William Elbert Lowry
Kenyon Class of 1956
Major: History
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Bill Lowry 1955

Pre-Kenyon Life
Coming from the Southside of Chicago, IL, William (Bill) Lowry had no idea that he would one day attend Kenyon College, and spark one of the greatest controversies in the history of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. Born on February 16, 1935, William E. Lowry Jr. spent the first years of his life moving with his family around the Southside. The Lowry family moved several times in search of a more spacious home. Chicago in the 1930's was residentially segregated, which limited the housing options available for blacks. Because of this, blacks from all walks of life, both professionals and non-professionals, lived in the same area. The Lowry's eventually settled in a working class black neighborhood. His parents, who were both postal workers, worked very hard to provide for Bill and his younger brother, Jimmy. Along with a strong work ethic, the Lowry's also instilled the value of education in their sons.

Bill received public schooling from Kindergarten until high school. It was at this time that his math teacher encouraged Bill to pursue an educational opportunity at the University of Chicago. After testing well on public standardized tests, Bill was given the opportunity to take part in an experimental "Lab School" at the University of Chicago for his high school freshman and sophomore years. This curriculum would focus largely on college preparatory materials.

In his earlier school days he had been one of the top students, "a big fish in a small pond." Now, however, he questioned his own academic ability. While his classmates entered and greeted the teacher in the French language, Bill had never spoken a word of French in his life. These feelings of dejection and inadequacy that he experienced that day would stay with him throughout his entire first year at the University of Chicago. "I decided to clam up and employed the adage, 'It is better to remain silent and be thought fool, than to open ones mouth and remove all doubt'." The turning point came for Bill towards the end of his freshman year when he received an "A" on a social studies paper. This validation gave him confidence and showed him that he was capable of doing the work. From that point on, Bill began to perform much better in his schoolwork. Lowry then went on to attend Francis Parker High School, a private school in Chicago, for his Junior and Senior years where he performed well both in the classroom and on the field. As an athlete, Lowry played basketball, baseball and football. The connections that he made at Francis Parker, and specifically on the athletic teams, are ultimately what led Bill to Kenyon College.
Early Kenyon Life
Lowry's introduction to Kenyon came via three of his former teammates at Francis Parker High School. These three students each went on to attend Kenyon following their graduation from high school. When the students learned that a Kenyon admissions officer was planning to visit Francis Parker, the students insisted that he meet with and attempt to recruit Lowry. Lowry, now a high school senior, had been encouraged by family and friends to attend college. Although they prompted him to look at Historically Black Colleges, Bill decided that he wanted to attend a predominately white college. He felt that whites were the ones in positions of power. This was so because they "knew the rules of the game." Lowry felt that he would have to attend a predominately white institution in order to "learn the rules of the game" and make the necessary connections to further his opportunities, which he might not necessarily acquire at a Historically Black College. Along with a host of other schools, Lowry applied to Kenyon.
He was accepted, but had yet to make his decision. This was when he was invited to see Kenyon at what was called a "sub-freshman weekend." Lowry attended. After living in the city all his life, Lowry stated that he was blown away when he set foot on the campus. The greenery and openness of the campus resonated with him and, after a weekend of merriment with his former teammates, Lowry decided to come to Kenyon.
Organizations and Sports
Lowry playing basketball 1956
When he first arrived at the College, Lowry learned that all three of his former teammates from Francis Parker had all failed out of Kenyon. Apparently, they had a little too much fun during their first years. At discovering this, he planned to focus exclusively on his schoolwork until he had fully acclimated himself. Within the first week however, Bill was called to see the dean of students who encouraged him to play football. The dean told Lowry that studies showed that students on athletic teams performed better because they learned effective time management skills, still Lowry intended not to play. Curiosity eventually got the better of Bill and he decided to go watch one of the football team's practices.

Kenyon Football Team 1953

Rhodes #75 and Lowry #44, were among the first black students to attend Kenyon College. Both played on the varsity football team.

Lowry recalls, "Of course the coach saw this black guy walking onto the field, he came up to me and said 'Hey, aren't you Bill Lowry?'"By the end of the week, Lowry was a member of the football team. Lowry would also go on to play both basketball and baseball for Kenyon, lettering in each.

Lowry with the 1952-53 baseball team

Race Related Incidents/Fraternities
Over the years, Lowry found his teammates to be very accepting. Commenting on his Kenyon experience, he simply states: "It worked for me, for a lot of others, it didn't." He found a lot of support via his teams and comments that he found more prejudice in Mount Vernon that at Kenyon itself. So much support that his teammates (mostly members of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity) extended him a social membership which he accepted.

During his senior year, the Kenyon Beta Chapter decided to extend him full membership at the objection of the National Chapter, who opposed blacks joining the fraternity. The Kenyon chapter worked hard to make it a reality and fought on Lowry's behalf against the National Chapter. Lowry, meanwhile, was indifferent to the entire affair. "I already had a social membership in the group, and didn't have to pay fraternity dues, so as far as I was concerned, I was having my cake and eating it too. It didn't matter to me whether or not I had a fraternity pin."

Even up until the night that he was initiated into the Fraternity, the National chapter opposed Lowry's initiation and sent representatives to Kenyon to stop the ceremony. Undeterred, William Lowry joined Beta Theta Pi Fraternity that night, and became the first Black member of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity. This incident is referred to as "The Kenyon Affair" in Beta lore, and sparked a series of revisions within many fraternities regarding their acceptance of black members.
Lowry credits his experiences at the University of Chicago and at Francis Parker for his relatively smooth adjustment into Kenyon academics, and his membership on sports teams for his social acceptance. He feels that the acclimation issues that he experienced in high school is what some blacks underwent when they first entered Kenyon.

After leaving Kenyon, Lowry would have several careers, including a brief stint as a player on a Major League Baseball team. He then went on to work at Inland Steel Company in their Public Relations department. Today, he is Vice President for Personnel at the Mac Arthur Foundation and also serves on the Kenyon College Board of Trustees.

Lowry pictured with other senior football players in 1956

left to right: Ulysses Hammond, Barbara Lee Johnson, Johnnie Johnson, Eugene Peterson, Ruben Pope seated: William Lowry, 1999

Black Students @ Kenyon in the 1950s



Kenyon in the 1950s