Editor’s note: Last week, Student Government Board Elections Committee chairman Aaron Gish filed an infraction complaint against SGB President Gordon Louderback that mentioned Board members affiliated with a student group known as the Druids. Because the Druids are a secret society, little is known on campus about the organization or its members.
This is the first of a two-part series by The Pitt News looking into who the Druids are and what they do at Pitt. Part One provides background into the formation, activities and initial purpose of the Druids in an attempt to lend context to their increasingly political involvement on campus in recent years.
A sophomore honors fraternity formed by Pitt students nearly a century ago has transformed significantly over the years, progressing from a respected social delegation in the 1920s into a sounding board for elite student leaders in the ’70s. Most recently, it has become a veritable secret society on campus.
The Order of the Druids, originally founded in 1920 as an honorary society to recognize “the University’s outstanding men,” according to a Student Organization Resource Center webpage, has generated everything from admiration to suspicion among the general student population at Pitt over the course of its 93-year existence. In the past few years, campus fascination with the group has ebbed and flowed, gradually fading between moments that cause suspicion to arise, such as when cloaked figures made a rare evening appearance on campus in 2002 or when Chancellor Mark Nordenberg introduced a speaker at last year’s Honors Convocation as a former Druid.
Lately, visibility of the now coed organization has prominently resurfaced, with society members’ unannounced involvement in Pitt’s Student Government Board becoming an element of discussion at an SGB Judicial Committee hearing last week. But the Druids have not always been anonymous, and their influence on Pitt’s student government has not always been a source of contention.
Dan Howard, a 1974 graduate of the University and a member of the Druids since his sophomore year at Pitt, said he believes in the overall value of the organization to the campus, as a whole.
“They encourage good things of good people that is always a benefit to all, not just the members,” he said. “Leadership is a skill that needs [to be] taught, encouraged and mentored.”
A bastion of campus leadership
Although few details remain about the organization’s formation and early campus involvement, it seems clear that leadership and active participation in other on-campus groups have served as core values of the society since its inception.
During their earliest years, the Druids publicly hosted social events and special guests including the chancellor and several University deans. The Pittsburgh Press announced that Pitt’s 1928 homecoming dance would be held “under the auspices of the Druids” in an article from November of that year. By the 1970s, the group was still openly acknowledged as an effort to bring leaders together to promote scholarship, equality and fraternity.
Thomas Bailey, of the class of 1974, recalls that he was chosen as a Druid for his excellence in leadership within the student government. He said he viewed the order as an assemblage of leaders “looking to do good things.”
“I think [the Druids] are a good thing to have, because it’s good for the leaders to get together,” he said.
When Bailey was inducted into the group during the early 1970s, the Druids upheld leadership and scholarship as essential values for members. He recalled their meetings at Gustine’s Restaurant — now Hemingway’s Cafe — on Forbes Avenue, when the members, each with their own campus niche, would gather to support one another’s initiatives.
Bailey said that during his time as SGB president, he realized the need to revise the SGB constitution to have more oversight of its financial procedures. He said that he and other members of the Druids openly worked apart from non-Druid SGB members to rewrite the constitution in order to ward off potential problems.
Howard received his induction into the Druids in 1971 while he served on the Campus Judicial Board. During his time in the group, members were “tapped” into the organization based on their leadership potential within their respective organizations.
“A member came and spoke to me,” Howard said in email, referring to his tapping. “He happened to be an RA in my Towers dorm.”
Howard’s induction also took place at Gustine’s. Although he remembers the elements of the ceremony, he opted not to elaborate on the details.
While the Druids maintained rituals and often worked in private among themselves, Bailey said the organization was never “any sort of Skull and Bones type of group,” referring to the renowned undergraduate secret society at Yale University. But Howard noted that the group still incorporated justified and valuable elements of secrecy.
“Rituals are important in each of our lives as individuals and as a society,” Howard said. “When we promise that the rituals remain within the confines of the walls of the ceremony, they should stay that way. I believed that 40 years ago, and I believe that now.”
The shift toward anonymous activity
It is unclear when the Druids officially went underground. According to Dave Gau, a former Druid and current Ph.D. student at Pitt, the group became secret in 1996.
According to a 2005 article in The Pitt News, the Druids became a secret society in 2000 when they refused to comply with the Student Organization Resource Center’s requirement to provide a list of members and officers of the student group. As a result, the Druids were no longer eligible for SORC assistance, including allocations and office space provided by the University.
Shortly thereafter, the invitation-only Druids took on a much more private presence. And as the secrecy surrounding the organization developed with time into speculation and intrigue, media organizations on campus took an active role in documenting the society and its members whenever they reappeared.
In 2002, members of the Druids marched around campus wearing black, hooded cloaks — one person carrying a large sword.
Shannon McLaughlin, the editor-in-chief of The Pitt News from 2002 to 2003, recalled how the members were cloaked in black robes, some with sneakers poking out of the bottom.
In 2004, then-freshman Alex Capece found a letter in his Litchfield Towers mailbox with a $175 gift certificate to The Book Center. The certificate was signed: Druids, Delta Chapter. That same year, then-sophomore Jennifer Anukem found the same letter in her mailbox, which helped her make sense of an odd message on her answering machine.
“You have just received the Druids’ Cathedral Fountain Scholarship. Congratulations!” a mysterious voice said.
Both of the students were actively involved on Pitt’s campus, with Anukem serving as vice chairwoman of political action for Black Action Society, president of Collegiate YMCA and Freshman Affairs chairwoman for SGB, among other positions. Capece worked at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital, volunteered at Student Health Services teaching CPR and was an associate member of the Delta Chi fraternity.
Anukem told The Pitt News then that she didn’t know much about the Druids, but didn’t think it was “a bad group at all.”
After the 2002 Druid march, Dave Hartman, who worked as Pitt News editor-in-chief from 2003 to 2004, and his staff spent three hours camped out in the Cathedral because there was rumored to be a Druid event taking place, but no more cloaked individuals ever appeared. Additional rumors buzzed around campus that the Druids spent quality time with the chancellor, but these tales were never confirmed.
“Speculation can make it grow into something very bigger than it really is,” Hartman said.
The Druids also experienced a moment in the spotlight in the late 2000s when Pitt Briefly, a student news website, ran a profile on the group.
“That was a time when you always met in the same place,” said Gau, a member of the Druids at the time, referring to how the organization began rotating its meeting places after the Pitt Briefly story appeared.
In the coming months, Gau said, the group dropped from 24 to 10 members as the Druids cleansed those suspected of leaking information to Pitt Briefly.
“We were supposed to be underground before that, but then we became more underground,” Gau said.
The debate over the value of secrecy
In their public years, the Druids were composed of campus leaders who aimed to create a cohesive dialogue among themselves and promote leadership on campus. But as they’ve retreated into anonymity, their character and purpose, too, seem to have become obscured.
McLaughlin compared the secrecy of the order to the “old boy’s club” nature of the U.S. federal government. She lamented that such secrecy contributes to the image that politics and student organizations are “kind of an exclusive thing,” rather than receptive of all members.
“In retrospect, I don’t know if it was supposed to be a ‘Haha, in your face. You don’t know who we are.’ or an actual formality,” she said.
McLaughlin noted that general belief held that the organization was designed to bolster the members’ professional lives through networking and job opportunities, but her staff could never nail down whether the Druids had a philanthropy component or not.
“It’s probably with everyone’s best interest to have some transparency,” she said. “It’s hard to know who it’s benefiting.”
Her successor, Hartman, was far more cynical toward the group. He said that he was “aggressively and openly opposed to them,” since such a covert society was the natural enemy of a newspaper.
Greg Heller-LaBelle, who served as editor-in-chief of The Pitt News from 2003 to 2005, presented an entirely different perspective on the group. While he remained in the dark about the functionality of the group like previous editors, Heller-LaBelle took a positive approach to dealing with the society.
He noted that a fairly accepted piece of “Druid lore” was the guaranteed spot for certain campus leaders in the group, including the SGB president and editor-in-chief of The Pitt News. But according to Heller-LaBelle, neither he nor the 2005 SGB president, Brian Kelly, were members.
During Heller-LaBelle’s time at Pitt, the Druids were not the sole secret society roaming campus. Heller-LaBelle recalled a battle between two obscure organizations during his time at Pitt as the Druid’s “humorous schism with The Order of 87s.” Kelly had created his own group known as The Order of the 87 to rival the Druids.
As a leader of the campus newspaper, Heller-LaBelle said he empathized with these secret groups and chose not to pry in an attempt to unveil their purposes. He believed that groups such as the Druids and The Order of 87 exist to allow wearied student leaders to have a discourse behind closed doors, kick back from significant stresses and enjoy themselves.
“They were created to allow for that dialogue in the way that a football team might have a players-only meeting — to have a discussion or level of openness that you can only have if it’s not in public,” he said.
Although both members of the society and non-members alike agree that there can be benefits to secrecy, the Druids’ political involvement on campus has recently become a divisive issue.
The infraction complaint filed by SGB Elections Chair Aaron Gish against Board President Gordon Louderback on March 31 brought the presence of the society’s members on the Board back into the public light. While members of student government have been involved in the secret society since its earliest years, their relatively recent shift to complete anonymity adds a new dimension to their roles as elected officials.
Amidst all the murkiness and rumor that has swirled around the Druids throughout the decades, the group’s continued emphasis on campus leadership has remained clear. But the unproclaimed nature of the group’s purpose and activities in recent years seems to present a distinct contrast from the well-established mission of the society in its earlier years.
“I have served in leadership roles in many areas of my life … not for personal gain, but with a servant’s attitude,” Howard said. “That was what was the essence of the Druids.”
Staff writer Thomas Visco contributed to this report.
Click here to read Part Two of the series.