Seal and Serpent Society was founded at Cornell University on April 2, 1905, through the association of two groups of close friends, who called themselves the Crooks Club and the Senators. These two core groups came together through drill practice in Company D of the Cornell Army ROTC Unit. While they did not at first set out to organize a fraternity, they “soon found they had the nucleus for one and a definite place for it among organizations as they then stood on the Hill.” This ‘definite place’ reflected our founders’ love of Cornell and the fact that, while they shared common interests and camaraderie, they were all distinctly individuals who valued that individuality.
In the fall of 1905, the association began to take on a more organized form, elected officers and made plans to find shared housing for the following year. That spring, the eleven founding members took a boat trip on Cayuga Lake up to Taughannock Falls where they had a barbecue, ballgame, and celebrated the founding of the new organization. This became an annual event during the early years of the Society, and it has been commemorated in recent years with occasional canoe trips to Taughannock Park during Slope Day weekend.
In 1907, the first seniors of Seal and Serpent graduated from Cornell, and with their graduation, they created another valuable precedent: upon graduating, the ten seniors each signed notes promising $100, payable over ten years, to form the basis of a building fund. This commitment began a long tradition of alumni support for the Society and the continuation of brotherhood beyond graduation. It also provided the seed for owning our own home.
In 1908, the Society purchased and remodeled an existing house on West Avenue, but quickly determined that a home built specifically for use as a chapter house would far better suit our needs. And so the land on which our current Lodge stands, at 305 Thurston Avenue was purchased in 1913. Unfortunately, the demands of the First World War put off the construction of our new home.
The Great War
When America entered the First World War in 1917, Seal and Serpent did her part in supplying men to the fighting forces of the nation. Prior to the declaration of war by the United States, Edward I. Tinkham, ’17 had gone to France as an ambulance driver. He returned to Ithaca after about a year and organized a corps of recruits for the American Field Service. These men sailed for France and enlisted as ambulance drivers, but on their arrival changed to a unit engaged in the transportation of munitions to the front. As a result, the unit commanded by brother Edward I. Tinkham was the first to carry the American Flag into the First World War. The event was described in an official communication from the Grand Headquarters of the French Army, dated May 24, 1917:
The first American combatant corps went to the front today under Captain Edward I. Tinkham, of Cornell University. It was a proud moment when the first detachment of the American Field Service, consisting mainly of Cornell undergraduates, departed for the Aisne battlefield. They were armed with carbines, attired in khaki uniforms, and drove American five-ton motor cars. As they left the Stars and Stripes floating over the cantonment in an historic French forest spread out in the breeze, and other contingents cheered them on their way.
Captain Tinkham later transferred to the Naval Air Service as an Ensign and went to Ravenna, Italy as a pilot, where he contracted pneumonia and died on March 30, 1919. He was decorated by Italy with the Crore al Merito de Guerra and by the United States with the Navy Cross. On Spring Day, May 23, 1931 at the dedication of the Cornell War Memorial, President Herbert Hoover referred to Tinkham in an address radioed from Washington, and the following tribute was paid by a representative of the Italian government:
“Interpreting the sentiments of Italy, I reverently offer this humble tribute to the memory of Captain E.I. Tinkham, who first in the Great War carried into action the glorious American flag, and whose remains now rest in Italian soil in deal old Ravenna, where the ashes of Dante are enshrined.”
In addition to Captain Tinkham, two other Seal and Serpent brothers gave their lives in service during World War I. Joseph John Mason, ’13, a First Lieutenant of Air Service, died at Issondon on July 19, 1918, and Frank Wyckoff McCullough, ’20, a private in the headquarters Battery, 60th Regiment Coast Artillery Corps, was killed in action on October 3, 1918. All together, 65 members of Seal and Serpent served in the military forces of the United States during the World War.
While the members of Seal and Serpent were responding to the call to arms, affairs in Ithaca were not in a very prosperous condition. Most of the undergraduates were in service, and in the fall of 1918, when the college opened under the Student Army Training Corps, the house was turned over to the government along with most other fraternity houses to be used as barracks. But although times were lean, through persistence and determination the Society survived and returned to rebuild in the years following the war.
Depression & WWII
The timing of the completion of the new home on Thurston Avenue was fortunate for the Society. Less than two years later the country entered the Great Depression, and Seal and Serpent’s finances were not spared from the economic consequences. The Depression caused the mortgage on the Lodge to become a major concern, especially since $10,000 had been pledged by ten early alumni. But the home had been built, and the National Moratorium on foreclosures enabled us to hold on it through the difficult period, keeping the Society together, and allowing our members to maintain its high scholastic record and participate in athletic and extracurricular events at Cornell. Only one other local fraternity survived the Great Depression, and when that chapter joined a national in 1940, Seal and Serpent became the only local fraternity at Cornell.
Unfortunately, there was little time for the house to recover between the Depression and World War II. Some renovation of the house was accomplished in 1941, but by early 1942, it became evident that another war would pose serious challenges for the Society. In that year, the University introduced a three-term accelerated curriculum, leaving less time for brothers to be at the house. In addition, a number of brothers were called to serve overseas. Three brothers would ultimately give their lives for their country during the war: Jay Noble ’38, George Healy ’40, and Richard Collins ’40.
By June of 1943, only 19 of 46 brothers remained at the house. Once again, Seal and Serpent allowed its house to be used by the University, which helped us to weather another war and lean economic period. When the University returned the Lodge to the Society in 1946, only six active brothers remained. At the same time, however, many veterans returned to Cornell under the G.I. Bill. Since those returning recognized and appreciated the value of fraternity, membership recovered swiftly, reaching 60 active brothers in a couple of years.
In the aftermath of World War II, the Society reestablished itself as prominent fraternity on the Hill, and with alumni support additional renovations were made on the Lodge. The Korean War would again cost us the lives of two brothers, Bruce Mack ’50, and James Barry ’52. And numbers again suffered as young men went off to war. But once again, as the war ended and veterans returned for an education, the Society regained its strength.
The decades of the 60’s and 70’s were a difficult period for the Society, as for much of the country. National trends reflected on campuses in a diminishing interest in fraternity life in general, providing a challenging environment for rushing new members. Seal and Serpent was no exception, and as a local house the strain was felt acutely. On two occasions in the 60’s, the active chapter voted to affiliate with a national fraternity. But the alumni board of directors adamantly refused the motions, and stepped up to assist the active chapter themselves. The rationale was simple: Seal and Serpent had been founded upon, and enjoyed a unique relationship with Cornell University which, combined with a history of years of independence made the thought of joining a national inconceivable. The benefits of maintaining our own standards and ideals outweighed the risks of dilution and loss of independence posed by affiliating with a larger organization.
This support from the alumni carried the Society through these turbulent decades, but it did not entirely shield the house from the divisions that the nation as a whole was suffering during this period. These rifts even occurred along class lines, as evident in the fact that when Cornell students occupied the engineering library in 1973 the juniors and sophomores of the house participated, while the seniors and freshmen did not.
This two-decade period of national and internal turmoil weighed heavily on the Society. By the end of the ’79-’80 academic year, active chapter membership had dwindled into the low single digits. A successful rush year in 1980-81 was crucial, and the alumni association took it upon themselves to address the issue. The effort coincided with the 75th anniversary of Seal and Serpent, and a large banquet marked the event in the Statler Ballroom with scores of alumni and then-President Frank H.T. Rhodes in attendance. The return of so many alumni and the grandeur of the event impressed several of the boarders living in the house, and showed them an organization with a history and tradition of which they wanted to be a part. One in particular, T.J. Costello, ’85 took it upon himself to reestablish the core of a renewal of the Society. Over the next three semesters, Twenty-two new members were initiated, and the course was paved for a significant revival. A plaque in the renovated third floor of the house commemorates this effort. Towards the 1980s the society began to admit women as Associate Members, or "Little Sisters." This practice would continue for the next twenty years, with female associate members having varying degrees of involvement in the society.
From the 1980s through the 2010s the society declined in membership, unable to recover from a label of gay during a time when homosexuality was not widely accepted. The president of the society had come out around the turn of the century, marking Seal & Serpent as an outlier in terms of social progress.
The resurgence of the Society prompted the alumni association to approve and fund a major renovation campaign on the Lodge. Beginning with a complete redesign and conversion of the third-floor dormitory, and including major overhauls and improvements of the Chapter Room, bedrooms, heating system, roof, and driveway. In more recent years, the projects have continued and expanding with gutting and refinishing of several bathrooms, and a current project to improve and refurnish the house’s bedrooms. The preservation and renovation of the Lodge is evidence that the Alumni Board of Directors, entrusted with the ongoing leadership and direction of the Society, remain committed to the longevity, prosperity, and continued growth of the men who support and represent the ideals of Seal and Serpent.
Further evidence of this commitment was established in 1994. In that year, brother Andy Hospodor ’60, led an effort to encourage his fellow era-mates to return to Ithaca for Homecoming as something of an era reunion. Many of his contemporaries obliged, and returned to the Lodge, some for the first time in decades. Although Andy was unable to attend himself, due to failing health, he issued a challenge to his brothers, along with a gift of $10,000: to establish a scholarship fund dedicated to Seal and Serpent. In March of 1995, Andy passed away, and asked that in lieu of flowers, gifts be made to the scholarship fund. Today, that fund continues to grow and provide grant scholarships through Cornell’s financial aid program to brothers and prospective brothers, overseen by an alumni panel.
2005 marked the Centennial Anniversary of Seal and Serpent Society. Hundreds of brothers from around the world returned to Ithaca for Homecoming to commemorate this major milestone, and a capital campaign coordinated with the event raised substantial funds for further renovation and upkeep of the Lodge. As Seal and Serpent now embarks on its second century, the underlying theme of that celebration is clear: we are proud of our history; we are proud of our independence; and we are proud of the undergraduate brothers who continue to represent the high standard of class and leadership that Seal and Serpent has embodied at Cornell for more than 100 years.
In 2010, comedian Bob Saget visited Seal & Serpent for his show Strange Days with Bob Saget. He became an honorary member and attended various events.
The active chapter left the IFC under after tenuous debate in 2016, leaving behind frat culture to focus on becoming a positive force at Cornell University. The chapter later voted to become gender neutral and admit graduate students in 2020, Past "associate members" that could not join due to their gender were given full member status henceforth.
Since our inception in 1905, Seal and Serpent has endeavored to maintain the vision both sought and represented by its founders, who, according to an early historian, possessed a “certain individuality of ideas which led rather unconsciously to the formation of a fraternity quite distinctive among those at the University.” From the beginning, we were established as a uniquely Cornell institution, independent of national ties and free to determine our own place and direction in the context of Cornell’s own values and ideals.
As a result, we share a vision of what our alma mater refers to as “egalitarian excellence.” Cornell was at the forefront of universities in extending its educational opportunities across divides of gender, sex, race, religion, nationality and background. Similarly over the years, Seal and Serpent took the lead in welcoming brothers of differing faith or ethnicity. And as Cornell flourishes through its diversity of students and areas of study, Seal and Serpent thrives in its environment of inclusion and collective individualism.
To our founding principles we would add one more goal that was reflected in the very founding itself: “to provide a home and environment in which members can form bonds of brotherhood that will last throughout a lifetime, and make the time spent as a student at Cornell not only educational but enjoyable as well.”
As we proceed to build our second century at Cornell, we continue to pursue this mission, to become a preeminent and uniquely Cornell society, welcoming and encouraging the individuality of our brothers, fostering strength of character among our members, and building a home that is a source of fun and learning both for undergraduates and for life after Cornell.
The Seal and Serpent home is located at 305 Thurston Avenue. The earliest members of the Society purchased the land in 1913, but the building of the Lodge was delayed by the demands of the First World War. Construction finally commenced in 1926, and the Lodge was formally dedicated and presented to the Active Chapter on October 22, 1927. In the words of a brother at the time:
The new house means more to the Chapter than the increased comfort in living conditions that it makes possible; it bears a message of the Loyalty of our alumni to Seal and Serpent; it is a monument expressing their devotion to its ideals.
Today, every living brother of Seal and Serpent Society has the shared history of a home at 305 Thurston Avenue.
The Seal and Serpent Scholarship Fund was generously endowed by brother Andrew T. Hospodor ’60 in 1995. Over time, with gifts from other brothers, the Scholarship Fund has grown to over $200,000. Brothers apply for the scholarship at the end of the Spring Semester and the award is made at Homecoming each year. Recipients must have financial aid need as defined by Cornell University.
In 2003, the Society began to award a separate scholarship thoughtfully provided by brother Robert L. Strickler ’59. The same application process applies.