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Notable Speeches
 

 Origins of the Organization
and
A Special Tribute

Presented by Gerald J. Oppenheimer, Vice President
at the 50th Birthday Party of the Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa
Women's University Club, Seattle, Washington
September 28, 2004

Like many other good things, the Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa owes its existence to a few individuals who recognized a need and an opportunity and took the appropriate actions. These founding mothers and fathers deserve a brief mention.

It all began when Washington Alpha wished to participate in the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the founding of Phi Beta Kappa. On November 15, 1951, Dr. Nathaniel Engle, the chapter president, invited five Seattle Phi Betes for dinner at the UW Student Union: Will Shannon, Sylvia Vopni, Ruth Hale Gershevsky, Robert Graham, and Elmer Christie, joined by Richard Wilkie and Ellen Williston. The inevitably lengthy discussion centered on the interest that had been expressed in forming an organization to aid in raising scholarship funds. A Committee on the Graduate Association and Scholarships reaffirmed the policy of forming an Associate Group, free from the control and name of Washington Alpha.

At the instruction of the Executive Committee, a working group, appointed by President Engle, developed a letter, signed by the above named individuals and joined by Richard Newell. Let me quote briefly from this letter:

“It seems a fitting time for Seattle to take its place in the rank of major cities which have Phi Beta Kappa Graduate Associations. The undersigned met for an informal discussion of ways and means with the officers of Alpha Chapter... who have agreed to provide secretarial assistance. [T]he following thoughts emerged: 1. The idea of a Seattle Association provided that the organization is kept simple and the number of meetings to a minimum. 2. [I]ts function should be the encouragement of scholarship, particularly in the high schools...[by] awarding a scholarship to the outstanding senior in each of the nine public high schools in Seattle and by providing speakers for high schools on topics stressing the value of learning in life, career, and democracy.”

The letter concluded its substantive part by emphasizing that “the only way a democracy can survive is on a broad foundation of liberally educated citizens.”

The letter was sent to about 1,000 individuals who were requested to return the enclosed card as an expression of interest, willingness to serve as a speaker, and readiness to make a small contribution ($1 to $2 was suggested).

The June 1952 meeting of the fledgling association was attended by 25 people and was the real beginning of its organized existence. By then, 89 cards had been returned and the amount available for scholarships was $223.50. A constitution was adopted, the decision was made to seek recognition in the form of a charter issued by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, an invitation was extended to PBK members throughout the entire Puget Sound area, and it was agreed that awards would be made to high schools outside of Seattle as well, because of the recognized needs of encouragement to students of small towns.

Robert Graham, of the law firm of Bogle & Gates, was elected the Association’s first President, Richard Newell, of the Tricoach Co., became Vice-President, and Anne Holmes-Goodfellow served as Secretary-Treasurer. The Association’s charter was approved at the 1952 Triennial Meeting of the United Chapters in Lexington, KY and the constitution was formally adopted on January 22, 1953.

Soon thereafter, the Association began awarding book prizes, a practice continued until the present day. In 1968, there occurred the first approval of scholarships, as we recognize them today, although still limited to high school students. In the first year, they were to be awarded to “one boy and one girl” who gave the best answer to the question “What Contribution Can I Make in This Changing World?”

1969, when the UW tuition was $345, was the beginning of college level scholarships. Two, worth $500 each, were to be awarded, but, in the event, four at $250 each were given to Juniors and three at $500 to disadvantaged students. I believe that this sudden largesse was due to significant support from PBK members and members of the community at large. It was then that the $3,500 C.L. Egtvedt Scholarship Savings Account was established and that Mr. Henry Valle donated $5,000 for scholarship awards. Neither was a Phi Bete but had made the donation at the urgings of Stu Prestrud.

In 1972, a closely reasoned major report on scholarships was submitted to the Board, claiming that the issues under consideration were still the major functions of the Association. The Committee’s recommendations were, briefly:

  1. That three $500 scholarships be awarded to academically deserving minority students at the UW.
  2. That two $500 scholarships be awarded to foreign students.
  3. That several $100 scholarships and certificates be awarded to Junior Phi Beta Kappa scholars.
  4. That the High School Book Award program be continued.

As you will note, while specific conditions and requirements have changed, the Association has kept intact both the scholarship and book award programs, in recognition of the fact that they are the heart of its organized life. Very recently, in the year 2000, the Association even extended the direction of this activity by establishing, for the first time, a graduate study award, named after Ernie Stiefel.

And this will bring me, after a brief intermission, to the second and, I promise, last part of my remarks. But before that happens I want to mention some of the many individuals who have devoted time and energy in making this Association a going concern, reflected also in the fact that the Association succeeded in hosting the Society’s 2003 Triennial.

I can mention only a few of these outstanding members who, in the past, rendered such meritorious service — Stu Prestrud, our long-time treasurer, who was also among those who at the very beginning had signed one of the cards in 1952, Bett Houston, Jan Shapiro, Nanci Richards, and Chris Weiss. They all deserve our thanks. And my apologies to the many others I did not name.

Tonight, I want to pay particular attention to one of our luminaries — Ernie Stiefel, who joined the Board in 1965 and, in 1974, took over as treasurer from Stu, and only very recently became Assistant Treasurer. When I was asked to say a few words in honor of Ernie’s contributions to the success of the Association’s programs, an honor in itself, I asked myself that ubiquitous question “Why me?”

The only explanation I could find was that I have known Ernie probably longer than anyone else here, going on 65 years. We were born in the same city, lived in the same block of apartment houses even, although not simultaneously, and escaped persecution from there, arriving in Seattle, this earthly paradise, about the same time. Both of us were initiated into Phi Beta Kappa by Washington Alpha, I in 1946 and Ernie in 1949. And I have here a copy of the letter inviting Ernie, signed by none other than our erstwhile governor, Dixie Lee Ray. Our paths diverged, and it was Phi Beta Kappa and this Association that brought us back together, about ten years ago.

I thought initially that I should add a scientific patina to my remarks and produce a chart showing the growth of the Association’s assets during Ernie’s stewardship whose first report registered total assets of about $14,000. I gave up when I realized that the scale required for guests in the back of the room to see the figures, would have the ordinate reach to the ceiling. So you may have to make do with the mixture of fact and fiction that I am about to offer; you will decide where one leaves off and the other begins.

It isn’t simply the extraordinary length of Ernie’s tenure as Board member and Treasurer, almost 40 and 30 years, respectively, which is so remarkable. It is also the way his complex personality prompted him to conduct what he obviously regarded as his mission.

We recognize him as the fierce defender of the sacredness of the assets of the Association, as an enthusiastic promoter of the principle of supporting learning, as a gentle charmer whose persuasiveness caused us to empty our pockets of the last dime in order to insure the Association’s financial health, and as a wise counselor to keep its affairs on an even keel. All of that, I’m sure, you know, and yet there might be another aspect to his personality, the desire for artistic expression. I’m not certain whether it was real, or just in my imagination, that particularly in his later years, I frequently thought that I heard him sing, well, perhaps hum would be a better word, a catchy little tune whose refrain went something like this:

And I have managed that money so carefully
That now I am master of the treasury.

 

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