Young Adult and College Life
Ralph Frank Burns was born in New Castle, Pennsylvania on May 12, 1912, to James Andrew Burns and Louise Amanda Snyder Burns. He attended high school in Youngstown, Ohio and enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1931.
Burns became the 268th initiate into the Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Sigma Phi at Ohio Wesleyan University on February 21, 1932. From then on, he’d build the greatest legacy of any member of Alpha Sigma Phi in her entire 177-year history.
In his earliest days as an Alpha Sig, Burns became a leader when his chapter needed it the most. He served the Chapter as President and Recruitment Director, keeping the Chapter afloat amid Epsilon’s recruitment woes.
Burns moved up the road to Cleveland, Ohio to begin his career in 1935. But it wasn’t long after that he would find himself making an impact once again within the walls of the Mystic Circle. Alpha Sigma Phi, not unlike its Epsilon Chapter, was struggling mightily at the time. The economic boom in the 1920s influenced growth in many industries including that of Greek Life. The American Fraternity in general was recruiting new members at a high rate. This growth slowed and stalled by the early-to-mid 1930s.
Ralph Burns kept one of the Fraternity’s best chapters afloat in lean times. He would be tasked of doing the same on a much larger scale starting in 1936 when he began duties as the Executive Secretary of Alpha Sigma Phi. This marked the beginning of an unwavering dedication to the Fraternity that, to this day, has never been seen in another.
The Challenging Career that Defined Ralph Burns
Over the next 40 years, Burns faced many unprecedented challenges that pulled Alpha Sigma Phi in many directions but was steadfast in keeping the brotherhood alive. He guided the Fraternity through the throes of the Great Depression, the calamity of World War II, the uncertainty of the Korean Conflict and the upheavals of the Vietnam War.
From the moment Ralph Burns stepped into his role as Executive Secretary, he was facing an uphill battle as the nation was still recovering from the Great Depression and, at the same time, entering in a second World War. Growth was scarce and, in some years, non-existent for many fraternal organizations as college-aged men were being shipped overseas. National offices began facing extinction as their membership dwindled, leaving what was left of their remaining chapters to operate on their own. Alpha Sigma Phi itself was hanging on by a thread, as the times left the Fraternity with only five of its original twenty-one chapters. It was at this point that Burns made the decision to explore mergers.
A merger with Phi Pi Phi Fraternity in 1939 elevated Alpha Sigma Phi’s chapter count by one hundred percent overnight. It added five chapters to its existing five chapters, including our Alpha Pi Chapter at Purdue University, Alpha Mu Chapter at Baldwin Wallace University and Alpha Nu Chapter at Westminster College. A provision of this arrangement was that all initiated alumni of Phi Pi Phi would need to become initiated into Alpha Sigma Phi as well. This undertaking proved to be time consuming for Burns, who performed those initiation ceremonies across the country over the next several months.
Even after the merger, membership was still lacking due to the ongoing war. Without the influx of membership dues, the Fraternity had little-to-no monetary resource to pay staff members. Burns obtained a full-time job at an insurance company in New York City called the NYC Association of Life Underwrites in 1943. He would voluntarily continue Fraternity operations from his home on nights and weekends throughout the duration of his full-time employment with the company until he departed it in 1945, despite many efforts by the employer to retain him.
Upon his return to full-time duty with Alpha Sigma Phi in 1945, he was granted permission by the Grand Council - a governing body whose inception took place under Burns in the late-1930s - to relocate Headquarters from high-rent New York City to Delaware, Ohio, home to his alma mater. At that point, Burns and his young family relocated to his former college town where he would operate the Fraternity until his retirement in 1976.
Once Burns settles Alpha Sigma Phi into its new home in Delaware, Ohio, a new challenge was on the horizon. After World War II ended in 1945, transitioning young men from the perils of war to civilian life proved a tedious and draining endeavor. More than four million American soldiers were thrust back into everyday civilian life, often with mental health ailments such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and thoughts of suicide. Most rejoined the workforce, but some returned to college to earn their degree with aid from the G.I. Bill passed in 1944, allowing soldiers to return tuition-free to state-run institutions. This created an influx of college-aged men trying to mesh with society after years of war. Suddenly, chapter support looked very different and Alpha Sigma Phi had to adapt.
A second merger culminated in 1946 when Alpha Kappa Pi, a New England-based fraternity, agreed to merge their 17 active chapters with Alpha Sigma Phi’s 17 active chapters under the pretenses that Alpha Sigma Phi would adopt the Alpha Kappa Pi badge as its new member pin. This new member pin was worn by every new member of Alpha Sigma Phi from 1946 until it was abolished at the 55th Grand Chapter in 2018.
Ralph Burns once again doubled the Fraternity’s chapter count overnight, and because Alpha Sigma Phi was much older, more established and had significant leadership and alumni support, it kept its name through the merger. Alpha Kappa Pi at the time of merger was only about 25 years old and was in dire need of leadership. One difference between this merger and the one with Phi Pi Phi was that all initiated alumni of Alpha Kappa Pi would immediately become members of Alpha Sigma Phi, saving Burns years of performing initiation ceremonies.
With the finalization of this merger paired with the influence of the G.I. Bill, Alpha Sigma Phi was poised for a period of prosperity that it hadn’t seen since the 1920s. Steady growth ensues over the next decade and a half, and in 1960, the Fraternity reaches 1,000 active undergraduate members for the first time in its history.
In 1966, Burns’ third and final merger was finalized. Alpha Gamma Upsilon was a dying fraternity with just six remaining chapters. Five of the six chapters accepted invitations to charter under the Seal of Alpha Sigma Phi, including the Gamma Rho Chapter at Lycoming College. Like Alpha Kappa Pi, the remaining chapters of Alpha Gamma Upsilon sought leadership and stability, two facets they’d find under the Burns-led Alpha Sigma Phi.
The three mergers of Phi Pi Phi (1939), Alpha Kappa Pi (1945) and Alpha Gamma Upsilon (1966) represented most of Alpha Sigma Phi’s expansion enterprises throughout the 20th century, adding a total of 27 chapters between the trio.
Ralph Burns retired in 1976 at the age of 64. His illustrious 40-year career with the Fraternity had come to an end, but his involvement within the Mystic Circle did not. Burns continued to attend National Conventions, mentor undergraduate brothers and consult with Headquarters. Burns was the face of Alpha Sigma Phi and provided a sense of continuity within the brotherhood for many years following his retirement. Because of his fervor toward the undergraduate leaders of the Fraternity throughout his career and post-retirement, there wasn’t an Alpha Sig who didn’t know who Ralph Burns was. He became known as “Mr. Alpha Sig” by many who sported the membership badge of Alpha Sigma Phi.
The Burns Family
While Ralph led the Fraternity to such great success, he couldn’t do it without the support of his family. Throughout the many years of running national conventions, his wife, Joanna, would help out at the registration table. Their eldest son, Bruce, attended Ohio State University and was initiated into the Zeta Chapter in 1963. Their youngest son, Jonathan, had a different path to becoming a brother. He attended the United States Military Academy at West Point where they didn’t have Greek organizations. A secret invitation was sent from the Grand Council to have him be an honorary initiate of the Fraternity at the upcoming national convention. Ralph did not know this invitation was sent until he was sitting front row of the initiation hall watching his youngest son become a member. Jonathan was initiated as a Member-at-Large in 1984
Both Bruce and Jonathan carried on the Burns tradition of serving the Old Gal in a voluntary capacity for many years, culminating in them both receiving the Fraternity’s highest award for voluntary service, the Evin C. Varner Distinguished Service Award in 2013. In addition, in the following years, all three of Ralph’s grandsons Scott (also a West Point graduate and an honored initiate), Todd (Ohio State), and Andrew (Ohio Wesleyan) also became Alpha Sigs.
Ralph Burns as a Volunteer
Both during his Fraternity employment and after retirement, Burns was continuously giving back to his community, Delaware, Ohio, in several ways. He led the community’s United Way campaign and was a dedicated volunteer and leader for his church, and a trustee and volunteer for the local hospital. Burns was a Rotarian for many years and was named a Paul Harris Fellow by his local chapter. Over many years, Burns literally gave gallons of his blood to the American Red Cross and was even elected president of the local high school athletic boosters’ club following several years of volunteering and fund raising. He continuously gave his time and efforts to the advancement of the fraternity he loved. He served as a volunteer secretary for the Foundation and he continued to fill key roles at national meetings and alumni gatherings, exemplifying that Alpha Sigma Phi is a lifelong commitment.
Recognizing a Legend: The Awards of Ralph Burns
Burns was a multi-award winner, but there is no award that he received, nor one ever created, that truly attests to the legacy of love and brotherhood he gave to Alpha Sigma Phi. Burns received the Delta Beta Xi Award & Key in 1938, the Distinguished Merit Award in 1976 and the Evin C. Varner Distinguished Service Award in 1980. In 1984, the Grand Council named Ralph Burns an honorary Third Founder during the kickoff event at the Foundation’s “Third Founding” Campaign. He also received the Fraternity Executives Association’s (FEA) Distinguished Service Award and the National Interfraternity Conference’s (NIC) highest commendation, The Gold Medal, which put him in the same company as other notable recipients like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater.
Ralph Burns Enters the Omega Chapter
By 1993, Burns had been named Executive Secretary Emeritus and was attending a weekend planning meeting along with members of the Grand Council in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As the weekend progressed, the alumni went around the room from youngest to oldest to share what Alpha Sigma Phi meant to them. Ralph went last and spoke elegantly of the Old Gal and how he was rich, not in terms of finances, but in terms of love and brotherhood. He spoke of the pride he had that his sons, Bruce and Jonathan, were Alpha Sigs. He talked about how grateful he was of his wife, Joanna, for the sacrifices she made over the years in his commitment to the Fraternity. He shared with each person in that room at the time how they’ve made an impact on his life. He continued, speaking of his excitement for the future of Alpha Sigma Phi and the good hands the Fraternity was in.
Following Ralph’s heartfelt comments, those in the meeting watched a video to remind everyone what the most important part of Alpha Sigma Phi was – the undergraduate brothers - a sentiment Ralph often echoed. When the video ended and the lights turned back on, Ralph had passed away from a heart attack. Ralph Burns entered the Omega Chapter on September 25, 1993.
The Burns Legacy Lives On
It’s been 30 years since Ralph Burns has left us. But to this day, his memory lives on within those who knew him and those who knew of him. Alpha Sigma Phi’s Headquarters Building, built in 2003 and located in Carmel, Indiana, is named after Ralph F. Burns. Furthermore, the Fraternity regularly hosts the Ralph F. Burns Leadership Institute for its new members to share his monumental legacy and indelible impact he had on Alpha Sigma Phi.
Without Ralph Burns, Alpha Sigma Phi would have ceased to exist. In many ways, Ralph Burns was Alpha Sigma Phi’s conscience, its heart and soul. Alpha Sigma Phi was Ralph Burns and Ralph Burns was Alpha Sigma Phi.