroller. I was also afforded the honor of being one of two students to be part of the committee to write the very first anti-harassment policy.”

“During school, I’d gotten extremely sick, and the brothers came to my bedside to make sure I was doing okay after a major surgery,” he shares. “I’ve had Crohn’s disease for 44 years, and even to this day the core group of people I keep in touch with have been so helpful and compassionate, constantly checking in on me and my family. I’m really grateful for all the love, camaraderie, and brotherhood they have shown me throughout the years. It’s been such a long time, and they’re still there.”

Padova’s dedication to giving back was spurred by his time as a SigEp brother. He continues, “One of the main things that I learned through everything that we’ve done as a fraternity is to give to others, and I’ve tried to do that throughout my life.”

“To me, the reason the fraternity is important is lifelong friendships,” says Costello. “My memory of college is a time that I really enjoyed. The fraternity was an important part of that. My pledge class was one of the largest in SigEp history, and I was vice president my senior year. I have lots of memories of fraternity meetings and get-togethers. The rituals and things we did together as a group drove the team feeling among us. Today, all of the people I stay in contact with from college as well as two of my best friends are fraternity brothers. The idea of brotherhood is important, and has resulted in lasting friendships.”

Costello works with the rest of the alumni Chapter Board to keep alumni active, involved, and connected with their alma mater.  “We try to organize something around Homecoming and host various events throughout the year, not only in the Philadelphia area, but other states as well,” he says. “Since COVID we usually hold monthly meetings via WebEx.”

He shares, “One of the fraternity’s founding principles is brotherhood, brotherly love, and lifelong friendships. In general, most brothers involved with the alumni association have remained in contact with their fraternity brothers 30—even 40 or 50—years after they graduated. Even if you haven’t talked to someone in 20 years, if you get a phone call from somebody it’s like you talked to him yesterday.” 

The Omicron Chapter’s commitment to a legacy of brotherhood and making a difference is still going strong. Spanninger’s leadership and commitment to Jefferson came full circle almost 50 years following his championship of the founding of the Chapter when in 2014, he chaired a committee launching an endowed Sigma Phi Epsilon Scholarship Fund at Jefferson with the goal of raising $50,000 in celebration of the Chapter’s launch 50 years prior. 

Designed to benefit deserving students on the Jefferson East Falls campus who demonstrate financial need and model the SigEp philosophy of developing promising young leaders, the scholarship requires that to be considered, candidates should embody leadership and service, and be active in student organizations and activities. The Chapter’s dedicated alumni have far exceeded their initial fundraising goal, and the scholarship has already raised more than $150,000.

Christopher Padova sums up the powerful legacy of Jefferson’s Sigma Phi Epsilon Omicron Chapter: “That love and that camaraderie goes from era to era, all the way down the line.”