Look up the word sorority in most dictionaries and the common definition refers to a social Greek-letter organization of female college or university students. Many members, called sisters, remain connected as alumna after graduation, or continue individual friendships with sisters, but more often than not, time, distance and life circumstances sever the ties of collegiate affiliation.
Beta Sigma Phi is an international Greek-letter sorority of a different sort. Chapters are community-based and a young woman who joins is likely to remain an active member until her senior citizen years. The group’s motto is “Life, Learning, Friendship.” Beta, sigma and phi are the first letters of the Greek words for that hallmark.
“I love Beta Sigma Phi,” said Ginny McCormick, who lives on the Sandy Springs/Brookhaven border. Now 81, she joined the sorority as a young bride in Texas in 1951. Her late husband was in the U.S. Air Force at the time, and another military wife invited her to a meeting. When her husband was transferred to different Air Force bases, McCormick connected with existing Beta Sigma Phi chapters, or started new ones, in Okinawa, Florida and Georgia. In 1964, they settled in metro Atlanta, where McCormick has served in all her chapter’s leadership roles and has been instrumental in forming many new chapters.
Beta Sigma Phi activities center on social and cultural events and community service. The bonds of friendship are strong, with sisters providing support to each other in happy and difficult times.
Dr. William Doverspike, a psychologist who lives and works in Dunwoody, said, “Social networks may literally be a life or death matter. Psychological research in areas such as major depressive disorder, coronary artery disease and even osteoporotic fractures suggest a reduced prospective mortality risk among older women with increased social networks. In other words, if a woman wants a longer life, and a better quality of life, then she needs to stay connected.”
McCormick’s chapter, Xi Alpha Nu, regularly volunteers with the Lions Club, sorting and cleaning eyeglasses for shipment to Third World countries; and providing clothing for a Fulton County foster care program, among other projects.
“You get the feeling of doing so many good things for people who don’t have things,” McCormick said.
A recent chapter fundraiser to support community service projects doubled as a social event. Lois Stephens of Brookhaven, a member since 1976, learned that the producers of the syndicated TV game show “Family Feud” were making charitable donations to eligible organizations that brought at least 10 people to a taping at the Atlanta Civic Center in September. Some 20 chapter members and guests attended, earning a donation for each Alpha Xi Nu attendee.
Stephens said she joined the sorority to meet new friends. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have so many caring friends and to have so many people to depend on,” she said. “I’ve made lasting friends.”
So has Melba Gay, a 33-year member of Xi Alpha Nu. “Our sisters are the first ones we think about; we are a real close-knit group,” said Gay, who lives on the Sandy Springs/Dunwoody border.
Beta Sigma Phi was launched in Abilene, Kan., in 1931 during the Great Depression by the late Walter W. Ross, a traveling reference book salesman. At that time, organizations like the PTA were more likely than individuals to have the means to buy books, according to Laura Ross Wingfield, president of the international Beta Sigma Phi executive council and the founder’s granddaughter.
“[My grandfather] saw a desire and a need for furtherance of education among most of the women he met but they couldn’t afford it at that time,” Wingfield told The Crier.
Ross decided to start a book-reading club, which doubled as an inexpensive social club to offer friendship and support to women in difficult times. Clubs were started wherever he traveled. A formal Greek-letter sorority was formed as a not-for-profit organization, and Ross started a for-profit management consulting services company “so the sorority wouldn’t have to deal with financials,” Wingfield said. Beta Sigma Phi, with a current international membership of 155,000 women, is still managed by Walter W. Ross and Company in Kansas City, Mo. The sorority provides medical research and charitable grants, supports breast cancer research, maintains a disaster relief fund for members, and funds scholarships for members and their children and grandchildren, among other service activities.
Even in the age of technology, Beta Sigma Phi has maintained strength in numbers. “Facebook is nice but it can’t give you a hug,” Wingfield said. “Most women want a flesh-and-blood support group.”
She added that women are turning to Beta Sigma Phi in the current down economy for support just as the first members did during the Depression.
Dunwoody resident Joan Woods joined the Xi Alpha Nu chapter 11 years ago when she and her late husband relocated from Chicago to be near their daughter, who encouraged Woods to join to meet new friends. “The members reached out to me,” said Woods. “They do so many wonderful things.”
She encourages younger women to join Beta Sigma Phi, which has about 45 chapters in metro Atlanta and five in North Georgia.
“If [only] they knew about the outreach and camaraderie,” Woods said. “There must be women out there who [are new to Atlanta and] don’t know anyone.”
For information about Beta Sigma Phi sorority and to find a chapter near you, visit www.betasigmaphi.org or call (816) 444-6800.