One hundred and fifty years ago, seven young women named Mary, Ella, Alice, Hattie, Franc, Alice, and Suela, met in secret at Wesleyan College. Some of them had been invited to join a sorority, and some had not. Rather than split up their group they decided to form their own group and give it the sorority-like name, P.E.O.
The students were all members of the Methodist Church, which was active in promoting women’s rights and education during the 19th century, so their organization was rooted in its philosophy. It was called P.E.O. and, according to Wikipedia, even the meaning of those letters was a secret until 2005. In fact, as late as 1924 the meaning of the letters P.E.O, were considered by some to be mystic and known only to those who were members of the group.
Since 1865 the P.E.O. has flourished and spread throughout the United States and Canada, and there is a local chapter based in Clinton.
A few weeks ago, four members of that chapter, Beverly Miller, Kathy Giffune, Bonnie Basl, and Alma Ingalls, met with me at the Westmoreland Historical Society to tell me about their organization.
When I asked them about their “secret society” they laughed and handed me pages and pages of materials and said freely said that P.E.O. stands for the Philanthropic Educational Organization. The closest they come to “mystical” nowadays was probably when chapter president Kathy Giffune wore a ceremonial apron emblazoned with PEO stars a few months ago when they celebrated the group’s 150th anniversary with a luncheon at Symeon’s.
“Our theme is helping women reach for the stars,” she explained.
According to their website PEOInternational.org, P.E.O. is a non-profit philanthropic organization where women celebrate the advancement of women, educate women through scholarships, grants, awards, loans, and stewardship of Cottey College (a private liberal arts college in Missouri), and motivate women to achieve their highest aspirations.
Bonnie Basl told me about a woman who they had helped in Rome.
“She had three sons and divorced her husband who was in prison and she wanted to go back to college,” Basl recounted. “She wanted to get a nursing degree but didn’t even have a computer. PEO bought her a computer, paid for Internet access, and bought her new tires and paid for gas. She is now working as a nurse.”
“The women we help have potential,” Alma Ingalls added. “They are bright and they are leaders, but there is [often] no way they can get to college.”
According to their website, since its founding, the organization “has helped more than 109,000 women pursue educational goals by providing over $344 million in educational assistance, making a difference in women’s lives through six philanthropies and a foundation.”
In order to help make that difference in women’s lives, chapters like the one in Clinton raise money throughout the year by holding fundraising events. Their next one is on Saturday, September 21st at 2pm when they will welcome author Chuck D’Imperio who will speak at the Clinton United Methodist Church, 105 Utica Road in Clinton, NY. Tickets are $20 per person and that will include a dessert buffet.
Chuck D’Imperio has been described as “one of upstate’s most in demand public speakers. His audiences enjoy his stories of the region, it’s people, events, and folk tales. His talks are lively, thoughtful, fascinating, and always a lot of fun!”
The title of his presentation is “Stories From the Road: An Author’s Look at What He Saw Traveling 10,000 Miles Around Upstate New York.”
“He gives you little known facts about things upstate,” Kathy Giffune said.
“An excellent speaker,” Beverly Miller agreed.
All of the proceeds raised by the event will be used to support the programs of the PEO. In addition to providing financial need-based grants and operating a college, they also provide merit-based scholarships, and offer low-interest educational loans to qualified women, membership has other benefits including a program where members can stay at each other’s homes while traveling.
Beverly Miller was part of that program for many years.
“I had a PEO bed and breakfast in my home,” she says. “It was a great experience meeting all those people. I had a journal where they all wrote something.”
“It is a sorority,” Giffune says. “It’s a sisterhood.”
In addition to helping women achieve their educational goals, the group is all about forming friendships through shared purpose. They organize fund raisers, but also have luncheons, picnics, and celebrate birthdays together.
“Each one of us benefits from coming to the group and having nice friendships,” Alma Ingalls says. “It’s a group that you know you can do things with. You’re connecting with fine people who will be good friends and sincere friends.”
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo