Nov. 27, 2014

Peeking into closed societies

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April 8, 2008

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__Secret societies focus on acts of charity for the campus__

Sometimes they deliver cookies to stressed freshmen during finals. Sometimes they sponsor lectures featuring influential members of the College community. Other times, they purchase umbrellas. Almost always, though, their actions are charitable.

p. The College’s secret societies are the most exclusive organizations on campus, yet aside from Alpha Phi Omega, they may be the most selfless. Whether they received baked goods from the 13s, attended the “Last Lecture” series orchestrated by the Bishop James Madison Society or avoided the rain during a campus tour thanks to the Sevens’ donation of umbrellas to the Admissions Office, most students at the College have been the beneficiary of the work of a secret society.

p. The College boasts several clandestine societies, and it seems foolish to try to pinpoint exactly how many there are, simply because it is the very nature of the groups to be secretive. What’s more, many of the groups have died out for periods of time, only to be reincarnated later.

p. Currently, though, there appear to be nine groups: the FHC Society, the Seven Society, the 13s Club, the Bishop James Madison Society, the Alphas, the Wren Society, the W Society, the Phi Society and, as if there weren’t enough societies, one group simply called the Society.

p. The College has a long legacy of secrecy. Founded on Nov. 11, 1750, the FHC Society was the first collegiate secret society in the United States. The group was originally begun as a social venture, but it is generally recognized as the precursor to Phi Beta Kappa, a fact apparently unknown to the group’s most famous alumnus Thomas Jefferson, who once said the group “had no useful object.”

p. FHC is known colloquially as the Flat Hat Club, but the letters reportedly stand for the Latin phrase “Fraternitas, Hilaritas, Cognitoque,” which translates to “in brotherhood, in laughter, in knowledge.”

p. According to a 1991 Daily Press article that cited history Professor Jim McCord, one of four professors at the College at the time who belonged to FHC, the group’s membership includes six juniors and six seniors, all men.

p. For those interested in applying, don’t bother.

p. According to FHC alumnus Bob Evans ’78, who was also quoted in the Daily Press article, new members are selected by those currently in the group. Historically, the group has tapped student government leaders, as well as several members of The Flat Hat, which took its name from the historic group.

p. Another of the campus’s most well-known societies is the Sevens. It’s likely that most, if not all, students at the College have seen the familiar numeral seven adorned with a crown and dagger, whether it be on a banner hanging from the Crim Dell bridge or a carved pumpkin at Halloween.

p. It is well-known that the Sevens comprise seven senior men who are rumored to meet at Shields Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. In fact, the number seven is prevalent in many things the organization does. Each semester, for example, the group honors seven members of the College community on placards that they post in buildings around campus.

p. The Sevens are probably best known for their large cloth banners, which they hang in many places around campus. They encourage students during finals, express condolence after tragedies like the shootings at Virginia Tech last spring and even offer retirement congratulations, like the banner that hung in a back stairwell in the Campus Center that Vice President for Student Affairs (and supposed Sevens unofficial adviser) Sam Sadler walks down every day after work.

p. Still others are familiar with the story of the two dozen golf umbrellas, emblazoned with the Sevens’ logo, that were left outside the Admissions Office in 2003. It was a simple gesture, but one that represented the charitable nature of secret societies at the College.

p. Over the years, the umbrellas have disappeared, victims of accidental theft and just plain wear and tear, but it’s a story that tour guides love to tell. After all, who can resist trying to gain admittance to such exclusive groups?

p. The College has many to choose from.

p. Another example is the Bishop James Madison Society. This group was created in 1832, making it the second oldest at the College. Its purpose, according to flyers the group posts around campus, is to “honor the career of James Madison (1749-1812), scientist, moral philosopher, eighth president of William and Mary, and first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia.”

p. The Bishop James Madison Society is probably best known for its “Last Lecture” series that occurs at the end of each semester. The group recruits notable professors to speak, traditionally as they prepare to retire. Each lecture is introduced by religion Professor David Holmes, who is the current adviser to the group.

p. Unlike F.H.C., the Sevens, and the Bishop James Madison Society, most of the other secret societies on campus keep a low profile. Nothing seems out in the open about the Phi Society, the Wren Society or the W Society. Outside of the fact that they presumably have 13 members, details about the 13s are limited, too. And while it is well-known that the Alphas are an all-female group that was created to counteract the male-dominated secret societies on campus, outside of that fact, the details are cloudy.

p. Another group, known only as the Society, was more or less unknown on campus until recently, when it began a project called the Community Autobiography, which strives to bring to light positive stories about the College told by students. The journal is merely a notebook that is meant to be passed along among students until its “due date” at midnight next Monday night. The group, whose logo is an apple with the letter “S” inscribed inside, hopes to have the journal published in a campus publication.

p. Students interested in the groups can find as much information as is available at the Swem Special Collections desk. Swem Archivist Amy Schindler collects any paraphernalia relating to student organizations that she can find, including the secret societies. While the Archives has many newspaper clippings, flyers, cloth banners, pins and medals, the bulk of the material concerning the societies relates to FHC, the Sevens and the Bishop James Madison Society.

p. “Part of the mission of the University Archives is to document the College,” Schindler said. “That includes student life. I try to collect material from as many student organizations as possible. For example, one of the largest collections we have is of material related to the Gentlemen of the College. It’s very tricky with secret societies because there is such a focus on secrecy.”

p. Schindler said she deals with secret societies the same way she would with any other person who had confidentiality concerns. Her primary goal is to document as much of the College as she can, so she is happy to extend the veil of secrecy to groups willing to donate material so that future generations of students can tease themselves with details about the College’s most interesting organizations.

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