By Cara Bargiacchi, DePauw
My summer as the Catherine Schroeder Graf Heritage Museum Intern for Kappa Kappa Gamma originally started as a mystery. When someone would ask me what my job would be, I honestly couldn’t tell them. It wasn’t until I met with Kylie Towers Smith, Simpson, Archivist/Museums Director, that I learned what my role would entail. Not only would I give museums tours, polish silver and discover the history behind our organization, but I’d have the opportunity to choose my own project. I was overwhelmed at first. After all, Kappa has been around for nearly 145 years; how was I going to choose just one project?
Destiny of sorts decided my project for me. One day while searching through Kappa’s online archives, Kappapedia, I happened upon an entry about Jean Nelson Penfield, Kappa’s eighth Grand President. When I read that she too had gone to DePauw, I knew that I had to find out more about her.
It was a process that would involve almost 30 different Archives and Historical Societies, a trip to the DePauw University Archives and hours looking through old newspapers, books and documents. In the end, the story of Jean Nelson Penfield came to life.
Born to a very wealthy family in Greencastle, Indiana, Jean received a superior education compared to many of women of the time. During college, she won the Inter-State Oratorical Competition, the first female to ever win this competition. She also received the only perfect scores in the history of the competition. As a member of Iota Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma at DePauw, she attended the first meeting of what would eventually become the National Panhellenic Conference.
After DePauw, Jean ventured to New York City where she attended the Metropolitan Conservatory of Music and founded the Musical Aid Guild, a scholarship program to help those who were less fortunate attend the school. While in New York she met her future husband, Judge William Warner Penfield, and they began their life together in 1897. They had two children; however, both died as infants. As a way to help her cope with the loss of her children, her Kappa sisters convinced her to accept the nomination for Grand President of the Fraternity, a role in which she excelled. During her presidency, Jean focused on careful expansion of chapters, alumnae involvement, civic and social issues, and creating better university-owned housing for women.
Jean stayed involved in Kappa for the remainder of her life, earning an Alumnae Achievement Award in 1950. In 1946, she was one of the first ten Kappas to receive a 50-year pin. It was Jean who presented Kappa with Iota friend Minnie Royse Walker’s diamond and sapphire fleur-de-lis pin, “to be worn by the President on all suitable occasions,” the very pin worn today by Fraternity President Beth Black.
After her Kappa presidency, Jean earned her law degree from Brooklyn Law School. She became the department head for women and created a lecture series that educated women about parliamentary law and their rights in divorce proceedings and life in general. For the rest of her life, Jean fought for gender equality, a fight that continues today.
This woman, our sister, was ahead of her time. To find that connection with someone who lived long before me, in a different time, place, and society, is truly what Kappa is all about. Though Jean was before my time, her values mirror my own and show me how the bonds of sisterhood extend throughout time. We may not have dressed the same, listened to the same music or shared a talent for singing but we did share one thing: Kappa.