Sword and Sandals

During my student days, Sword and Sandals was a secret organization at UCD that served as a bridge between undergraduates and the Administration.  I first learned about it when my roommate Jim Palleschi (BE 224) was mysteriously instructed by John Hardie (BE 64) to go to a rural crossroads early on Fall Saturday morning.  When Jim returned the next day, he refused to discuss his experience.  I finally wormed it out of him the following summer.

I still didn't know much about it, but he told me the group met Wednesday evenings at Voorheis Hall, so I once sneaked into the hall to peek in one of the classrooms.  Sure enough, there were a bunch of student leaders in attendance.

The purpose of S&S was to maintain communications between the Administration and the undergraduates, as well as to foster student spirit on campus.  One prank it pulled was to leave a dead sheep at the front of the Chancellor's House, then spread a rumor that it was done by Sac State students (the day before the big Sac State football game).  I'm sure other brothers who were S&S members could provide other anecdotes.

Anyway, I just happened upon an extensive article in UC Davis Magazine written in 1996 that traces its 75-year history (make that 95 years).  Since the article describes the cultural forces that changed S&S, along with the rest of society, I think it is appropriate to include the article in this section.



Sword & Sandals: A Secret No Longer

When one of the campus's most beloved professors, Elmer Hughes, died in 1951, his ashes were scattered as he had requested near a small wood cabin in the Sierra. The animal husbandry professor known as Uncle Elmer to generations of students had selected as his final resting place the clubhouse of the Order of Sword and Sandals--a tribute to his allegiance and affection for the organization he had helped found three decades earlier. That spring day, some 60 of his brothers gathered in a semicircle on a small hill above the cabin, each in turn casting a pinch of ashes into the forest and saying a prayer for their old friend.

Throughout its 75-year history, Sword and Sandals has quietly instilled a similar devotion in the many Aggies who have been chosen to join its, until recently, male-only membership. And a prestigious group it has been. In its heyday, the order included UC chancellors and presidents, senior faculty, top-level administrators and the most active student leaders. Though the group itself never took any action--operating as a forum for discussion only--the very power of its members ensured the achievement of the group's stated mission, the betterment of the university.

Secrecy was a key component of its activities for most of its history--a common practice among brotherhoods through the first quarter of this century. (Even Phi Beta Kappa began as a secret society.) Members were selected and initiated in secret, cryptic messages were placed in The California Aggie student newspaper to announce meetings, topics were never revealed, the order never discussed with non-initiates.

But then times changed. Sword and Sandals' admirable mission remained the same, but its methods--its secrecy, its selectivity, its all-male membership--were no longer acceptable, particularly to the very people who once had made the group so effective. Students questioned the group's relevance and stopped joining in the '70s and '80s, while only the associate members (alumni and faculty) continued on.

A dedication matching that of Elmer Hughes among its alumni members kept the group alive, and today the order is attempting something of a comeback. It has refashioned itself for the '90s, opening its membership to women and seeking out a new relevancy. The order no longer worries about secrecy; the issue is now survival. Can the group rebuild a level of student and faculty involvement to make it an effective organization once again? And should it?*

Careless habits of dress

When the group was established in 1921, there was no doubt among its founders that there was a need for such an organization. They believed that The Farm was definitely in need of some betterment--particularly with regard to the uneasy relationship between the non-degree students who made up the majority of the Davis student body and the UC Berkeley students who were required to spend a semester here to get a degree in agriculture. That was the chief reason given for creating Sword and Sandals, along with another--a fairly trivial one from a '90s perspective but a serious concern to a campus attempting to transform itself from a "farm" to a university: sloppy dress on the part of the students.

A history of the order based on the recollections of Elmer Hughes states, "The attitude of these two classes of students toward each other and the general habits of the students were not good. For example, harmony and cooperation between these two groups in student activities were lacking, and certain careless habits of dress were noticeably bad. For instance, you would frequently see a student wearing a shirt wrong side out or a straw hat without the crown. Jeans and corduroys were worn when so dirty they would stand up in a corner without support. Some of us felt that something should be done to correct these conditions."

So Hughes joined with two Berkeley students, Herbie Henderson and Clark Burnham, and with the comptroller at Davis, Deming Maclise, to establish an order patterned on two groups then existing at UC Berkeley: the Order of the Golden Bear (which remains strong today) and Wing and Helmet.

As was common practice with fraternities and sororities, they looked to Greek mythology to provide the requisite mystique and tradition of an august order. The name "Sword and Sandals" came from the myth of Aegeus, king of Athens; upon leaving for battle, Aegeus placed a sword and a pair of sandals under a heavy stone and told his pregnant wife that when his son was old enough to lift the rock the boy was to take the sandals and sword and join him in the fight.

The Davis group went about assembling similar tokens of manhood, purchasing a sword and a pair of sandals from a costume shop in Oakland and "borrowing" a large initiation rock that decorated the driveway of a Winters farmhouse. Suitable titles were selected for the officers of the order: Worthy Ruler, Chamberlain, Scribe and Bard.

In the 1930s, the group built its cabin on leased Forest Service land off Highway 50 near Kyburz. The two-room, board and tin-roof structure relies for running water on a nearby spring, but does sport an impressive fireplace built with rocks from the area gathered by members.

"I borrowed a two-ton truck, and we picked up granite rocks about the size of your head from along the road for a fireplace," recalls member Dean DeCarli '28. "We didn't know how many they would need and thought we better have too many rather than not enough, so there is still a pretty good-sized pile of rocks up there that we hauled back in 1938."

During these early decades, members were drawn from the leadership of the campus--individuals who had proved themselves worthy and who were dedicated to serving the university. Students formed the membership, while faculty, administrators and alumni were associate members.

Initiation was a rather harrowing affair. Students who had been voted into the group were told by their sponsors to meet them early Saturday morning and to bring sleeping bags. A car would pull up, the students would be told to get in, "and they would drive up to the cabin without saying a word," relates Bob Ball '55, a consultant with the UC Davis California Crop Improvement program who for many years has been the group's alumni secretary. "They wouldn't talk to them. There would be absolute quiet the whole way." The young men--still in the dark--would be left at a hotel near the cabin till nightfall when the order would come for them and make them run up a hill to the cabin where they would be initiated next to the ceremonial stone.

Then, as now, the organization operates through discussion. An issue is raised and everyone has an opportunity to say his piece. Comments are addressed only to the Worthy Ruler to avoid personal debate. No votes are taken on issues, but it is hoped that through the discussion the participants go away with a more complete understanding of the topic that can be put to use in their respective campus positions. During the early years, those respective positions were some of the highest in the campus organization, since the membership consisted of the university's most powerful men.

As Ball puts it, "Everyone who had a building named for him on campus has been a member except one--Ed Roessler--which was an oversight." Robert Gordon Sproul and Clark Kerr, presidents of the UC system, were members. So was every head of the Davis campus until Ted Hullar.

So, despite the lack of formal votes, it's certain the group was influential. DeCarli believes, for example, that members' efforts resulted in California's veterinary school being located at UC Davis instead of UC Berkeley. But most likely the group was most effective in the way that Elmer Hughes understood it--in providing guidance to the students. This paternalism was part and parcel of the university's in loco parentis role of the time, points out John Hardie '58, who has been a member of the order since his student days. A former ASUCD president and, until his retirement, a UC Davis administrator in the areas of development and public ceremonies, Hardie continues to serve as director of special projects for UC Davis Medical Center.

In loco parentis meant that the university served as a surrogate parent. Chaperones were present at dances, women had to check in and out of residence halls and be home by a certain time, and after those early years of dirty jeans and crownless hats, a dress code dictated what was worn. Faculty and students interacted in every aspect of student life, and Sword and Sandals was just one more interaction.

Passing out of the picture

Then the '60s arrived.

Young men returning to college after serving in World War II had chafed at the university's in loco parentis role. Establishment-questioning students of the '60s cast it aside entirely.

"When society changed and the university was no longer acting like the parent responsible for the student, student life changed and honorary organizations just kind of passed out of the picture as being irrelevant," said Hardie. Fraternity membership declined, and some houses closed. Homecoming and the Pajamarino rallies were considered trivial. House mothers were out, and coed dorms were in.

There were other forces at work, too, making Sword and Sandals not only irrelevant to some, but irresponsible, or worse.

The Civil Rights movement made it clear that exclusion of women was unacceptable, and federal and state statutes made discriminatory activities illegal in a widening array of activities. Meeting space on campus became difficult to obtain once the order was no longer a student organization--and it couldn't be a student organization without admitting women.

An "old boys club" was no longer an acceptable way of doing business--not only because of the exclusion of women but also because of the growing awareness that it was inappropriate for public matters to be decided out of the public's view. Secrecy was suspect and mystical trappings were considered silly.

In December 1966, Sword and Sandals disbanded the student organization, remaining an alumni and faculty group only. A tongue-in-cheek obituary written at the time by Hardie with the help of faculty member Edwin Voorhies (now deceased) noted that "a secret organization, which is part of the university and which discriminates on the basis of sex--no matter what its purpose--is unacceptable to the vast majority of today's students." It also blamed the order's death on "the needs and demands inherent in the Free Speech Movement" and on the exposure of the order's existence by the student newspaper.

Indeed, though the group had become less secret over the years--not so much hiding as simply not publicizing itself--it was prone to being periodically "discovered" by the Aggie and revealed in blistering "exposes." The group had long since lost whatever power it might have had to affect administrative decisions, but the Aggie suspected the group had an inappropriate influence over campus policy. A 1969 story and editorial complained, "Secret organizations to discuss campus policy are inimical to the purpose of the university.... There is no place on our campus for an organization such as Sword and Sandals."

The group had lost the students' interest in the '60s and '70s and by the '80s the interest of many in the campus administration. Then-Chancellor Jim Meyer said he could no longer support the group unless women were admitted, and on these same grounds his executive vice chancellor, Larry Vanderhoef, refused to join.

Sword and Sandals responded to the criticism, but slowly. Berkeley's Order of the Golden Bear had been admitting women since 1972 (prodded by Title IX and student demonstrations over civil rights issues), but Sword and Sandals members were reluctant to change their ways. The cabin with its primitive bathroom facilities and single sleeping room wouldn't accommodate women, they argued.

"It was an intolerable thought to many of the older alumni that you could invite women to this sacrosanct place," says Don McNary, longtime member of UC Davis' development office who is now retired. McNary joined Sword and Sandals as an associate member at the end of the '60s; when he was a student at UC Berkeley in the '40s, he was head of the Order of the Golden Bear. When a half-dozen women were finally voted into Sword and Sandals in 1989, some of the men dropped out.*

Silly or subversive?

Without the student component, the group was drifting away from the campus and its mission of university betterment. Its diminished purpose was felt more and more acutely as each annual spring initiation went by. In 1989 the order decided to reestablish the student group.

"A number of us got concerned that it was more or less becoming a 'good ol' boys club,' strictly social," said Ball, "and we wanted to return to campus issues." Students J.B. Hay '91, whose father was a member, Victor Duraj '91 and Steve Johns '91, J.D. '95, worked with J.B.'s father, Tim '61, Bob Ball, John Hardie and Robert Pearl '47 to rewrite the bylaws and constitution to once again put the emphasis on the student component. Nine student members were initiated in fall 1990 and another nine in spring 1991. "We found that there are quite a lot of students who are very interested in talking about what is going on on campus and meeting people who really care about the university," says Johns, former ASUCD president and now deputy city attorney for Folsom.

But the group's troubles weren't over. The order was branded with the charge of secrecy again when the Aggie rediscovered the group in 1993.

"Campus Elite in Secret Society" read the banner headline in an edition of the Aggie titled "Special Report." The Davis Enterprise followed up with similar stories: "Some Worry Group May Influence Events" and "Sword & Sandals: Silly or Subversive?" The group was charged with being an elite inner ruling faction and of wielding undue influence in student government elections and campus policy.

In response, the Executive Council of the Academic Senate, the faculty governing body, passed a resolution stating that administrators and Academic Senate officers should not be members of a "self-selecting, exclusionary or secret society" that discussed campus issues. The Aggie reported that then-acting Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who had joined the organization after women were admitted, had told the order he would resign unless changes were made to dispel the community's concerns.

This time, Sword and Sandals members felt the attack was unwarranted. Given that the group never took any action, reached no decisions--and was, indeed, struggling to rebuild--members found ridiculous the charge that it had power over campus decisions. The order was surprised that it was still considered a secret organization.

"By that time the veil of secrecy had been lifted years ago," said McNary.

But Sword and Sandals responded anyway, making its membership list available to the public and running an ad in the Aggie openly recruiting members.

Lingering clouds of secrecy

The group today consists of some 30 student members and some 600 associate alumni and faculty members. During the academic year, the students meet every three weeks to discuss topics of their choosing--subjects have ranged from campus safety to affirmative action--with the decades-old goal of providing a better understanding of the issues and of the differing points of view about them. Administrators and staff members knowledgeable about the selected topics are invited to participate. Each year, a winter banquet and a spring outing at the cabin are held, attended by both students and associate members.

The group continues to sort out what to preserve of its past, what to refashion for the future, how to remain relevant in a world much changed over seven and a half decades. But the challenges the group faces are many. Some of its members--some who formed the backbone of the group in days gone by--believe the order's time has come and gone, that it has no place in today's world. Others would like to see the group continue but feel that its effectiveness has been lost.

An immediate problem is sustaining student involvement. The order has relied heavily on senior students for most of this decade, meaning it has had to rebuild each fall after seeing its membership graduate the previous spring. That practice was changed this past year with the recruitment of a greater number of junior class members, including the group's current head, a woman, Devry Boughner, who returns this fall.

A more serious problem is the lack of faculty and administrative participation.

"For the group to succeed as a continuing organization, more university administrators and faculty leaders and staff people need to become involved on a regular basis, contributing and participating in the discussion," said McNary, who recalled that when he headed the UC Berkeley order he had a weekly standing lunch date with the Berkeley chancellor. "Without that, the students can meet and talk and nothing happens."

The lingering aura of secrecy clouds the group's reputation and makes some, including Chancellor Vanderhoef, reluctant to participate.

"Sword and Sandals' primary intention is a good one, an honorable one," said Vanderhoef, "but it has been damaged by the events of the last few years. I've often thought that's too bad, because what it has intended to do from the beginning is exactly the right thing--to give students an opportunity to have contact with people they might otherwise never have contact with, people who can inform and advise about issues where otherwise the students would know only one part of the story.

"But I did not go to the group's last initiation," he added. "If I were a faculty member I wouldn't hesitate a minute to participate, but a chancellor, vice chancellors, deans have a different responsibility. We must worry about perceptions. Sword and Sandals is a perfectly fine organization, but there is an outside chance that we could be tainted by some of the past. Most of the [1993 Aggie] allegations went way beyond reality, but it may be a long time before people forget them."

Faculty members are reluctant to join not only because of the past controversy but because of changing priorities. Faculty seem less interested, in general, in belonging to student organizations. With the demise of in loco parentis, the perceived need for that type of close faculty interaction/supervision disappeared. Further, changing obligations and allegiances have made such participation difficult.

"Faculty are not as closely linked to students or the institution as were their predecessors," said Bill Rains, professor of agronomy and range science and associate member of Sword and Sandals since around 1980. "Departments, for example, used to be strong units because they funded faculty and provided a home. Now that funding has been reduced and faculty have greater allegiance to entities outside the university, one result is a declining interest in campus activities and campus institutions."*

A link to the past

Given the diminished faculty and administration involvement, can Sword and Sandals achieve its mission of improving the university?

Perhaps what's needed today is a slightly different view of how that mission is achieved. While members, and ultimately the university, can still benefit from the informed discussions provided by the group, that benefit seems today to be superseded by the value of something else--by the sheer longevity, the history, of the order. The group's 75-year existence, one could argue, has not made it outmoded, but has imbued it with all the benefits inherent in a campus institution.

When asked about why they've joined, current student members will point to the improved communication channels, but quickly move on to discuss the sense of continuity and tradition that the order provides. Indeed--in a clear sign of their desire for a continued link to the past--when asked whether they wanted to dispense with the group's distinctive titles for officers, the students voted to retain them during group meetings, using president and vice president only outside the group.

"We're learning from their generation and they're learning from ours," said President Boughner, an agricultural and managerial economics major who has been active on campus with Picnic Day. "These people know the history of the university, and that is what I enjoy. Now when I see the name of a hall, I know why it's named that. I know about that person."

Andrew Donnell '96, former ASUCD president who served as the order's vice president this past academic year, agreed, "I definitely get a sense of what tradition means and the value of passing along the ideas of one generation to the next. The members are pillars of the campus. Not only were they goofy students like us once, but no matter where or how far they've gone, they have still come back to help the institution. They are really an inspiration."

If it does nothing else, Sword and Sandals seems to be unequaled in its ability to create a strong tie to UC Davis that lasts long after the students go on to become alumni.

Seth Merewitz '93, a former ASUCD president and one of the first students initiated when the student group was reinstated in 1991, recalls a fellow initiate looking through the order's old photo album and spotting a photo of his grandfather helping build the cabin. The resemblance between the two was uncanny, said Merewitz, and especially touching because the student had never had the opportunity to meet this grandfather who had died young.

"The group is a wonderful link to the past and gives me a deeper connection to the campus, a feeling of being part of something larger," said Merewitz, now a student at UC Davis' law school. "One day I hope to be passing along my own memories."

In its ability to create a group of alumni whose allegiance to UC Davis is mythic in size, Sword and Sandals indeed seems to be accomplishing its mission of making the university a better place.