September 7, 2010 — You can't walk far on the Grounds of the University of Virginia without seeing the "7" and "Z" symbols painted on dozens of buildings, each a reminder of the secret societies of the same names, a side of U.Va. forever unknown to most who spend years here.
On Thursday evening, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society (founded in 1825 as U.Va.'s first secret society, later shedding its secrecy) partnered with the Miller Center of Public Affairs to host an event at the Miller Center that promised to shed light on such "Secrets and Traditions of U.Va."
Secret societies have arisen at U.Va. and many other schools, usually motivated by a desire to preserve the traditions of the institution, explained Wayne Cozart, vice president for development at the U.Va. Alumni Association and executive director of the Jefferson Trust, who has worked with U.Va. students and alumni for more than 25 years.
Noting that he is not an alumnus of U.Va., and thus very unlikely to secretly be a member of one of these societies, Cozart explained to the crowd of more than 200 – including the University's new president, Teresa A. Sullivan, and her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock – that what he knew of secret societies came from observations and snippets of conversation overheard over the years. Thus, he warned, "anything I say may or may not be correct. It is a secret, after all."
The Z Society, founded in 1892, is the oldest still-secret society at U.Va. If members of the group are asked about their membership, they must leave the room rather than answer the question (or lie), a turn of events that is "quite interesting to watch," he said.
Thomas Jefferson's birthday, April 13, is best day of the year to witness an act by one of U.Va.'s several secret societies, almost all of which tend to be active on the day that best symbolizes a commitment to the university's traditions, Cozart said.
Event attendees also learned of the University's involvement with two of the major events of the past two centuries – the Civil War and World War II.
The Civil War was "an absolutely seismic event, and it had an absolutely seismic impact on University of Virginia students," history professor and Civil War expert Gary Gallagher said. More than 500 students put on Confederate uniforms out of a total student body of 630. By the 1861-62 term, fewer than 50 students remained at the University, and it was not until the 1880s that enrollment rebounded to pre-war levels, he said.
The University found itself making history during World War II, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the commencement speech at Memorial Gymnasium on June 10, 1940, explained the University's historian, Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam.
More than 4,000 spectators packed into Memorial Gymnasium to hear Roosevelt's address, many with their feet dangling from the suspended second-story running track, Gilliam said. Gilliam then played a recording of the speech, when FDR first announced that the United States would "extend the material resources of this nation" to Britain and France in the war against Italy, a significant step toward America's participation in World War II.
Along with free pizza, students also got a taste of one of the key missions of the Miller Center.
U.Va. is the only institution in the nation attempting to transcribe and annotate the thousands of hours of secret recordings made from the presidencies of Roosevelt to Nixon, said Marc Selverstone, assistant director of presidential studies for the Miller Center.
"I'm going to play you tapes that no one was ever supposed to hear," he said.
Laughter erupted as students listened to light-hearted recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson vulgarly ordering new pants and of Nixon scolding the era's youth for their "almost hopeless immaturity" and inconceivable "softness."
Selverstone encouraged students to listen to more tapes, which can be found on the Miller Center's website. "They're a window into the White House and the chances are we will never have anything like it again," he said.
The night closed with a mock debate between two sets of University students: "Jocks" and "Nerds."
Colin Hood, president of U.Va.'s Student Council and a third-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, represented the "Nerds," along with Emma King, Jefferson Society president and fourth-year College student. Shane Cooke, a soccer forward and second-year College student, and Chidi Uche, a track hurdler and fourth-year College student, constituted the "Jocks." The amiable debate touched on topics such as hours spent studying, the food at John Paul Jones Arena and Nike-sponsored athletic clothing.
One of the evening's best-revealed "secrets" was the Miller Center itself, said event host George Gilliam, assistant director of the Miller Center.
"The problem with the Miller Center is that no one knows where it is," he said. Many students never venture to the center for forums or speeches because of an ill-conceived notion that the building is "so far away," he said, though the center is just a short walk from a University Transit Service bus stop.
Other faculty members acknowledged that the forum was developed not only to expose students to some University history, but also to foster more interest in the Miller Center's programs.
Christa Doerwaldt, a third-year College student, said that she could not decide which part of the night was her favorite. "It would be tough to choose between the presidential quotes and the student debate," she said.
Elizabeth Sankey and Chelsea Bateman, two second-year transfer students, were more decisive.
"I really enjoyed hearing about the secret societies, even though I'm not in one," Sankey joked.
"You wouldn't be able to tell, anyways," Bateman said.