Illinois State University's Gamma Phi Circus

Clifford “Pop” Horton, founder of Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi Circus

“The Gamma Phi Circus gives students the opportunity to actually experience the thrills and to enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishment along with the admiration of fellow students. College life is rich with opportunities to employ and develop one’s abilities, but perhaps nowhere are the opportunities greater than those that culminate in the annual Gamma Phi Circus.”

These words were written by the founder of Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi Circus, Clifford “Pop” Horton. While they were written nearly 65 years ago, they still resonate as we celebrate the 90th anniversary of our University’s greatest show on campus.

Clifford Emory Horton was born December 31, 1892, in Shelton, Washington. As a young boy, he joined Spokane’s Athletic Club, where he was introduced to gymnastics and the YMCA, where he helped to produce its annual circus. As a young man, Horton moved across the country to obtain a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the International Young Men’s Christian Association College in Springfield, Massachusetts. After graduation, he was hired by Ohio Wesleyan University as a part-time physical education instructor. While there, in 1917, he became a member of the gymnastics fraternity, Gamma Phi.* Meanwhile, physical education at Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) was in its infancy.

Horton came to ISNU as its first full-time instructor of physical education for men in 1923. In those early years, he instilled passion for gymnastic fitness in young men who performed his tumbling and clowning routines during the halftime of football and basketball games. By the time Horton petitioned the University’s administration for a local chapter of Gamma Phi in 1929, he was being called “Pop,” an indication of the deep respect and admiration the young men had for him.

The November 11, 1929 issue of University’s student newspaper announced the criteria for acceptance into the new gymnastics fraternity:

“Any man who has three physical education credits is eligible provided … he pass a physical efficiency test in the following events:

  1. 100 yd. dash in 12 seconds;
  2. Running high jump of 4 feet 4 inches;
  3. Throw baseball 217 feet;
  4. Throw baseball accurately, four strikes out
    of five;
  5. Running broad jump of 14 feet;
  6. Punt a football 35 yards;
  7. Forward pass accurately to man running in a lateral zone;
  8. Make 7 out of 10 free throws;
  9. Rope climb 18 feet in 8 seconds;
  10. Hand spring successfully.”

By spring 1932, Horton had Gamma Phi men exhibiting their talents in the form of a circus in McCormick’s gymnasium. There were 11 acts featured in that first show, which was accompanied by the University’s band. While the Gamma Phi Circus often featured female acts (and first named a circus queen in 1933—a tradition that lasted until 1969), women were not formally welcomed into Gamma Phi Circus until the 1940–1941 season.

In 1947 Arley Gillett, a Gamma Phi alumnus (1934–1938), became its sponsor and coach for the next 20 years. During his tenure, he witnessed, benefitted from, and continued to develop the relationships between circus professionals wintering in this community and his students. “(The circus retirees) were old circus people and it was in their blood. … Everybody wants to teach you his act. It was all they had, and they were proud of it. They want to perpetuate it.” It was because of Gillett’s relationship to circus retirees that Gamma Phi Circus was able to expand to include its first unicycle, rolling globe, perch pole, and web.

First Gamma Phi Queen

Gamma Phi Circus has experienced several significant developments during its first nine decades. Membership increased and consequently the number of acts produced also rose to include tight wire, trick bicycles, roller skating, and flying trapeze. Coaches Wayne Truex and Jerry Polacek succeeded Gillett. Polacek assumed the role of head coach in the 1973–1974 season and took Gamma Phi Circus into the new millennium.  Al Light was hired as the head coach in 2003 and was assisted by his eventual successor, Marcus Alouan, during his last season in 2008–2009.  Artistic Director Ivan Stoinev and assistant coach Maritza Atayde were brought into Alouan’s coaching fold ensuring an artistic vibrancy for Gamma Phi Circus for decades to come!

Milner Library’s Special Collections hosts the Gamma Phi Circus archive. We welcome everyone—former, present, and future members especially—to research the rich history of it, to take pride in it, and to “Do or die, Gamma Phi Circus!”

*The Gamma Phi fraternity was founded at Ohio State University in 1903.

2 thoughts on “The oldest collegiate circus: Gamma Phi Circus

  1. In March of 1949, my mother wrote the following to my grandmother: Last night we went to the circus at school. The students (physical ed. students) are really good and three of them are professional performers. Two are girls that travel with station WSM shows and the boy works with Cole Bros. circus in the summer. There is a winter colony of circus people here every year. They live in trailers in a camp. The college circus is a yearly affair and several students have developed into big show performers after their start in the school circus.

    The “Gamma Phi” was a beloved annual family tradition and Pop Horton, a household name and friend to all.

  2. Barbara (Bobbie) Horton Theriault says:

    Pop would be so pleased by your circus remarks! And so flattered by your addition about him. My daughters and I were so pleased to be included in the yearly visit of the Gamma Phi students to Pop’s gravesite and to hear what Gamma Phi meant to them He’d have loved to have heard their success stories both in Gamma Phi and in their lives…as we did!