A Leader of Men: A Conversation with Carl Gladfelter

By November 14, 2014June 3rd, 2021News

Many have called Carl J. Gladfelter, Alpha-Tau 1933, Zeta Delta 1956, Iota Delta 1958, Psi Delta 1970, Eta Delta 1975, the “greatest Chi Phi who ever lived.” Gladfelter spent ten years on the Grand Council, including four as Grand Alpha. He worked professionally for Chi Phi for 17 years.

Despite the tremendous change he encountered between his first term on the Grand Council in 1947, and his retirement from Chi Phi in 1977, he remained keenly focused on four priorities: (1) expansion and bring the Chi Phi experience to new men, (2) the financial health and viability of the organization, (3) documenting and preserving the history of Chi Phi and (4) encouraging and educating young men.

As Grand Alpha, he accomplished something no other Grand Alpha had previously done. Gladfelter visited every Chapter – 34 at the time – between 1956 and 1957. He was an early advocate for establishing a leadership training school to bring Chi Phi men together. He pushed to modernize Chi Phi’s expansion program.

He went on to serve as the chief staff person for the Fraternity from 1960 to 1975. During those tumultuous years for fraternity life across the country, Gladfelter, often single-handedly, held the Fraternity together. Not only did he preserve Chi Phi, but he added 17 new chapters during that time period. He documented every step of the way as editor of The Chakett and co-author of The Chronicles of Chi Phi: 1939 – 1976.

More than virtually any other Brother, Gladfelter’s vision, tenacity, and leadership have had a positive impact on Chi Phi and thousands of young men spanning generations.

Earlier this year, Greek Life Museum Committee member, Matt Apesos, Mu 2005, had the opportunity to sit down with Gladfelter to reflect on his time with Chi Phi for the Greek Life Museum.

Apesos: You entered the University of Michigan in 1929, just months before the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Depression. What was life like on a college campus during that time?

Gladfelter: While life in the “real world” was extremely difficult, life on campus was a respite from the Depression. I lived in the Chapter House, where we shared dinner every evening. We always had a Brother that could play the piano and the rest of us would sing songs almost nightly. We hosted house parties and played cards. Women were not allowed in the house back then, so it was just us guys. It was a wonderful time really, making those memories with Brothers.

I did serve as the Chapter Delta when all the banks closed. I was holding $1,500 in checks that were no longer worth the paper they were printed on!

There were a few things that were really different from life on a campus today. There were no dormitories on campus. Everyone lived in a fraternity house or in a rooming house. Also, in spite of being only 45 miles from the automobile capital of the world, students were not allowed to have cars on campus. We couldn’t drive to visit family, a Brother, or a potential member.

Scholarships and loans didn’t exist back then. I was very fortunate my father never lost his job, and I was able to finish College. I am happy to see Chi Phi is a source of financial help for Brothers today through scholarships.

Apesos: What was your most memorable experience as a Chi Phi?

Gladfelter: The friends. That was the best part of the whole thing. The friendships I developed through Chi Phi were lifelong. I stayed in touch with those men no matter where I moved. The companionship within the group of Brothers over the years that extended beyond graduation was the best part of the Fraternity for me.

The Alumni contacts were also excellent. The Alumni returned to campus to help us, to share their ideas. They helped guide us and helped us to grow and develop into men. Alumni are so important to our Chapters.

Apesos: I think most of us remember attending our first Congress. When was your first Congress?

Gladfelter: It was in Detroit, MI in 1932. It was held at the Detroit Leland Hotel that had just been built a few years earlier. I don?t remember too much about it because I had just joined the Fraternity. I was not the Chapter?s official delegate so I was only involved in the social parts of Congress that year. It was a wonderful event.

Apesos: You joined the Grand Council in 1949, as Grand Zeta. How did you become a member of the Grand Council?

Gladfelter: I was part of a group of men that helped save the Alpha-Tau chapter house during World War II. The Chapter was almost out of existence because there were no men on campus, and we couldn’t pay for the house. This group of men helped negotiate a lease with a sorority to keep the house.

Through that involvement, then National Director, Judge Luther Rosser, Omega 1908, had heard about what we did. He shared my name with Grand Alpha J. Pollard Turman, Gamma 1934, who later asked me to serve on the Grand Council as Grand Zeta.

I enjoyed my time on the Council and continued to serve as Grand Zeta under the next Grand Alpha, Eugene T. Benham, Iota 1911. Of course that led to my election as Grand Alpha at the 1952 Congress in Cincinnati.

Apesos: After your time on the Grand Council you became the National Director of the Fraternity. That was in 1960, another tumultuous time in US history. What was it like leading Chi Phi as a staff member instead of a Council member?

Gladfelter: I still had the same objectives for Chi Phi…expansion, financial health, preserving history and educating young men.  A huge part of the National Director?s role was teaching Chapters how to become a Chi Phi Chapter. Both Judge Rosser and I made sure Chi Phi traditions and values were carried out from one Chapter to another. We didn’t use a handbook or anything, we just taught them the important Chi Phi values.

By teaching the whole Chapter about our values and Ritual, we were also teaching individuals how to live those values. We showed them what it meant to be a true gentleman, a Chi Phi man.

We made sure the Chapters had a Chapter Room where they kept their Ritual equipment. We made sure they kept that equipment in good order. I know today a Chapter Room isn’t required, but I think it’s important we keep doing Ritual. The Ritual was something that we insisted on being performed and performed correctly.

I was also responsible for visiting every Chapter every year. We didn’t have field staff during that time. This helped me understand how a Chapter was performing. I knew what areas were challenges for each Chapter and what areas were strengths.

I also kept close contact with the Dean of Men or Dean of Fraternities to help make sure that if we had problems we had a friend on campus. That also helped me form relationships at campuses where we didn’t have Chi Phi Chapters. Those relationships of course led to many of the expansions that happened during my tenure. I think those relationships might have been the most important thing I did for Chi Phi.

Apesos: As National Director, what did you do to help Chi Phi survive Vietnam and the cultural revolution of the 1960s?

Gladfelter: That was a very difficult time for Chi Phi and all fraternities. We had to remove many members for drug use. I had to physically remove men from my own chapter house for drug use. We also had to ban several Alumni from Chapters to keep out drugs.

We did lose several Chapters during that time, but we were able to save several others. The Alumni involvement was critical in the Chapters that we saved. Strong Alumni have always been the key to a strong Chi Phi and strong Chapters. Without Alumni support, Chapters can?t make it through these times of crisis.

Apesos:  Where there any Alumni who played key roles in assisting you during your time on the Grand Council or as National Director?

Gladfelter: There were Alumni from every Chapter that helped! I had a connection with two to three Alumni from every Chapter who I could call for help at any time. Those men were able to assist the Chapters when they needed help, to provide guidance to the men in the Chapters and so much more. I think that was the key to many of our successful Chapters, having those deeply involved Alumni.

Apesos: During that very difficult time for Fraternities, you still pushed for expansion of Chi Phi. Why did you think it was so important to grow the Fraternity?

Gladfelter: There is no question; during my years on the Grand Council and as National Director I stood for expansion. I felt expansion was critical to our survival. Part of it was financial; we needed more Chapters and more members to ensure we had the funding necessary to support ourselves.

We also wanted to keep up with other Fraternities. I knew we had a better product than some of these other groups, and I wanted to share that with more campuses.

When I was and undergraduate, there were a lot of colleges that we just would not consider as Chi Phi material. We were quite elitist. We only wanted to be at top tier academic institutions. I wanted to open Chapters at good schools, but I knew there were quality men attending colleges and universities that we weren’t considering.

I think we should always be working to grow Chi Phi. The college system has changed so we have to make some changes as well, but we can and should still grow the Fraternity.

Apesos: Another area that was important to you was the preservation of Chi Phi history. You helped write the 1939 – 1976 update of The Chronicles of Chi Phi. What are your thoughts on the Chi Phi Greek Life Museum?

Gladfelter: I think it?s a great initiative. The 1919 flood at Zeta Chapter cost Chi Phi a lot of archival materials. Judge Rosser actually brought the recovered items back to Atlanta. But of course back then, we didn’t have the know-how, or the money to preserve all of our history the way we do today. I think Alumni will really want to visit the Museum and other Greeks as well. I wish we had something like that years ago. It would have made writing the Chronicles much easier!

Apesos: If you could say one thing to Chi Phi men 100 years from now, what would it be?

Gladfelter: Know the Chi Phi Ritual and values. Understand the tie that binds. The Ritual and values are what defines our Fraternity and us as men. By understanding our Ritual, you can understand how to live our values. By living our values you will be a better man.

Help Honor Carl Gladfelter

Alumni have an opportunity to honor Carl Gladfelter and ensure his legacy lives on by creating the Carl J. Gladfelter Display at the Greek Life Museum. Gifts to this Display will help digitize his many papers for posterity, record his memories and showcase the efforts of one of Chi Phi’s greatest Brothers.

Every donor contributing $600 or more (just $10 per month over five years) will be recognized on a permanent plaque alongside the Display. Chi Phi will present Carl with a list of all donors contributing any amount to demonstrate the gratitude the Brotherhood has for his leadership and service.

How You Can Help

  • Share your stories, correspondence and photographs involving Carl Gladfelter by sending material to the Greek Life Museum Office 1160 Satellite Blvd. Suwanee, GA 30024.
  • Make a one-time gift or multi-month pledge to support the Carl J. Gladfelter Display online at www.chiphicampaign.com/donate or by contacting Director of Development, John Fisher at 404.231.1824 or fisher@chiphi.org.