UTEP’s Oldest Fraternity Turns 100, Stays Relevant
Last Updated on March 12, 2019 at 11:00 AM
Originally published March 12, 2019
By Daniel Perez
In 1919, the Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy, now The University of Texas at El Paso, enrolled 138 students. A handful of them decided to start a local chapter of the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) Engineering and Geology Social Fraternity, the first fraternity at the five-year-old institution.
Its members – top students classified as sophomores or above – quickly earned a reputation for their shenanigans as much as their academic acumen, civic engagement, campus involvement and active social calendar. The APO folklore includes its rigorous off-campus orientations that involved dressing in costumes to panhandle for money in downtown El Paso, and its pranks such as leaving a live alligator in a professor’s office and entering a pig in a campus beauty contest.
University historians credit the fraternity for starting many of the college’s early traditions such as TCM Day, a celebration of campus history that takes place around St. Patrick’s Day because St. Patrick is the patron saint of engineers. TCM Day activities include whitewashing the “M” on the hill located north of Sun Bowl Stadium.
APO members also earned notoriety for their imaginative Homecoming floats that occasionally infuriated college leaders. According to fraternity records, about 600 students joined that group from 1919 to 1972, when campus leaders asked the group to leave in favor of the APO Service Fraternity.
Today, the social fraternity’s legend lives on through the APO Alumni Group’s Endowment Fund. Since 1991, the organization has provided annual scholarships to three or four engineering and geological sciences undergraduates who are involved with their colleges and the campus. The College of Engineering, which took on this responsibility three years ago, will announce this year’s recipients on March 15, 2019, as part of UTEP’s TCM Day festivities.
"Since the APO fraternity was founded in 1919, its members have been instrumental in keeping the mining traditions alive at UTEP,” said Willie Quinn, a retired professional engineer who pledged with the APO in 1951 and earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering three years later. He has remained active with the group and currently is its ad hoc scribe. “The APO Fraternity Alumni Group continues to support many of those traditions. Thanks to the contributions by its members and friends, the APOs continue to show their support of UTEP through the generous monetary awards given each year to the engineering and geology students."
Terms of Endowment
For decades, peers knew APO members for their social activities, but by the 1950s, members wanted to save money for a frat house so they took on more moneymaking service functions. Sometimes pledges – dressed in bearskins, togas or women’s clothes – would parade around downtown El Paso to ask for donations. Despite their efforts, members did not put a down payment on a property.
The fraternity’s last faculty adviser, Walter Roser, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Metallurgical Engineering and a 1957 graduate of Texas Western College, now UTEP, used the group’s remaining funds to purchase eight U.S. Savings Bonds. No one was aware of the bonds’ existence until after Roser’s death in 1984.
Texas “Tex” Ward, another former APO member and 1949 electrical engineering graduate who became an attorney, used the $2,600 in bonds as seed money for the UTEP-APO Endowment Fund that today is valued at more than $206,000. Ward, who died in 1993, helped form the alumni group in 1985, which was a necessary step to create the philanthropic endowment. The fund continues to grow through donations from APOs and friends. Since its inception, the endowment has provided almost $102,500 in scholarships to 90 students.
“The endowment helps us positively reinforce the hard work done by our outstanding students who lead student professional organizations and get involved in campus activities,” said Gabby Gandara, assistant dean for Engineering Student Success.
Gandara said the endowment is a tangible example of how the fraternity continues to affect the University. He said it underscores the APO’s efforts to build school spirit, camaraderie among peers, and a sense of social responsibility. He said it pleases him to see today’s students continue many Miner traditions such as the painting of the “M” and helping fellow students through such activities as the collection of toiletries and nonperishable items for the UTEP Food Pantry.
“We look forward to celebrating TCM Day for years to come,” Gandara said. “It is a great event steeped in tradition. We thank the APOs for starting it.”
Keith Fong, a UTEP graduate who earned two bachelor’s degrees in mechanical (1988) and metallurgical (1989) engineering, was introduced to the APOs when he served as the president of the Engineering Alumni Chapter of the UTEP Alumni Association. He has participated in the group’s celebrations for years.
Fong, a continuous improvement specialist with Delphi Technologies, said he has gotten to know several APO members who are mining engineering graduates. He said many of them had to deal with the same kinds of financial and academic challenges that today’s students face. He said their successes in school followed them into their professional lives where their accomplishments contributed to UTEP’s strong reputation for engineering and science.
“The APOs speak fondly of the faculty who taught them – not just about lessons in the classroom, but also how to be professionals,” Fong said. “The relationships that they had with their faculty, with each other, and the other students is something more than transactional – pay tuition, pass the class, and then go your separate ways. The APOs valued the relationships and opportunities they received. Creating the endowment was their way to honor faculty important to them and to encourage current students in the pursuit of excellence.”
C. Coy Harrison grew up in Balmorhea, Texas, a small town about 200 miles southeast of El Paso. He earned a college scholarship from his high school and decided in 1952 to attend Texas Western College (TWC) and major in electrical engineering. The campus enrollment was about 2,400. As a sophomore, he decided to join the APO fraternity “because it felt like family.”
Now retired in Marietta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, Harrison said he fondly remembered his time on campus and with the APOs.
“I’m very proud that the APOs are still having an impact at UTEP,” said Harrison, who is among the fraternity retirees who continue to support the endowment financially. “We raised a lot of hell … but we did a lot of good things, too.”
Among those good things was the preservation of the antique mining equipment that has been part of the original Mining Heritage Park next to Quinn Hall and the new park between Old Main and Vowell Hall. The APOs helped financially, technically and assisted where possible with the installation of some pieces. The fraternity shares credit for the heritage park with current and former University leaders and the Facilities Services staff.
Miss Ima Hogg
Harrison, who spent his career working for AT&T subsidiaries around the country to include Hawaii, recalled when his fraternity brother, Lacy Pittman, asked for his help to conduct a campus prank.
On April 28, 1956, the day of the annual campus intramural swim meet and Miss TWC beauty pageant, Harrison and Pittman visited an El Paso area pig farmer to borrow a 65-pound Duroc sow. Pittman, who died in 2017, and Harrison loaded the pig into their truck. She was not happy.
“There was a lot of squealing,” Harrison said with a chuckle. The two put some women’s clothing on the sow and a noose around her neck as a collar to walk her around the college’s pool, which is where the Undergraduate Learning Center now stands. The APOs registered her as Miss Ima Hogg. The audience booed the judges’ decision to disqualify Hogg.
“The crowd appreciated (Hogg’s) beauty and personality,” Harrison said.