It’s true the founding of Phi Tau did happen on March 17th, 1906. And it’s true that the dorm rooms were inhospitably cold.
But there’s much more to it than that.
William H. Shideler had been visiting his family in nearby Hamilton, OH, during spring break of 1906. He went back to campus a day early to hang out with his friend Dwight I. Douglass, a senior who didn’t want to make the trip home to Illinois. They wanted to talk about the idea for a non-fraternity association, one they had been trying to organize with two sophomore friends, Taylor A. Borradaile and Clinton D. Boyd. They went wandering off to the Old Main Building, which was only a few yards away from the North Dorm rooms.
The only room they could find unlocked in Old Main was the office of Dean Hepburn. “This was unlocked, so we entered and took possession,” Douglass said about the occasion. Douglass took a seat at the dean’s office chair and, while digging through the desk for a bit of scrap paper, uncovered a case of cigars. Douglass helped himself to one, lit it, kicked his legs up on the desk, and said to Shideler, “Well, Doc, let’s see what you have.” As they were in the midst of discussing their plans, cigar smoke pouring out under the door, Dean Hepburn walked back in.
“He really could have made an issue of the affair, but he was a good old sport in addition to being a fine gentleman of the old school and at almost the age of eighty he still had an understanding an an appreciation of student’s problems,” Shideler recounted.
Dean Hepburn listened to Shideler and Douglass and, after hearing about their predicament, gave him his blessing. “Well boys,” Shideler recalls him having said, “I wish you all the success in the world!”
The events that led up to this break in had been cumulating for some time. In the late 1800s, three other fraternities dominated Miami’s athletic teams, politics, and social life. By March 1905, the atmosphere was so toxic it was nearly impossible to participate in anything without admittance to one of the groups. March 5th of that year was the annual track meet, one that would become a catalyst for Phi Tau’s founding. Shideler and Douglass, coaches of the unaffiliated track team, were pushed out of any placing by other fraternities who had teamed up to dominate the competition. The fraternities that had collaborated to win took home the trials, the semi-finals, and the finals, and “nosed out” all the non-fraternity men.
The track meet was actually not the first imputes towards organizing a non-fraternity group. In fall of 1905 Boyd and Shideler had organized two political groups on campus to give non-fraternity students a voice in the fall elections. Douglass and Borradaile lead the other.
This led to moderate success - they were able to elect Ernest B. Southwick (a fraternity man but not part of the key “ring” on campus) as president and Boyd as vice president of the sophomore class. The second “test” against the fraternity men was the annual track meet again, where after bitter competition Boyd was able to win a gold medal - justice for the previous year’s bitter loss.
Borradaile actually cites the the on-campus politics as the root cause for creating Phi Tau, rather than the track meet. He recalled Miami’s president as having called a meeting to work out the differences between the fraternity and non-fraternity men on campus. But when Borradaile and Douglass attended as representatives, they were told that without an organization behind them, they really did not represent anyone.
Regardless of which drew more action from these young men, on March 17th, 1906, twenty one men climbed the steps of Old Main Building. Douglass made introductory remarks, then Clinton, Boyd, and Borradaile spoke to the assembly about the need for a permanent, non-fraternity organization to represent their needs on campus. They settled on the name “Non-Fraternity Association,” Douglass agreed to craft a constitution, and Borradaile was elected president for the upcoming year - and the rest is history.
All of this information comes from Charles T. Ball’s, Miami ’82, book Old Main New Century. If you are interested in reading this book please contact Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.