Shh. . . it's an Emory secret

Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, students at Emory University have engaged in secrecy . . . for good measure. Like at other ivy-clad institutions of note, student leaders at Emory cling to the veil of anonymity through organizations such as the currently active D.V.S. Senior Society, Ducemus, the Paladin Society, and the Order of Ammon.

By Michelle Valigursky
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Since the turn of the Twentieth Century, students at Emory University have engaged in secrecy . . . for good measure. Like at other ivy-clad institutions of note, student leaders at Emory cling to the veil of anonymity through organizations such as the currently active D.V.S. Senior Society, Ducemus, the Paladin Society, and the Order of Ammon.

Dating back to the University’s origins, literary and secret societies were commonplace on campus. Vice President and Deputy to the President Gary Hauk 91PhD writes of the phenomenon in his book Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836. “Secret societies cropped up, bearing exotic names that would sound out of place today on Fraternity Row but would appear right at home in a Sherlock Holmes case of Byzantine intrigue – the Crescent, the Irenian, the Calliopean. Meeting on Friday evenings from nine until midnight – and often concluding their meetings with a feast of roast opossum – the secret societies quickly allowed social functions to displace the more scholarly impulses that had led to their founding as literary societies.”

Mischief and merriment often prevailed, and University leaders advised freshmen to refrain from joining “mystic associations.” Perhaps the earliest was known as Emory’s “Temple” of the Mystic Seven, which survived until all fraternity organizations were effectively banned from campus in 1858.

By 1901, the mood on campus had shifted toward the philosophical, peopled by a generation of young men ready for social change. Senior class essayist C. L. Redding 1893C reflected in the The Zodiac annual, the year “marked the fall of our last castle built in fancy’s realm.” He suggested, “in fact, if the future student could study our faults, sift from them our virtues and determine within himself to profit by the former and emulate the latter, he would be the better off for his work.” Mr. Redding’s classmates founded what is now known as D.V.S., and students at Emory today willingly embrace the example of those who have gone before them.

The public and private dance

Sometime in the junior year, a student might feel a hand upon the shoulder, “tapping” him or her into membership for D.V.S., the University’s oldest student-selected honorary society. With a self-perpetuating membership of just seven students, the group “tries to help Emory become what it aspires to be,” Hauk says. 

In its history, D.V.S. has inducted nearly 800 members. D.V.S. member John Stephenson 70C recalls, “The stated purpose of the organization was to recognize accomplishments already made, but more importantly, to encourage those who were tapped to continue their loyalty to Emory, to encourage their leadership skills for the betterment of society, and therefore to reflect positively on Emory.”

At present, D.V.S. members’ names are revealed only upon graduation, but integration into D.V.S. wasn’t always so secretive. “It was quite the public ceremony every year. On the steps of Candler, the new members were formally announced as part of the D.V.S. They stood in an inverted V stance, D.V.S. painted on their faces, hands in the same way, upside down pipes in their mouths,” recalls Tom Brodnax 65Ox 68C. “In the 1960s, the D.V.S. announcement was truly a part of Emory culture.”

A male-only organization by tradition, the group disbanded in the mid-1970s. Former D.V.S. President Stephenson explains, “It was a reflection of the times at Emory. Students began to challenge all sorts of Emory institutions and question anything that seemed elitist, secretive or exclusive.” Just a few years later, however, students sought the group’s return, and for the first time, a revitalized D.V.S. would be formed. D.V.S. alumni elected 14 men to the organization, seven who would graduate in a few weeks, and a second seven to serve the following year. This reinvigorated group was encouraged to consider making D.V.S. co-educational and promptly did so. In both cases, the group was “to honor the values of the individual while having the benefit of colleagueship,” Stephenson says.

As D.V.S. emerged once again, the historic cloak of secrecy prevailed. Though select D.V.S. activities like the prestigious Goodrich C. White Lecture Series (named for  D.V.S. member and former university president Goodrich C. White 1908C) are now formally acknowledged, the majority of the group’s deeds remain unrecognized. The group does, however, publicly honor one individual who has had the greatest impact on current students. This year’s D.V.S. Award went to Dr. Michael J. Rich, director of the office of University-community partnerships.

Sharing in the anonymity surrounding D.V.S., The Paladin Society was founded in 1998 “to foster school spirit and community at Emory.” As Hauk observes, “there is something chivalric about them. Honor and integrity are of great importance.” Though the group is not attached to a formal organizational structure within the University, Paladin’s members, he says, “work individually and together behind the scenes with the broad intentions to have a positive impact on campus life.”

Ducemus is described as “A society of five seniors who maintain anonymity while promoting loyalty, wisdom, integrity, tradition, and vision in the life of the Emory community.” As Hauk reflects, “The origins of Ducemus are more mysterious, though a plaque has been installed on the stage of McDonough Field to commemorate the founding of Ducemus on that spot.” Comfortable in their virtual invisibility, the society has taken as their motto a Robert Woodruff saying: “there is no limit to what a person can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

Students, too, are appreciative of Ducemus because their group is responsible for reviving the Emory tradition of Wonderful Wednesdays. 

Another secret society of note on Emory’s campus is The Order of Ammon. Officially recognized since 2005, The Order of Ammon strives “to bring new traditions and a fresh perspective to the University while instilling pride in all Emory students,” according to an exclusive interview between the Order and The Emory Wheel Features Editor Evan Mah 13C.

Though similar in membership size to the other societies, the Order of Ammon maintains a Facebook presence and is “always looking for opportunities to expand our reach.” Point in fact, the interview reveals, “In only a few short months, we have gained an online presence and reached out to the entire campus community electronically.”

Secrecy also takes human shape with a soul who visits campus with great regularity. James W. Dooley 1899C 2002B 02T 03G 05N 06L 07PH 10G is the Spirit of Emory, Sui Generis. Named one of Emory University’s 175 official History Makers, James W. Dooley is both a skeleton and the University's unofficial mascot. First appearing at Emory in 1899, he wrote to the Emory Phoenix from his science lab. Now this black-caped skeleton in a top hat appears at University events with a cadre of black-clothed escorts in sunglasses called Dooley’s Guards. His identity, like those of his peers in secret societies, remains an enigma.

Times for students may continue to change, but the one ethos that remains constant for Emory’s secret societies is the unfettered freedom to subtly influence the full experience of Emory University’s college life for their classmates and friends.