On November 26, 1909 eight sophomores from the College of the City Of New York appeared at a meeting to decide on a plan for class redemption. Discovering they held many ideals in common, the eight became inspired and a new Fraternity was formed. Two years later Sigma Alpha Mu began to grow and those eight men, Lester Cole (né Cohen), Hyman Jacobson, Adolph I. Fabis, Samuel Gaines (né Ginsburg), Abram N. Kerner, Jacob Kaplan, Ira N. Lind, David D. Levinson are inscribed in the Fraternity’s history. Their stories follow.
David D. Levinson, CCNY 1912, was a most visible Founder, attending the annual New York Founders Banquets and chapter installations in New York. He enjoyed particularly visiting New York area chapters to participate in the initiation Ritual which he called a “magnificent ceremony.” (Obviously the Founders themselves were not initiated.) Dave Levinson was a warm and gentle man, soft spoken, dignified, principled, intensely proud of the Fraternity. So was his wife, as are his daughters today. The 6’2″ Levinson was a varsity athlete, a powerful swimmer and captain of the CCNY water polo team; the New York Times called him a “most spectacular player.” He earned All-American honors in 1912 and in 1970 was named to the CCNY Athletic Hall of Fame.
He won the Two Mile Ocean Swim Medal and swam the Hudson River from Manhattan to New Jersey. A year after graduating in chemistry, he decided on the law and entered law school at Columbia University and twice again was named a water polo All-American, in 1915 and 1916. With the U.S. joined in World War I, he enlisted in the army and quickly rose to become a sergeant. His field artillery unit went to France where he distinguished himself in combat in the fiercest battles of that war. When his commanding officer was killed in action he was given unit command and awarded a battlefield commission. At war’s end, discharged as a lieutenant, he stayed in France for a term studying international law at the University of Bordeaux before returning home to practice law.
Abram N. Kerner, CCNY 1912, regularly attended the annual New York Founders Banquets and other events in the city. Personable and voluble, he enjoyed repartee with fellow fratres and an invitation to a New York alumni club lunch meeting was never ignored. When Founder Ira Lind died in January 1968, Abe Kerner wrote a tribute to Fra Lind in The Octagonian. In it he referred to the three survivors, and wrote, “Who will be next?….those of us remaining are all living on borrowed time…” Four months later he passed away, only a few days after he had regaled fratres at an alumni luncheon with evidence of his still brilliant wit and reminiscences of the Fraternity’s early days.
Born in 1888, Fra Kerner came to the United States with his family from his native Austria in 1900 and entered City College in 1908 to study chemistry. He then went to George Washington U. and obtained a master’s degree, as did fellow Founder Gaines. Following graduation he became a chemist with the Bureau of Standards in Washington. He later switched his field briefly to accounting but soon decided chemistry was his first love. In 1927 he began teaching chemistry at Stuyvesant High School and there he remained. In 1958 he won the American Chemical Society’s Nichols Foundation Award for “outstanding contribution to chemistry through inspirational teaching.” He had become something of a legend. Students loved him. One of them wrote this about him: “In this wonderful school called Stuyvesant, we have a chemistry teacher who fills the room with laughter….he makes jokes out of things and things out of jokes. With this asset in his possession, he turns our minds toward the study of chemistry.” When he retired, The Octagonian said of Fra Kerner, “Many of his former students who have distinguished themselves in the field of chemistry credit him with stimulating their continuing interest in chemistry.” The truth of that statement was reiterated a half century later when a former Kerner student came forward saying Kerner was a most important influence in his life. He has endowed at Stuyvesant High School a permanent annual Abram Kerner Award for excellence. More honor to his name forty years after his death.
Adolph I. Fabis, CCNY 1912, longest-lived of the eight Founders of Sigma Alpha Mu, died in his sleep February 17, 1982, at the age of 92. A major in entomology at City College, he became interested very early in horticulture and agriculture. In 1912 he went to Cornell for graduate work and affiliated there with the then-new Beta chapter. He joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an entomologist, was first sent to the Florida everglades and, in 1917, to Brownwood, Texas. He served in the army in World War I. He took a liking to Texas and bought 144 acres of land near Brownwood in 1920.
When the USDA wanted to transfer him in 1922, he decided to stay and so resigned his post. He became a pecan farmer of repute in the area, and he was inordinately proud of the results of his labors. He once wrote, “I would not trade my farm for all of Manhattan Island.” In Brownwood he was a familiar figure and a prominent citizen, and he rarely ventured away. He said, “My presence here seems appreciated by man and beast and trees and plants.” In 1959 he traveled to New York for the Fraternity’s golden jubilee convention, where he appeared only briefly. In 1976, a tornado devastated Fabis Farm, destroyed the house, and nearly killed Fra Fabis. He donated the farm to the city of Brownwood to be used as a public park. He remained on the place the rest of his life. Today, the farm is called Fabis Primitive Park, where Fabis Park Lake welcomes visitors, especially for fishing and boating, and where the large Fabis pecan orchard is still intact. The park is located two miles outside Brownwood.
Lester Cole (né Cohen), CCNY 1912, was a well known student at City College in 1909; he was marshal of the sophomore class (the class of 1912). He was leaderlike and colorful; he was called The Chief. The sophomores had taken the freshmen officers to Long Island and the frosh simply took off. Cole held a meeting of class leaders there on North Beach and invited twelve to a meeting on November 26, 1909 to discuss class matters. Eight of them showed up. They decided instead to form a new fraternity and call it Cosmic Fraternal Order, to be called “Kappa Phi Omega.” Fascinated by the Orient, Cole proposed the use of Hindu letters for the motto, which passed, and he was delegated to ascertain the proper Hindu equivalents. The name, however, was compromised causing a name change a few days later. That is when “Sigma Alpha Mu” and the motto were chosen. But a vestige of Cole’s oriental leanings remains in the ΣΑΜ archives, for he was in charge of official papers in the very earliest days and Fraternity documents were executed by him by hand. Of those, several pledge forms survive.
They include three symbols ostensibly of Hindu origin placed on a black octagon, which have been examined by Sanskrit scholars. As an upperclassman, Cole must have cut quite a figure. His campus activity grew; he was a Delegate, Class Vice President, served on important student committees and was elected to the Engineering Society and the Chemical Society. He was a scholar, as were all the Founders. Remaining in New York for a time, Fra Cole moved to San Francisco whence he reportedly went to the Orient and spent the latter part of his life in China.
Founder Hyman I. Jacobson was an early driving force in ΣΑΜ. David Levinson said of that first meeting, “We simply talked it over and proposed to call it a club. But Hyman Jacobson—clever man, brilliant student—said ‘no, we’re going to call it a fraternity.” Jacobson’s leadership that day bespoke his zeal to make the new effort succeed, almost as if he knew he had little time. His interests at CCNY were many. He excelled in mathematics, in which he won honors, but was involved in seven major activities including class poet and vice president. According to tradition he got himself temporarily suspended “for hanging the class numerals on the steeple and locking the door of the bell tower preventing the janitor from removing them.” Shortly after graduation, he took an accounting course at Pace College, became a CPA, wrote for an accounting journal, and was a part-time instructor at Pace until his death. He was a scholar all his days. But his first love was Sigma Alpha Mu. His widow (who was a sister of a frater) once wrote, “next to his family and home, the fraternity comprised his entire existence.”
Hij, as he was called, became the first Supreme Recorder in 1912. As with all things, he took it seriously. He published the first Sigma Alpha Mu directory. He founded and edited The Octagonian and used it assiduously to prod the growing body of fratres to help the Fraternity to grow and to prosper and thrive, to pay dues, attend fraternity functions and installations, to suggest Sigma Alpha Mu to college-bound younger brothers, sons, nephews and friends, to propose and develop new chapters and get them populated with the best men and to send news for The Octagonian. He wrote to fratres constantly (postcards were then a penny). His son Fra Dr. Jerry Jacobson, NYU ‘47, who was only seven when his father died, said one of his vivid memories was accompanying his dad to his office to do Fraternity work. Hyman was the first Sigma Alpha Mu executive (without pay) and his accounting office was the first Fraternity Headquarters. Of those early days, he wrote, “I have coaxed, I have cajoled, I have bullied, I have begged, I have threatened, I have dunned—and I have paid the bills.” He was Supreme Exchequer for six years, and the seventh Supreme Prior. His fire burned brightly, but then he passed away before his 40th birthday. In the entire fraternity world, few if any have had more influence on their fraternity’s earliest development than Hyman I. Jacobson. And the first to show appreciation were his fellow Founders. The Fraternity’s first undergraduate award—given annually to the top senior scholar—was established in Fra Jacobson’s memory.
Founder Jacob Kaplan was a native New Yorker whose parents had emigrated from Russia. (He was born in 1891 on the Lower East Side, on Essex Street in a building that is still in use.) When the eight first met in 1909, Kaplan was one of those looking to the future —as did Hyman Jacobson—and seeing in this first effort something that would grow and attract many more. These were exceptional young men, visionaries.
With the advent of Beta chapter less than 2 years later, it was Fra Kaplan who saw the immediate need for a broader scope of organization because ΣΑΜ was no longer a local fraternity. He became chairman of the original Blue Book committee, a fitting assignment because he had had his eye on expansion from the beginning. He was a Consul, then Supreme Recorder after World War I when growth necessitated revision of codes and laws. Later he helped conceive the first Life Membership Plan. Jack Kaplan has been described as warm, convivial, kind and witty and bright, cultured and well-read.
Yet, like his fellow Founders, he didn’t take himself too seriously. When he spoke at the annual New York Founders Banquet—which he never missed—he maintained a light touch. He was learned in the law. For 40 years after his graduation from New York Law School until his death in 1957 he was a practitioner of the law in Manhattan. He was president of the Independent Justice Lodge, a lawyers’ group, and was active in New York City legal circles.
The influence of Founder Ira N. Lind on the Fraternity’s founding and beyond was considerable and lasting. Speaking once about the earliest ΣΑΜ activity, he remarked that if it was in writing it was probably his. He wrote the Creed, which exists today virtually untouched. He was the author of the Blue Book; even with all the many amendments, the sense of it today is much the same. It was Lind who early called ΣΑΜ a “family of brothers” and promoted that concept by providing in the Blue Book the option for transferees to belong to the chapter at their second school, a salutary and symbolic provision. An obvious leader, he succeeded Sam Gaines and so became the second Supreme Prior of the Fraternity.
After graduating from CCNY, Lind went to Fordham University to obtain his law degree. He practiced before going into manufacturing. When he sold his business he stayed as a consultant for the new owners. He died there at his desk at the plant in Long Island. He was 77. He married late in life and had no children. He stayed in touch with his fellow Founders as well as fratres from other chapters. A perennial attendee at the old annual New York Founders Banquet, he chose such an occasion to announce a gift of $8,000 to the ΣΑΜ Foundation. When he died, his will provided another $8,000. That was the Foundation’s first bequest and our planned giving vehicle is thus named The Ira Lind Society. The yield from his gift has helped scores of needy student fratres interested in business, as he had specified.
Samuel Gaines (né Ginsburg) was a man of character and intellect, bright but unassuming. When he spoke at the ΣΑΜ fiftieth anniversary convention in New York he talked about education, about which all the Founders were passionate. He urged younger fratres never to cease learning and he quoted Newton D. Baker, who said: “the man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.” A scholar all his life, his curiosity was unending. He excelled in chemistry at CCNY where he won the coveted Chemistry Medal in 1912.
A scholar among scholars, he was one of the seven Founders who earned graduate degrees. That is an amazing fact, especially in the early 20th century when high school grads were considered “educated.” When Sam Gaines graduated he went to Washington, D.C. where he worked first for the U.S. Bureau of Standards, then for the Bureau of Chemistry while earning his Master of Science degree in chemistry, which he received in 1914 from George Washington U. Following the four years in Washington, he became a chemist and manager for a New Jersey firm which merged with National Starch and Chemical. There he was chief chemist and director of research and he perfected new production techniques.
In 1941 he became west coast supervisor in San Francisco. There he remained, having really had one employer all of his professional life; when he retired he was accorded the honorary title of “Chief Chemist Emeritus.” The company is still in business. Moving to the west coast hardly dimmed Sam’s ΣΑΜ involvement. In 1945 he helped reorganize Sigma Sigma chapter in Berkeley, in 1948 he was much in evidence at the Los Angeles Convention, in 1956 he was honorary chairman of the San Francisco Convention. In 1959 he spoke for the Founders at the 50th Anniversary Convention in New York. He passed away in 1960 at the age of 70. Sam took seriously Ira Lind’s early reference to ΣΑΜ as a “family”; in 1916 he married the sister of a frater, and their youngest daughter later married a frater. When Gaines spoke in New York in 1959, he closed his remarks by saying simply, “Long live Sigma Alpha Mu.” So be it.