MONMOUTH, Ill. — Sometimes history is right under our noses and we don’t learn about it until years later.
When I was a child growing up, my family lived just a block from a big Victorian house owned by a favorite aunt and uncle, so I spent countless hours there. They rented the first floor to a kind old lady whom I knew only as Mrs. Bruner. I particularly recall her playing the piano beautifully, even in her later years when she was confined to a wheelchair. Her husband had died a couple of years after they moved into the apartment, and I remember my aunt telling a story about Mrs. Bruner calling her to ask if she could come down and check on him, as she couldn’t rouse him from his chair.
Mrs. Bruner died in 1966 at age 88 and my aunt and uncle moved away from Monmouth shortly after that, so she soon faded from my memory. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when I was conducting research on Monmouth’s Alpha Xi Delta chapter, that I discovered that Mrs. Bruner had been the last living founder of that national women’s fraternity, which was founded at Galesburg’s Lombard College in 1892. Not only that, but she had served as its grand vice president and was instrumental in its elevation from a local to a national fraternity in 1902.
Alice Bartlett Bruner was born in Galesburg in 1878, the first child of Frank Sears Bartlett, a bookkeeper for the C.B.&Q. railroad. Raised in the Universalist church, she entered the preparatory department of the now defunct Lombard College — a Universalist institution — in 1892. Two years later, she matriculated into the college, graduating in 1898.
A talented musician, Alice next entered the Knox College Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano, organ and music theory for two years, then returned to Lombard, where she taught pipe organ and harmony, while also serving as organist for Galesburg’s Universalist Church. She lived at home, where she assisted her father — by then an insurance agent and realtor — in bookkeeping and also gave private piano lessons.
When Alice first entered Lombard, it had but one women’s fraternal organization, I.C. Sorosis (which later became Pi Beta Phi), and offered few social opportunities for women who were not members. In 1893, a group of six women proposed starting a new organization that would promote friendlier relations with the entire student body while actively serving the college. Since I.C. Sorosis was socially affiliated with the men’s fraternity Phi Delta Theta, a second men’s Knox fraternity — Sigma Nu — enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a new women’s fraternity.
Soon, four additional women, including Alice Bartlett, decided to join the fledgling organization, and on April 17, 1893, they all marched into chapel wearing knots of double blue ribbon and pink roses. The men of Sigma Nu led a round of applause, welcoming Alpha Xi Delta to Lombard.
The ties between Alpha Xi and the Sigma Nu continued to strengthen. Alice recalled years later that the Sigma Nu men were “very, very attentive…and one year every Alpha Xi had a Sigma Nu beau.” Co-founder Julia Maude Foster wrote “Five of the 10 (founders) married Sigma Nus. The other half of us failed.”
One who did not fail was Alice Bartlett. During her junior year, a farm boy from Monmouth named Murry Truman Bruner enrolled at Lombard and joined Sigma Nu. He and Alice soon formed a relationship, which continued to blossom even after he left Lombard in 1900 to take over his late father’s farm, then enrolled in Dr. Still’s School of Osteopathy in Des Moines, Iowa.
Meanwhile, the active members of Alpha Xi Delta sought to make it a national fraternity. During the fall and winter of 1901–02, Alice accompanied chapter member Edna Epperson on visits to Galesburg attorney James J. Welsh, a Sigma Nu alumnus from Lombard, who drafted a nationalized plan and preliminary constitution. Through their efforts, on April 17, 1902, Alpha Xi Delta became a national organization.
In April 1904, invitations were sent for Alice and Murry’s wedding, which was held at the Galesburg Universalist church. The couple headed to Des Moines, where they lived until Murry graduated from osteopathy school. They then moved to Aurora, Ill., where Murry set up a practice that would last 14 years.
The Bruners welcomed their first child, Lois, in 1906. A second daughter, Helen, was born the following year.
1918 would bring major changes to their lives.
Alice’s younger brother John had also graduated from Lombard, then studied medicine at Rush University and became a surgeon for the Chicago police ambulance department. He returned to Galesburg, where he worked as Knox County commissioner of health before moving his practice to a tiny town in Montana. At the outbreak of World War I, he joined the United States Medical Reserve then sailed to France in June 1918, where as an Army major he treated the wounded in the last German offensive on Paris. He worked tirelessly — at one point going six days without sleep — and suffered a massive nervous breakdown. He would eventually be brought home and hospitalized, but he never recovered and died at the age of 40.
Also in 1918, Murry decided to give up osteopathy and return to Monmouth, where he and his brother purchased the Hickman Insurance Agency. The Bruners bought a large house at 1133 East Broadway, where they could raise their daughters and comfortably entertain guests. After his brother left the insurance agency, Murry formed a partnership in 1928 with Ivory Quinby, which would last until Quinby’s retirement in 1953.
Both Bruner daughters would enroll at Monmouth College in the 1920s, where they joined a local sorority called Kappa Alpha Sigma, the precursor to Kappa Kappa Gamma. In 1932, their mother would be instrumental in gaining a national Alpha Xi Delta chapter for Monmouth. Because the daughters had already graduated, they were given legacy membership in the Alpha chapter of Alpha Xi. During World War II, daughter Helen and her young daughter would move with Alice and Murry while her husband was in the service.
As the youngest of the Alpha Xi founders, Alice remained active in the fraternity’s national affairs and also hosted alumnae members and initiates for tea. In later years, after she had moved into the apartment at 1102 East Broadway, members of Monmouth’s Beta Epsilon chapter would regularly pay a visit on her birthday.
Joan Rezner Gundersen ’68 remembers one of those visits:
“The apartment was small enough that we sat on chairs and the floor, despite the group being fewer than 12. She offered cookies. She was small, had totally white hair, and in fragile health, but still warmly interested in us. Mrs. Bruner struck me as a gentle, sweet person. She asked us about ourselves and talked about being the youngest of the founders. She minimized her own part in the founding but was happy to have been one of those helped spread Alpha Xi Delta to other colleges, thus making it a national. She clearly had a special place in her heart for our chapter, which had been the local sorority Phi Delta Sigma (Fidos) before affiliating with Alpha Xi.
“The following year she died. The chapter was stressed because we were the hosts for all the visiting dignitaries from Alpha Xi who came for the funeral. It is the only time I have ever wrapped black thread around my quill (fraternity badge) to cover the Greek letter Xi as a sign of mourning.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.