William Levere Collection
William C. “Billy” Levere was born in New Haven, CT on October 10, 1872. In grade school he cultivated a talent for public speaking. He won several oratory contests and toured New England where he was asked to speak on a wide variety of topics with temperance being his best subject. At the suggestion of temperance advocate Frances Willard, 14 year old Levere packed his bags and moved to Evanston, IL. Willard helped Levere gain admission to Northwestern Academy where he attended high school and later Northwestern University. Levere continued to lecture on the national temperance circuit and took odd jobs to pay for his school tuition and room and board.
Levere didn’t have much use for fraternities. In fact, he was the leader of the “barb” or anti-fraternity movement at Northwestern University. In the fall of his freshman year Sigma Alpha Epsilon established a chapter on the campus. Because of his obvious leadership potential Levere was hand-picked by SAE expansionist Harry Bunting to become a member. Bunting first recruited Levere’s roommate and best friend. He then pursued Levere directly. Levere soon became a member of the new Illinois Psi-Omega chapter where he quickly became a chapter leader.
Levere eventually left Northwestern to join the temperance lecture circuit full-time. He was increasingly interested in politics and his own literary career. He was elected Evanston magistrate while still a student at Northwestern in 1897, served as city treasurer from 1901 to 1903, and in 1906 was elected as an Illinois State Representative. Springfield did not suit Levere and he declined to run for a second term.
However, Levere also pursued his passion for writing. He was a reporter for the Chicago Evening Post, and served as editor of the Evanston Index from 1901 to 1905. He also edited the Greek Quarterly, was the founder of the College Fraternity Reference Bureau, and was editor of the SAE periodicals The Record and Phi Alpha. His literary career expanded beyond journalism and he published works on a variety of subjects including American Imperialism, poetry, two plays and several volumes on SAE history.
Levere’s love for his fraternity began to consume increasing amounts of his time. From 1902 to 1906 Levere served as Eminent Supreme Archon, the highest elected position in the Fraternity. He was elected Honorary Eminent Supreme Archon from 1909 to 1910 and also saw to financial affairs for a time as Eminent Supreme Treasurer. He held the office of Eminent Supreme Recorder, which is the executive director of the Fraternity, from 1912 until his death in 1927. He was also involved in the creation of the Interfraternity Council, now the National Interfraternity Council.
Levere attempted to enlist in the military when the US became involved in WWI in 1917. But, at age 44 and weighing almost 250 pounds, his application was rejected. Levere eventually found his niche with the YMCA. He operated a canteen in France and served the American “doughboys” in much the same way he had provided care and comfort to collegiate fraternity members across the country. His involvement with the YMCA was so significant that Katherine Mayo dedicated an entire chapter to Levere in her 1920 book on the YMCA in WWI, That Damn Y.
For years Levere’s apartments in Evanston had served as the national headquarters for SAE and when he came home from France he was more convinced than ever that SAE needed an official national headquarters building. He also wanted it to serve as a memorial for SAEs who died in the Great War. At the 1920 convention he was able to put his plan into action. The convention voted to centralize the government and offices of SAE, fund the construction of a “Central Office building,” and create a fundraising program to cover the costs.
With the centralization of the Fraternity underway, Levere began to pursue his dream of an office building. From the start, Levere’s plans included a library and museum. In 1923 SAE purchased an old home on Sheridan Road in Evanston, IL. The Fraternity finally had its office building and in the process became the first national fraternity to have a national headquarters building. But, Levere was already dreaming of the grand structure that would one day replace the existing office. Levere then declared that he would begin to collect for SAE’s Library in earnest, which as a passionate collector, he had begun developing the library years ago. By the end of 1924 he had amassed a huge library of works written by SAEs. It was reputed to be the second largest fraternity collection, behind the William Raymond Baird collection, now at the New York Public Library.
In December 1926 Levere revealed the preliminary sketches of the Memorial Building that would replace the current office. He asked a fellow SAE, architect Arthur Knox, to submit designs for the structure. The initial modest plans were revised to increase the size of the library and include a museum, memorial chapel, lecture hall, dining hall, residence space, dormitory, and office space. Levere’s new Memorial Building took its first steps to completion that same month when the national convention voted to construct the building and created a non-profit corporation to that would own the building and collect donations for construction and maintenance.
Levere’s passion for his work, unwillingness to delegate tasks, and lack of recognizing his own limits ultimately lead to his death. He passed away at the age of 54 on February 22, 1927 and was buried in Evanston’s Memorial Park Cemetery. A monument was erected by the Fraternity to mark his grave.
The Memorial Building was renamed the Levere Memorial Temple and was dedicated in December 1930. The library that Levere so diligently collected, eventually became for a time the largest collection of fraternity, sorority and collegiate life material in the world. In 2008 and 2009, due to a lack of researchers, space and funding, the non-SAE related portion of this collection, representing over 120 Greek letter organizations, was donated to 22 national Greek letter fraternities and the Student Life and Culture Archive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.