When individuals are thrown together often by circumstances, discover and share common interests, and felt identical aspirations, they eventually revolve in a circle into which only those akin gain admittance. That was how the Upsilon Sigma Phi, the oldest Greek-letter society in Asia, came into being in 1918. It was formally organized on November 19, 1920 in a meeting held at the Metropolitan Restaurant in Intramuros.
Four months later, on March 24, 1921, the Greek letters “ϒΣΦ” standing for the initials of the name “University Students’ Fraternity” was formally adopted. In the same year, the fraternity also completed its organization with rituals, motto (We gather light to scatter), colors (cardinal red and old blue), and flower (pink rose). The head was known as the Illustrious Fellow and the first honorary fellow, University Regent Conrado Benitez, was inducted into the Fraternity. He wrote the Upsilon Hymn which later would be sung before and after every formal meeting.
The Fraternity was fortunate to have, during the early years, officers imbued with a deep sense of responsibility, and members who supported their leaders at every turn. The Upsilon set precedents which were zealously followed by succeeding groups. It made a name for its indefatigable interests in campus affairs and for the exacting moral requirements before an applicant could be admitted into its folds.
It would not remain passive when improvements could be undertaken. It was not slow to expose incompetence in the professoriate nor was it slow in supporting the cause of the faculty members whose professional advancement was being hampered by unsympathetic University officials. It encouraged scholarship and cultural tendencies among the members and the whole student body. With a strong discipline, it was able to initiate and manage worthwhile activities, which made it a major factor to be reckoned with on campus.
The Upsilon branched out to Los Baños and established a chapter there. It extended its reign of interest beyond campus, to include national issues of the day, notably the attainment of the independence we now enjoy. They organized militant actions against encroachment on the rights of the people and corruption in public offices. The names of numerous Upsilonians added luster to the roster, not only of the Fraternity, but also of the University of the Philippines and of the Philippine government.
In war and as in peace, the Upsilonians did not shirk the challenge of service to the cause, even if it seemed lost for the moment. Some took the field and actively participated in the battles of the Second World War. Among the Upsilonians who gave up their lives were Wenceslao Q. Vinzons (former UP Student Council President, youngest delegate to the 1934 Constitutional Convention, and Governor of Camarines), founder Agapito del Rosario (Mayor of Angeles, Pampanga), and Jose B. Abad Santos (Secretary of Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), all of whom were executed for refusing to swear allegiance to the Japanese Empire.
Others stayed behind and in their own ways contributed towards the preservation of Filipino institutions as much as possible. Most noteworthy of these men was Jose P. Laurel (President of the Republic of the Philippines), who put his life at risk in protecting the interests of the Filipino people while suffering rebuke from his detractors who accused him of collaboration. Laurel’s integrity would later be vindicated in the senatorial elections of 1951 which he topped.
Despite the suspicion that the brutalities of the last war had obliterated every trace of idealism in the youth, the Upsilon of the post-war era displayed the same fiery interest in campus affairs, and adhered to the very same ideas in principles as their brothers had before them. Among the prominent Upsilonians who joined during the early post war years were Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel and Senators Gerardo “Gerry” Roxas and Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.
Barely three years after the war, the Upsilon introduced on campus a novelty in the student activities. Sometime in December 1948, the Upsilon organized “Four of the Six,” a musicale in a class all by itself, because its songs, its lyrics, and dance steps were all drawn from the pool of talents the fraternity had in its members.
Collectively known as the Cavalcades, the other musical shows that followed inlcuded “Encore,” “Aloyan” (the first full-length English play written by a Filipino), “Hanako,” “I’ll take Manila,” “Linda,” “Stag ’56,” and “Interior 14” (three of which went on tour of the southern cities, namely “Aloyan” in 1950, “Hanako” in 1954, and the “Interior 14” during the summer of 1959) to raise funds for the construction of the UP Chapel. Together with another cultural project of the Fraternity, the famous Jazz Concert series, these undertakings more than proved that the characteristic unity, teamwork and camaraderie of the Upsilon can never be disputed or surpassed.
It was during the Marcos administration that the Upsilon further proved the strength and depth of its brotherhood, one transcending all ideological boundaries, as its members led opposing sides in the leadership of our nation. With the administration was Marcos, Senate President Arturo M. Tolentino, Minister of Education and former UP President Onofre D. Corpuz, Chief Justice Querube Makalintal (who after his retirement would be elected Speaker of the Batasang Pambansa), and Batasan Speaker Nicanor Yniguez among many others. Leading the opposition were Senate President Gil J. Puyat, Senators Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., Gerardo “Gerry” Roxas and Salvador “Doy” Laurel.
Waging an ideological war were Upsilonians from the Left such as Melito Glor and Merardo Arce. After their deaths, the NPA Southern Luzon and Mindanao Commands would, in their honor, be named the Melito Glor Command and the Merardo Arce Command respectively. Fighting for Muslim rights and greater autonomy were Senators Ahmad Domocao A. Alonto and Mamintal A. J. Tamano. These are just a few of the many Upsilonians who embodied the various political spectra in our national society. But one thing was common among them, they were all leaders. This episode in Philippine history was a testament to the Fraternity motto “We gather light to scatter.”
The year 1983 saw the martyrdom of an Upsilonian who today is considered the modern day national hero our nation. The death of Ninoy Aquino at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport opened the eyes of the nation blinded by years of authoritarian rule. Three years later, Marcos would call for snap elections.
In a speech at Upsilon Congress II in 1987, President Corazon C. Aquino said, “I understand that during that last presidential election, the Upsilon was the most relaxed and confident of its outcome.” Aquino adds, “On the establishment side, there was Ferdinand E. Marcos, a noted Upsilonian, and running mate, Arturo M. Tolentino, also a fraternity brod. Then on the opposition camp, there were myself, wife of another Upsilon alumnus, and my candidate for Vice President, Upsilonian Salvador H. Laurel. Whichever way the election might have gone, Upsilon had made it. If Ninoy had been alive and ran in that election, he would have said: May the best Upsilonian win!”
This type of epic showdown among Upsilonians would be repeated in the Senate Impeachment Trial of President Joseph E. Estrada in 2000, with then Rep. Joker Arroyo ably representing the prosecution and Atty. Estelito P. Mendoza making waves for the defense. Arroyo’s opening speech is considered to be among the most memorable speeches ever delivered in history, electrifying a nation that for the first time saw a trial by jury.
The Upsilon Sigma Phi may have lost some of its valuable records and tangible evidence of countless years of colorful existence. But no record of the past can succeed very well without including the reminiscence of each member, of each batch of neophytes that dared the difficulties of initiations, and sometimes public apathy to participate in its rituals, undertakings and precious fellowship. Assemble those memoirs and one has touched the Upsilon spirit.
For a Fraternity can survive the forgetfulness of time only when there are common and dear attachments to remember. Matter counts, but without the permeating spirit, it becomes only a crude reminder.
Surveying the span of decades, Upsilonians take pardonable pride in the achievements of its brothers before them and look at the future with greater courage, aware of their responsibility as torch bearers of fine traditions. It is in the understanding of common enterprises that the unique bond of brotherhood in the Upsilon Sigma Phi is forged to greater tensile strength. It is when we work for hours together, build and plan together, that we are welded, as the Upsilon March Song goes, “…like true and tempered steel.”
The Upsilon Sigma Phi has scattered the light.