Alpha of Ohio Chapter Celebrates 170 Years

By Jacob Sandstrom

Origins matter. For the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Case Western Reserve University, time has shown that a strong foundation leads to a rich history. In the past 170 years, Alpha of Ohio has contributed to a thriving community dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom through research, dialogue, and enthusiasm for learning.

Before Ohio became the seventeenth state in 1803, its northeast region was largely owned by the Connecticut Land Company. Situated along Lake Erie, the Connecticut Western Reserve was poised to grow, providing a prime location for commerce and industry. In addition to its economic assets, the Connecticut Western Reserve was destined to be a center for scholarship.   

Western Reserve College modeled itself after its New England counterparts, first opening its doors in 1826 in Hudson, Ohio. The College in Hudson became Western Reserve University when its medical school opened in Cleveland in 1843, becoming Adelbert College when the campus relocated to Cleveland in 1882. Ten years after the move, the men’s college welcomed the College for Women, later renamed Flora Stone Mather College. The University was joined on campus by the Case School of Applied Science in 1885, which later became the Case Institute of Technology. After years of collaboration, the neighboring institutions merged in 1967 to form Case Western Reserve University, known in short as CWRU. Surrounded by the Cleveland Clinic, the world-renowned Cleveland Museum of Art, and Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, CWRU is the nucleus of the University Circle neighborhood, offering world-class opportunities for its students to grow as scholars.

Just as the foundation of CWRU is unique and interwoven with Ohio’s historical roots, the Alpha of Ohio Chapter’s background is quite remarkable. According to CWRU Archives, six Western Reserve College professors petitioned the Alpha of Connecticut Chapter at Yale for a charter in 1841. Five of the six faculty members were Yale graduates and members of Phi Beta Kappa. Ultimately, Western Reserve was granted its charter in October of 1847, making it the tenth chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and the first chapter west of the Allegheny Mountains.

The chartering was a point of inflection for the University. On one hand, the historical Connecticut-Ohio link underscored the Yale-Western Reserve connection. Had Western Reserve’s professors not maintained such close ties with the Alpha of Connecticut Chapter at Yale, the charter might never have been granted. More importantly, the chartering acknowledged Western Reserve as a formidable school with a reputation to rival its predecessors. This milestone helped solidify the University as a trusted, respected institution, setting the stage for the years to follow. 

Alpha of Ohio’s members have contributed to the development of the University and of Phi Beta Kappa nationally. After becoming President of Western Reserve University in 1890, Phi Beta Kappa member Charles Thwing expanded the University with the addition of the Schools of Dentistry, Law, Applied Social Sciences, and Graduate Studies, guiding the University with a personable attitude. President Thwing retired in 1920, later serving as President of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa from 1922 to 1928.

During the twentieth century, the chapter increased its presence at Western Reserve, creating a separate chapter for the women of Mather College. Once Case Western Reserve University officially federated, the segmented chapters coalesced into the current, unified structure of Alpha of Ohio. 

Today, the chapter honors the University’s most talented students, while also supporting the diverse research interests of students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Laura Tartakoff, Senior Instructor of Political Science and Chapter Vice President, notes that through its many programs, Alpha of Ohio fosters a vibrant academic environment. For example, “Thanks to the ΦBK Visiting Scholar Program,” the chapter welcomed Ellen T. Harris, “who captivated students and faculty by intertwining music and politics in her talk on G.F. Handel’s life.”

After more than twenty years at CWRU, Tartakoff realizes that the chapter’s story is key to understanding the past, finding meaning in the present, and making progress in the future. “ΦBK echoes the Greco-Roman philosophical and artistic legacy, a pillar of Western Civilization.” In two adjectives, Tartakoff describes Alpha of Ohio as “alive and well-aware.” 

For the members of Alpha of Ohio, love of learning is the guide of life. With hope and luck, may Alpha of Ohio continue its genuine pursuit of wisdom for years to come. 

Aerial view of Case Western Reserve University, situated in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Photo courtesy of CWRU.

This is the first article in a two-part series on the Alpha of Ohio Chapter’s 170 years of scholastic and civic excellence. The second article, on the Cleveland Association of Phi Beta Kappa’s anniversary celebration, is available here.

Jacob Sandstrom is a junior at Case Western Reserve University majoring in Political Science. Case Western Reserve University is home to the Alpha of Ohio Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.