UC Davis Magazine

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.


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