The Bettie Locke Portrait: An Adventurous History!

Category: Fraternity

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“I swear her eyes follow me around this room!” is said by many who have stepped foot into the Fraternity headquarters boardroom. The portrait of Bettie Locke Hamilton, placed in the prime location over the mantel at the front of the room, reminds everyone who visits the room of Bettie’s work to found the fraternity. While it reflects, like any painting, its subject matter, the painting itself has had an interesting history.

First considered in the summer of 1939, Mary Rieman Maurer, Beta/Indiana, had asked Grand Council to consider a project to paint a portrait of Bettie Locke Hamilton. Grand Council gave her permission to contact two Theta artists, Clara Walsh Leland, Rho/Nebraska and Cornelia Park Byrns, Alpha Eta/Vanderbilt. Maurer was asked to forward the information to Virginia Cuthbert Elliott, Chi/Syracuse, also an artist, for her suggestions.

Eventually, Elliott was chosen to paint Bettie’s portrait. Unfortunately, Bettie had passed away in September 1939, and so Elliott used a photograph of Bettie from her college days and, by corresponding with Edna Hamilton, Alpha/DePauw, Bettie’s daughter, worked to have the portrait more accurately reflect Bettie herself.

In an article from the Magazine in November 1940, Elliott states, “I enjoyed doing the portrait. Bettie Locke had a frank, open face, with a very evident quick humor about the eyes and mouth. It is strange how much spirit a photograph can have, and the one I used contained a great deal of spirit.”

Presented to the Fraternity at the 1940 Grand Convention at Mackinac Island, Mich., with both of Bettie’s daughters in attendance, the portrait first hung at the then new “Central Office” in Chicago and then after several years, it was moved to the Founders Room of Alpha’s chapter facility in Greencastle, Ind.

The portrait then had its own adventure! It remained there until the summer of 1969, when one day it was discovered it was missing. Police and university officials were called in. Rumors circulated that it had been taken as a prank and would be returned in the fall when the chapter facility reopened. It never happened. The Centennial year of 1970 came and went, and no painting reappeared.

Fast-forward to the summer of 1978: A local Greencastle man, Gordon Sayers, husband of Virginia Cline Sayers, Alpha/DePauw and an acquaintance of Bettie Locke Hamilton, spent his free time visiting antique shops in the region. Upon a visit to one, he noted a group of people going into a special room. Asking permission, he entered the room and there was the painting, listed at a starting price of $1,000 ($3,600 in today’s dollars). The shop owner stated that he had purchased it from a dealer in Pittsburgh who had obtained it about 1969. Another person interested in the painting (actually, more interested in the frame, which according to correspondence at the time the painting was stolen, dates from the 1870s) was informed that it had been stolen and dropped his bid. Sayers was able to purchase the painting for $500 and return it to Theta.

The painting now sits in the boardroom, watching over officers, staff, and visitors. Adelaide Sinclair, Sigma/Toronto and Fraternity president, stated in her Founders Day message of 1940:

“If one said to Bettie Locke Hamilton, ‘That task is done; there are few doors closed today to women competent to enter them. And now what of the fraternity?’ She answered that there still remained the task of making women fit for their greater opportunities, and suggested, with a twinkle in her eye, that it behooved them to justify the confidence of the pioneers who made these things possible. And in this she felt the fraternity had its contribution to make no less than in the earlier day. So, if association with Kappa Alpha Theta makes its members better citizens, better fitted to undertake the wider responsibilities and aware of them, too, then the hopes of our Founders will be fulfilled in this later day.”

So yes, I think that Bettie’s eyes do watch us to make sure we continue along the path she started.