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Monmouth's commencement rock and Octopus Society have stood the test of time

Jeff Rankin
05/11/2018
The Class of 1879’s memorial rock—in 1968 (left) and 50 years later, on the eve of Commencement 2018.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. — To most spectators at Sunday’s 161st Monmouth College Commencement, it will look like an ordinary rock with graffiti painted on it. But the large limestone boulder that seniors pass as they process to Wallace Hall Plaza for the ceremony has a lot of historical significance.
 
Like other boulders that dot the front of campus, the stone was transported more than a century ago by horse-drawn wagon from Cedar Creek, three miles north of Monmouth. Look closely, and you’ll see “79” engraved within a circle. The rock was placed in 1879 by the seniors as an eternal memorial to the graduating class.
 
It is virtually the only remaining campus landmark from that time. It witnessed the 1907 destruction by fire of Old Main (replaced in 1909 by Wallace Hall), as well the construction of the chapel in 1896 and the buildings that constitute the campus.
 
The Octopus Appears
Other nearby rocks also bear class engravings, but the size and verticality of the 1879 memorial make it particularly susceptible to becoming a stone canvas for graffiti, particularly on the eve of Commencement. One of the most enduring images to be painted on its face year after year is the figure of an octopus — another important piece of Monmouth lore.
 
The octopus represents a secret organization that made its debut in 1928. Founded with 11 charter members, the Octopus Society was created to serve a men’s senior honor society (similar to Yale’s then-popular Elihu Club) and to operate as an alumni organization, through which “graduates will be able to exert a big influence in the further development of the college.”
 
Undergraduate members were secretly chosen by the senior class and installed at an annual meeting held the evening of Commencement. Eight members of the junior class were selected each year based on the following criteria: contribution to the school; personality; and prospect for future achievement.
 
Throughout their senior year, members’ identities were to remain secret, only to be revealed when the Ravelings yearbook published their group photograph at the end of the year. After graduation, they were presented with a gold watch charm featuring an octopus insignia and other secret emblems.
 
The Octopus and the Knife Fight
Being members of a secret organization with no specific duties or goals, however, it was perhaps predictable that the efforts of the undergraduate Octopi would eventually turn to mischief. Although it was never proven, they were accused of burning the May Fete platform, stealing athletic trophies and putting oil on the seats in Wallace Hall during the early 1940s. Because they were an exclusive club, resentment among non-members soon grew.
 
Things came to a head on the evening of March 5, 1942, when seven members of the club accidentally broke the glass in the west entrance door to Wallace Hall around midnight and were confronted by the night watchman. A scuffle ensued, and the watchman reportedly drew a knife, resulting in injury to three of the members.
 
When the boys showed up at Monmouth Hospital for treatment, the Monmouth police were there to greet them. The following week, the student government association voted to ask the administration to rehire the watchman, who had been dismissed following the incident.
 
Shortly thereafter, the faculty passed a resolution that all societies with secret membership be banned from campus. The boys who had been involved in the fracas were disciplined and for the next four years the club itself went into a sub-rosa existence, although the absence of male students on campus due to World War II would have made an undergraduate Octopus Club unfeasible anyway.
 
Return of the Octopus
The club was resurrected in 1946, at which time selected members from the classes of 1944 through 1946 who had returned from military service were invited to join the organization.
 
In the fall of 1950, a new landmark appeared on campus. According to the 1952 Ravelings, the landmark “was merely a tombstone with a foreboding black octopus. It appeared one morning near the diagonal walk in front of Wallace Hall under the pretense of a newly dug grave. Its immediate impression was the death of the order, but since then evidences have reaffirmed the fact that Octopus is very much alive.”
By the early 1970s — a time of social and political turbulence — the undergraduate Octopus Club had faded into obscurity. According to Professor William Urban’s 1979 college history, that was when “the last secret fraternity, the Octopus Club (actually a senior men’s honorary society) ceased to mar the landscape by painting its symbol on every rock and building in sight.”
 
Rebirth of the Octopus
An anonymous letter written to Octopus alumni, circa 1989, stated that the Octopus Club resurfaced in fall 1985 “to enlighten the campus, promote school spirit, and enhance the student community. … The new Octopus Club saw its main goal to unify the school, rather than tolerating any continued opposing factions or interests.”
 
The letter, which was headed “Secrecy Equals Success,” said that the club’s resurgence came about “when concerned members of the campus community gathered together members of each social group.” (It may be noted that candidates for admission to the organization were traditionally selected ecumenically — two from each fraternity, plus two independent men.)
 
The letter also made note of the fact that the original Octopus Rock was destroyed by vandals in spring 1987 and asked for donations to replace the landmark.
 
A few months later, a letter signed “The Octopus Club — Past, Present, and Future” was sent to the college’s public relations office for inclusion in the alumni magazine. The letter told of the replacement of the Octopus Rock with a granite replica and asked that the Octopus Club be given the respect it deserved as an important part of the college’s heritage and as an organization devoted to advancing the college.
 
In 2004, the college hosted its first Octopus Club alumni reunion during that year’s Alumni Weekend. In ensuing years, through the efforts of Octopus alumni, the student organization again became active on campus, and added women to its membership. To demonstrate its existence, the symbol of the octopus again makes an annual appearance on the Class of 1879 memorial.