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HISTORY by Dr. Scott Fish

1938 National President Olga Norstrom pre-sents the Pi Delta Phi charter to Chapter NU at the San Francisco College for Women in California, (then re-named Lone Mountain College in 1968 before becoming part of the University of San Francisco in 1978.

Pi Delta Phi was founded as a departmental French honor society at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1906, and was nationalized when the Beta Chapter was established at the University of Southern California in 1925. Growth of the Society was slow until America's entry into World War II; only seventeen chapters had been established by 1941. In contrast, the second collegiate French honor society, Beta Pi Theta, which was established in 1924 in Birmingham, boasted thirty-five chapters by 1935. While Beta Pi Theta was defunct by 1948, however, Pi Delta Phi continued to operate in large part, noted former National President Dr. Max Oppenheimer Jr., thanks to the nearly single-handed effort of national Secretary-Treasurer Gisele Liff who served from 1944-1951.


In October 1947 the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF) announced in the French Review a desire to found a national French honor society. The AATF called on members to forward any information on the two national French honoraries that were known to be operating prior to World War II but that were in 1947 presumed to be inactive: Pi Delta Phi which was centered primarily in the west and Beta Pi Theta which was located primarily in the south. Pi Delta Phi National President Dr. Max Oppenheimer Jr. replied in the February 1948 French Review that the AATF's assumption that two French honor societies were in operation prior to WWII was "without any foundation." Oppenheimer reported that he had received many phone calls in protest of the article and thus asked the AATF to publish a "retraction and rectification" of their statements. Oppenheimer's conclusion was, however, only partially correct. By 1948 the existence of two separate clusters of Pi Delta Phi did give some, wrote former National President Louis E. Richter, "the impression that there were two separate honoraries, one in California and the other in the Gulf states." (1) What Oppenheimer overlooked--or didn't know--was that a newer and larger French collegiate honor society, Beta Pi Theta, was also active prior to World War II. AATF was thus likely referring to Beta Pi Theta when it requested information on the two known French honor societies.


Meanwhile, in December 1947 the AATF appointed a committee to look into affiliation with any existing French honor societies before any decision would be made to found their own. The committee contacted three organizations. First, Phi Sigma Iota, the National Foreign Language Honor Society founded in 1922 at Allegheny College in Meadville Pennsylvania. Phi Simga Iota's purpose is to recognize achievement in the study or teaching of any field related to the study of foreign languages, literatures, or cultures including: any modern foreign language (including ASL), classics, linguistics, philology, comparative literature, bilingual education, second language acquisition and other interdisciplinary programs with a significant foreign language component. The committee quickly concluded, therefore, that Phi Sigma Iota's wide scope would not be a good fit with the AATF. The committee next contacted the Beta Pi Theta chapter at Winthrop College and learned that the Society no longer functionned on a national level. The Winthrop chapter, although continuing to promote high ideals, was nevertheless left orphaned. Last, the AATF committee contacted Pi Delta Phi. President Oppenheimer noted that the interest expressed by the AATF in the Society helped to secure five new chapters and that Pi Delta Phi was eager to work with the AATF. The committee made three recommendations. First, since Pi Delta Phi was already operating on a national level, and since the creation of a competing AATF collegiate French honor society that would require the full-time dedication of two or three people would not be feasible, the committee recommended that the AATF give Pi Delta Phi its official backing. Second, a recommendation was made to appoint a new committtee to meet with the national officiers of Pi Delta Phi "to discuss and settle all questions involved in the collaboration of the two organizations." (2) Finally, those questions centerered around: the Society's academic standards, financial status, and regional representation; an inquiry into the relationship between Hispania and the Sigma Delta Pi (the Hispanic National Honor Society); the appointment of a full-time Pi Delta Phi executive director, and a discussion of the type of schools that would be favorable to establishing and benefiting from a chapter of Pi Delta Phi.


Two main objectives were placed on the agenda for the 1948 National Convention of Pi Delta Phi, which was held at the San Francisco College for Women. First, Pi Delta Phi would address the questions and concerns raised by the AATF committee and in so doing would be officially endorsed by the AATF as the only collegiate French honor society. The endorsement was granted in 1949. Second, the Phi Delta Phi Executive Committee set a goal to expand the Society on a greater national basis. The expansion was made possible in large part thanks to the AATF endorsement and the publicity gained from President Louis E. Richter's publication of "Pi Delta Phi Notes" in AATF's French Review from 1950-1955.


By June of 1950, Pi Delta Phi had grown to thirty-eight chapters including chapters in Ohio, Louisiana, Minnesota and Arizona. By 1962 there were eighty-four chapters in the U.S. At the present time, Pi Delta Phi numbers more than 370 chapters established at representative public and private colleges and universities in almost every state, as well as chapters at American Universities in Paris and Aix-en-Provence. The society was admitted to membership in the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS) in 1967.

(1) Louis E. Richter, "Pi Delta Phi Notes" The French Review 24:1 (1950): 94-95.

(2) Arthur Gibbon Bovée et. al. "A French Honor Society at the College Level." The French Review 22:2 (1948): 202.

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