Members of the secret society of Owls could rightly lay claim to belonging to the oldest organization of its type on the Michigan campus. Launched in the early spring of 1860, it went out of existence with World War I in 1918 following a history which offers in itself innumerable commentaries on life about a university campus. The affection of its members for Owls has been one of its characteristics — a characteristic which brought it back into activity after several lapses. Repeated promptings have come at various times from alumni, urging still another "revival," so finis cannot be written to the story of Owls until all of its present living alumni have ceased their pleas.
Rigid adherence to historical data prompts the observation that only by inference does there exist a link between the society launched in 1860 and the Owls of the forepart of the twentieth century. Sometime during the years immediately following 1869 that first organization ceased to exist — so the written records indicate. In 1899 there was launched Gamma Delta Nu, familiarly known as Owls. Less than ten years later its members were referring to the Owls of 1860 as their founders, though some among those who wrote the constitution of Gamma Delta Nu deny any knowledge of a relationship.
In the years from 1913 to the closing period of its active life, all "fledglings" were taught that Owls was launched during Civil War days, though the members of that time were in error in their interpretation of the stimulus to organization. The story then passed by word of mouth from old to new members described the foundation as having been prompted by the desire of students on the Michigan campus to be of assistance to the widows and children of fellow students killed in the Civil War. It was this interpretation which prompted the Owls of 1916 to launch a practice which has existed — though handled by other agencies — to the date of this writing, namely the Christmas Goodfellow program on the campus.
The story of Owls is told in the "Owl Book," a cherished and hallowed relic of the society, though but a scribbled and disorganized record of less than twenty years of its existence. This book, after many disappearances and many searches, is now a part of the Michigan Historical Collections.
The Owls society, brought into existence in the early spring of 1860 by members of the class of '61, was modeled on the Yale senior societies. It is said to have been stimulated by Professor Andrew D. White, himself a member of Skull and Bones at Yale. Membership Page 1924was recruited from the rosters of the Greek letter fraternities on the campus, and records state that one of its purposes was the breaking down of the barriers of misunderstanding and enmity existing among these societies. It was secret in act and form, not even having a known name. Its symbol was an owl, which gave it the title by which it was generally known.
Almost immediately after it was formed it was attacked both by the campus at large and then by the very secret societies it was supposed to aid. Shortly, certain of these societies forbade allegiance to it by members, and in its latter years, about 1868, many of its members were nonfraternity men. It disappeared from campus about 1870.
Gamma Delta Nu came into existence with a membership recruited from the senior class of 1899. It was composed of nonfraternity men who were congenial and who sought a vehicle for their enjoyment of one another's company. From 1913 to 1915 the society lapsed into comparative inactivity, but was brought back to full bloom by the one member left on the campus. As this man had joined a social fraternity in the interim, he reverted to the original principle of Owls and recruited the membership from fraternity men. Thus Owls had completed the cycle.
With the coming of World War I the membership, almost to a man, enlisted for service. Many never returned to the campus, receiving their degrees "in absentia," and Owls passed out of existence.