Samuel Zenas Ammen

a B/w Photo of SAMUEL ZENAS AMMENThe 1866-67 school year brought promise to Washington College and KA Largely because of Lee’s presidency at the school, the enrollment more than doubled to nearly 400 students. KA initiated seven more members into its group that fall. On the evening of October 17, 1866, twenty-two year-old Samuel Zenas Ammen of Fincastle, Virginia became a member of KA. Ammen was no ordinary student; because of his intellect, he was given advance standing when he arrived at Washington College, and he was a veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia and its Navy, as well. Ammen was a serious student, immaculate in appearance and precise in manner. He was very confident, and Will Scott, who bestowed nicknames on his brothers, dubbed him “Lord.” Ammen’s initiation into this early group was conducted with a revised version of the ritual first penned by Wood. It is clear from his own writings that while Ammen was certainly moved by certain parts of the ceremony, he felt that it was too brief and uninspiring. Ammen had significant fraternal experience. He had been made a Master Mason in his hometown lodge in Fincastle in 1865. As a Mason, he was well versed in organized ritual which had been refined over hundreds of years. Ammen would later say that this first ritual had “nothing to touch the imagination of initiates nor stir their fancy.” However, Ammen was inspired by the possibilities of this young fraternity and its members whom he greatly respected. He urged the society to enhance its initiation ceremonies and was soon selected by his chapter brothers to take an active role in those efforts.

In Wood’s room at Sunnyside in November 1866, Ammen and Wood discussed possibilities for a new ritual, and it was agreed that Ammen should continue the work. At Ammen’s suggestion, the chapter approved a new meaning for KA on November 23, 1866. The chapter placed its confidence in Ammen and he, along with Wood and Will Scott, was appointed to a committee to review the ritual in its entirety. In order to gather material, Ammen received Wood’s ritual, observed the chapter’s activities and listened to their collective ideals and beliefs. He was particularly impressed by an essay presented to the chapter by Wood on November 30, 1866, wherein the life of the ancient Order of Knights Templar was detailed as a model of inspiration for the group’s purpose. Ammen, Scott, and Wood conferred on several occasions, many times late into the night. Wood presented Ammen with the “papers” that he had written and Ammen preserved a few of its impressive parts and began construction of a new ritual, with a new vehicle for communicating the great theme of KA.

Nearly two decades later, Will Scott would write to Ammen, “The Ritual was all so altered, changed and improved upon, mainly by you, that we can say it underwent a complete regeneration, or new birth.” Ammen later related that Wood was completely deferential to his advanced experience with the esoteric. Indeed, Wood’s departure from school was only a few weeks away. Wood’s own correspondence with the Order over the remainder of his life indicates that he confidently left the fraternity he began under the stewardship of Ammen.

Wood never hesitated to credit Ammen with transforming his K.A. “Lodge” into the Order of national prominence that it remains today. Ammen’s constant refinement of the ritual and creation of the constitution, by-laws, grip, symbols and regalia of the Order, along with his lifelong commitment ultimately earned him the title of Practical Founder of Kappa Alpha Order.

Ammen later revealed, “Material for my work was gathered from many sources – books, chapter experience and essays read at chapter meetings. During this formative period, the ruling ideas were suggested mainly by the ideas and aspirations expressed in essays of leading members. The present ritual, in fact, was not made; it grew.”  It grew from a seed planted by Wood. The new ritual transformed K.A. into Kappa Alpha Order, an order of Christian knights (first inspired by Wood’s November 1866 essay to Alpha Chapter and set to work by Ammen) pledged to the highest ideals of character and personal achievement. Ammen and his Alpha Chapter brothers sought to preserve the virtues of chivalry, respect for others, honor, duty, integrity and reverence for God and woman.

Despite the milestone of establishing a solid identity and presence at Washington College, the young Order was not without the startup problems typical with most new organizations. Indeed, the brothers of Old Alpha stood at a crossroads. The chapter expelled members who violated their obligations and were not strong enough to endure growing pains. Will Scott, the chapter’s first Number I, was preparing to leave Lexington to attend seminary, and the chapter brothers had to decide whether they should keep up the effort.

One moonlit night in May 1867, Ammen and Jo Lane Stern, a recent initiate with whom he had become fast friends, were taking one of many walks they enjoyed together throughout their lives. This particular evening, they were discussing the future of their young fraternity. They paused along the way, and sat on the steps of White’s General Store, on the corner of Lexington’s Main and Nelson streets. There, they seriously contemplated the viability of Kappa Alpha and whether or not they should continue the chapter. They asked, “Shall we let the Lodge die?” Ammen well-remembered that conversation and later recalled, “The outcome was a decision to keep up the fight, and from that time on our prospects improved.” Clearly, Ammen and Stern spearheaded that effort. For that reason, Stern is appropriately given a status on par with our founders.