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Sphinx Society Records, 1909-2006

By Rachel Lilley

Collection Overview

Title: Sphinx Society Records, 1909-2006

Predominant Dates: 1909-1967

ID: MSS Sphinx

Primary Creator: Sphinx Society (Oregon State University)

Extent: 1.3 cubic feet. More info below.

Arrangement: The collection is arranged alphabetically by record type.

Date Acquired: 00/00/1998

Languages of Materials: English [eng]

Abstract

The Sphinx Society Records consist of correspondence, an historical essay, membership lists and “yearbooks,” a large wooden plaque with metal plates emblazoned with members' names, photographs, and procedural information regarding initiation rituals into this honorary, and largely secretive, senior male students society. The Sphinx Society was founded in 1909, and dissolved in 1969.

Scope and Content Notes

The Sphinx Society Records are primarily comprised of materials pertaining to Society members, the initiation of new members, and attendance at the society's annual meetings.  Correspondence in the collection primarily concerns upcoming meetings, and attendance at said meetings; it also reflects discussion of the need for an administrative structure for the organization. Of particular interest is a letter from President A. L. Strand to John Fenner, faculty adviser to Sigma Alpha Epsilon, regarding the “outlawed organization,” Theta Nu Epsilon. In the letter, dated May 23, 1947, Strand expresses the University’s “unalterable opposition to secret, subversive groups such as TNE.” It’s unclear whether the Sphinx Society was lumped in with the subversive groups to which Strand refers. The folder also contains a letter from Dan Poling, Jr. to Bob Knoll, both elected members of the Class of 1949. In it, Poling talks about his job as a news writer for the National Broadcasting Company, and relays news of various mutual friends. A significant portion of the second page of the letter, however, concerns the “resignation” of Alonzo L. “Lon” Stiner, head football coach at Oregon State College from 1933 to 1948. Poling registers his “thorough disgust” with Stiner’s “more or less forced resignation,” and reaffirms his loyalty to “a man who has given no small amount of fame, fortune, and the dignity of American sportsmanship to a grand old institution.”

The membership “yearbooks” in the collection, especially the yearbook for 1909 through 1928, are noteworthy. Structured very similarly to the senior profiles in early university yearbooks, Sphinx Society yearbooks include a photograph of each member, information about the extracurricular activities in which they were involved, and a judgment – presumably written by the Society’s Secretary or a senior member – of their character. George Albert Cross, for example, was described as “quiet,” yet “forceful in pushing his convictions to the front.” A number of these character assessments use traditionally gendered language, describing members as "forceful" or "forcible," "powerful," and "aggressive." The descriptions also frequently comment on the member's popularity, honesty, enthusiasm, and reliability.

The yearbook for 1909 through 1928 includes the Society’s constitution, and photographs and biographical information for the following members: Roy Ross Clark, Ivan Earl Kerr, Alexander Kester Chapman, George Albert Cross, Edward Cleveland Callaway, Robert Henry Rodgers, Jesse James Peddicord, Sylvester Benjamin Hall, Thomas John Autzen, Malcolm Robert Cox, Robert Leroy Davidson, Fred Egerton Ewart, Max Adams McCall, William Thomas Stratton, Sinclair Albert Wilson, Lawrence Carter Keene, Erwin Bertran Lemon, Joseph Linzey McAllister, Bernhard Olsen, Dorris Shelby Young, Albert Allen Asbahr, Ernest G. Rice, Albert F. Eschricht, Charles R. Thomson, Jay Clark Leedy, Shamus O’Brian McFadden, Ralph Abel Blanchard, Royal Burleigh Thompson, Harry Clayton Hetzel, Cecil Paul Moffitt, Leroy Roderick McKenzie, F. M. Weatherford, Henry Odeen, Albert Freeman Mason, Charles Lester Hill, Thomas Everett May, Alfred Oscar Mangold, Russell Marion Howard, Benjamin Culver, Otto Ballhorn, Curran L. McFadden, Roy E. Miller, Henry W. Russell, George Randolph Thomas, O. B. Hayes, J. W. Flint. Pages at the back of the volume list only the names of those elected from 1916 to 1928, without accompanying photographs or biographical information. The yearbook for 1929-1944 is far leaner: 1934 is the only year in which both biographical information and photographs are included for elected members; no new members are recorded in this yearbook for the years 1935, 1937, and 1945 through 1947 (the society is listed as “Inactive” in those years), and only names were recorded for the years 1936, and 1938 through 1940. Photographs and names, but no biographical information, were recorded for the years 1941 through 1944.

Additionally of note, are the records included in the collection that document the group's initiation ceremonies. Done in a “call and response” style, the initiation ceremony itself consisted of six “talks” given by senior members of the Society, questions to the candidate, and a scripted statement from the “Conductor” judging the candidate as unworthy of election. Initiates were admonished to consider that the “demands upon your fidelity and service will not be light or easy to satisfy,” and were required to swear, “in the presence of God…that I will not repeat any word, divulge any information, or describe anything that I may see or hear within the four walls of this room or at any gathering held under the eyes of the [Sphinx]…to any other individual whatsoever, that is now living or who may hereafter be born.”

The historical essay included in the collection was written in 2006 by Sphinx member Berlan Lemon, and chronicles the history of the group from its founding in 1909 to its dissolution sixty years later.

The black and white photographs in the collection are of Sphinx Society members from 1916 to 1940; only one of the 24 photographs is unidentified. Members pictured include: Everett Davis, G. R. Hoerner, Ted Chambers, James C. Heartwell, Percy P. Locey, Douglas McKay, Lowell Stockman, R. R. Thompson, Tom Skinner, W. J. Oneil, G. V. Robinson, Westerman Willock, Marvin C. Wilbur, Allan W. McComb, Mel W. Breese, Bill North, Fred E. Ewart, Carl E. Totten, Erin Englund, Richard Werner, A. K. Chapman, and G. R. “Dolph” Thomas.

The plaque, which is shield-shaped and features the cast image of a sphinx in the center, is ornamented with the names of Sphinx members chosen each year, from its charter year, 1909, to 1969. This list has been digitized.

Biographical / Historical Notes

Formed in 1909 as an honorary society open only to senior male students, the Sphinx Society operated largely as a secret organization until it's dissolution in 1969. According to the Society’s Constitution, its purpose was to help direct "student activities along lines which will promote the best interests of the student body and the institution," with a membership totaling no more than eleven students at any time. Prospective members – “men who have shown marked ability in student life” – were selected from the junior class, and were elected the last week in April every year, to begin service the following Fall.

From its inception through the early 1920s the Society wasn’t all that secret; membership was listed among the extracurricular activities in senior profiles in The Orange yearbook, and was listed in both the 1909-1910 and the 1920-1921 General Catalogs as an honor society for senior men who had shown “prominence in student activities and scholastic excellence.” The true mandate of the Sphinx Society is unclear, though in his historical essay Berlan Lemon states that it “functioned...as a small group of influential students who could easily be called together at any time to consider and take some kind of action… [and] exert a calming influence or divert some activity that would seem troubling to the college president or Dean of Men or Dean of Women.”

Gwil Evans became a member of the Sphinx Society in 1960 and assisted with member outreach and other duties in the organization until its disbanding in 1969.  Other prominent members include Thomas J. Autzen, pioneer in plywood manufacturing, and founder of the philanthropic Autzen Foundation; and Erwin Bertran Lemon, who taught for the School of Commerce until 1943, held the post of University Registrar from 1922 to 1943, and served as the Dean of Administration from 1943 until his retirement in 1959.



Author: Rachel Lilley

Administrative Information

More Extent Information: 1 box, including 82 black and white photographs, and 1 un-boxed plaque

Statement on Access: Collection is open for research.

Acquisition Note: The materials were received in three donations to the former University Archives from Pay Gregory, the daughter of G. Burton Wood (in 1998); Berlan Lemon, the son of E.B. Lemon (in 2007); and Gwil Evans (in 2008).

Related Materials:

Other collections relating to student clubs and societies include the Student Club and Organization Records (RG 276), the Student Leadership and Involvement Records (RG 232), the Amicitia Literary Society Records (RG 038), the Feronian Literary Society and Mask and Dagger Club Records (RG 042), the Sorosis Literary Society Records (RG 046), the Websterian Literary Society Records (RG 047), the Adelphian Literary Society Records (RG 048), and the Athenian Literary Society Records (RG 061).

SCARC holds the papers of several members of the Sphinx Society, including the E. B. Lemon Papers (MSS LemonEB), the Douglas and Mabel McKay Papers (MSS McKay), the Thomas John Autzen Notebooks (MSS Autzen), the Otto Ballhorn Chemistry Laboratory Notebook (MSS Ballhorn), the A. Freeman Mason Scrapbook (MSS Mason), and the Godfrey R. Hoerner Papers (MSS Hoerner).

Preferred Citation: Sphinx Society Records (MSS Sphinx), Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Corvallis, Oregon.

Creators

Sphinx Society (Oregon State University)
Evans, Gwil
Lemon, Berlan
Sphinx Society (Oregon Agricultural College)
Sphinx Society (Oregon State College)

People, Places, and Topics

College students--Oregon--Corvallis.
Men--Oregon--Corvallis--Societies and clubs.
Oregon Agricultural College--Societies, etc.
Oregon State College--Societies, etc.
Oregon State University--Societies, etc.
Secret societies--Rituals.
Secret societies.
Sphinx Society (Oregon State University)
Strand, A. L. (August Leroy), 1894-
University History


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