Easter Monday at N.C. State
By Hank Utley & Dr. Gary Freeze
PART TWO: THE PKA BALL
The annual baseball game was just one part of Easter Monday tradition for many students at N.C. State. One of the high points of social life on the west Raleigh campus for almost half a century was the Pi Kappa Alpha dance on Monday night. "The PKA Ball" reached across North Carolina in its appeal and popularity. As much as the game, the ball became part of a statewide celebration of the Easter season.
The PKA fraternity's role in establishing a State tradition actually started as happenstance. The Alpha Epsilon chapter of the national Phi Kappa Alpha order had been established in 1904, one of a half dozen fraternities at what was then A&M College. The dawn of a progressive period at the start of the twentieth century allowed "the college set" competing for space adn sponsors the A&M fraternities divided up the social year, and the PKAs drew "the Easter German," as it was first called.
The German, a derivative of the cotillion popular throughout the South, involved the periodic performance of "figures", where often the organizers performed in front of the guest. The concepts drew upon the European origins of the waltz, where the aristocrats "got the first dance" as a sign of respect and deference. In the case of public college campuses, where the students were generally male, in many ways the German figure was a way to "introduce my girl", a sort of reversal of the standard debutante ritual.
The first "German" was held on Easter Monday night in 1906, and the fraternity invited about fifty couples to the event. The organization were C.A. Steadman, St. Julian Springs, and John Park. Some of the first "patronesses" - a fancy term for chaperones at the time - included Mrs. D.H. Hill, Mrs. W.C. Riddick, and Mrs. James McKimmon. PKA George F. Bason of Charlotte led the second dance, with the help of D.H. Hill, Jr.
The event proved a success from the start. In 1908 Raleigh residents learned that "a large number of out of town college men will present", necessitated in part by the fact that the PKA chapter only had thirteen members that year. In addition, the five other A&M fraternities were invited. Both young women from Raleigh and sisters and girlfriends from the hometown of frat brothers filled the dance floor. C.A. Steadman, for example, at an early ball "led the dance with Miss Ernestine Nuttall of Rockingham." In the early years, "the German patterns" [were] well planned and executed" every third dance.
The PKAs quickly made the dance one of their significant activities. The chapter members were said to have "done a great deal to make the dance a success." In addition, by 1913, alumni returned to help lead the German figures.
Just as North Carolina grew and modernized after the First World War, so did the PKA Ball. The setting was moved from one of the auditoriums on campus to Raleigh's Country Club, and hundreds were invited. PKAs from other campuses within the state were invited, and the ball continued to be held "in honor of other fraternities at the college." When Frank Thompson Gymnasium was completed in 1926, the PKAs used the gym floor for the next two decades. By 1928 more than 2,000 invitations were sent out, and that number remained the size of the ball for most of the rest of its history.
The growth of the PKA Ball coincided with an increase of social activities at N.C. State College in the 1920s. A German Club on campus began to have a second dance, sometimes on Easter Monday morning, later on Tuesday nights, some years on both days. Several times that decade the Panhellenic council held a banquet on Monday nights. What went on at State had a counterpart throughout the more affluent areas of Raleigh, as more than a half dozen "clubs" formed to hold their own dances, as the entire city "celebrated the end of Lent."
The PKA Chapter itself grew in size and scope. It rented a 10-room house in the early 1920s in anticipation of building its own house on Hillsborough Street. Once the house was complete, the PKAs extended the Eastern celebration back into the holiday weekend. The brothers vacated the house each Saturday before Easter, and their dates took over the rooms. There would be a "house party" on Saturdays, and the PKAs and guests would attend Easter services together at a nearby church. After the game on Monday, there would often be a banquet somewhere like the Sir Walter Hotel downtown. In between, the brothers and their guests would decorate the gym.
The ball, however, remained "the fore of entertainment" and in the 1920s and 1930s became as anticipated and regularized as Christmas. A News and Observer writer noted that the event was "heralded fare and wide by the younger set." The steady size of the dance necessitated that just one German be performed, by four of the fraternity organizers and their dates just before the intermission. In 1929, for example, "the fraternity figure" included John Dunn of Enfield (and an unnamed date), Paul Elam and Fay Foster of Statesville, Ed Speir of Charlotte and Marion Dunn of Enfield, and Walter Clement of Enfield and Martha Galloway of Raleigh. Thompson gym looked pretty much the same each Easter. An electrically-lit symbol of the fraternity hung above the band, and garnet and gold streamers obscured the gym celling. Longleaf pines bough adored the walls, often in the frames that allowed "strollers" to take walks.
The ball survived "the stress of the times" during the Great Depression, when most clubs were dissolved. In 1931, the PKA Ball proved to be "the only survivor of the popular custom." But even the PKAs went into hiatus until better times returned, the dance being resumed in 1935, more popular than ever. The ball had such status by the 1930s that at least three governors - O. Max Gardner, J.C.B. Eringhaus, and Clyde Hoey - served as honorary chaperons. The ball also got regional attention in 1937 when WPTF radio began to broadcast the performance of the two bands engaged that year, led by Earl Mellon and Jimmy Poyner. In 1938 N.C. Davis of Elizabeth City and Frances Peppendick of Raleigh led the dance to the accompaniment of the Johnny Long Band, which was then regularly picked up by CBS Radio at the Arcadia Hotel in Philadelphia.
World War Two did as much damage to the PKA Ball as it did the State-Wake baseball classic. After the War the dance was resumed, and it enjoyed about a decade of fame and popularity that imitated the excitement of the 1920s. Photographs of the young women who did the "fraternity figure" continued to be published in the News and Observer. Like the ball game, however, widespread interest in the dance waned as times changed, and interests were channeled into other activities. The last formal PKA Ball was held in 1961.