It’s the jackets that surely spark the curiosity: the bright colors, the zigzagging lines and the entwining geometric shapes. It’s the jackets that are the envy of every University of Miami student with a true passion for The U.
Iron Arrow Honor Society members have been donning these jackets since its inception in 1926. Considered the first real tradition at UM, Iron Arrow was formed by Dr. Bowman Foster Ashe and inspired by the rituals of the Seminole Indian Tribe. Nine men — Dale C. Clarke, Robert Fink, Harry Gray, Francis Spencer Houghtaling, Norman Ted Kennedy, John C. McGuire, Gavin S. Millar, Howard Southgate, Leonard M. Tuttle and Clarke B. Wilson — later known as the “Founding Nine,” began the society with the goal “to honor those male students who had contributed significantly to the glory, fame & growth of UM,” according to the society’s official website (ironarrow.com).
In the 1950s, many of Iron Arrow’s traditions were transcribed, and a constitution independent of the university was written. During the 1960s, campus life at the University of Miami was limited. Bruce Rubin, who graduated with a journalism degree in 1969 and was tapped in the mid-1970s, explained, “It was classes and social life and athletics, and there was this Iron Arrow society that you knew about but didn’t know that much about.”
A period of tension between the society and the university started in the early 1970s. Iron Arrow was challenged for not allowing women into the organization and charged with demeaning Native Americans. Though the charges regarding the latter were later dropped, negative editorials appeared in campus publications somewhat regularly about Iron Arrow’s gender exclusion. The organization was kicked off campus in 1976 for its gender rules. It was not until 1985 that the group accepted women.
Rubin, now a founding chairman and senior counsel at rbb Public Relations as well as a member of the UM Citizens Board, thinks that this controversial history plays into the mystery of the organization. “A long, long time ago, it was not unusual to have an all-male organization. A lot of businesses and societies changed, but Iron Arrow didn’t and had to be forced, kicking and screaming,” he said. “I think it actually served to enhance the mystique of Iron Arrow, sort of like a high-end marketing appeal.”
These days, Iron Arrow represents a more modern set of values. Open to those of all genders and creeds, the organization honors students, alumni, faculty, staff and administration members who exhibit scholarship, leadership, character, humility and love of alma mater. Simply stated, the society is considered the highest honor attainable at the University of Miami.
Yet, for being the highest honor at UM, most people don’t know very much about Iron Arrow. In fact, Iron Arrow members try to keep it that way. Outsiders typically recognize the fire and smoke in what’s usually, and incorrectly, referred to as “the giant birdbath” (for the sake of terminology, its real name is the “Iron Arrow Fire Bowl”). They notice the extra people that show up around Homecoming, run onto the field with the football players and disappear. And the jackets. Everyone notices the jackets.
Elena Doyle, Chief of Iron Arrow, never wanted to go to UM. “My parents made me,” she recalled. “But it was the best thing my parents ever made me do.” She majored in psychology, graduated in May 2008 and is now studying criminal law at UM’s School of Law. During her undergraduate years, she served as the president of the Federacion de Estudiantes Cubanos, the chair of the Committee on Student Organizations, the president of the Omicron Delta Kappa Society and the program coordinator for orientation. In the spring of her junior year, Iron Arrow welcomed her into its honor society.
Now, Doyle wears a white jacket to signify her role as Chief of Iron Arrow. Only the sixth female chief, she “coordinate[s] events and activities with the officers and represents the tribe to the University of Miami community and community at large.”
Each Chief is elected by a secret committee and holds office for one academic year. During her time on the job, Doyle helped start an informational lecture series sponsored by Iron Arrow in which distinguished tribe professionals speak on issues that will “give the community the opportunity to benefit from our members.” The first, held on Feb. 1, featured Dr. Orlando E. Silva, who is Director of Breast Cancer Education and Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at the medical campus. She presented a “Nutritional and Lifestyle Guide to Cancer Prevention.”
Iron Arrow participates in other public events such as Homecoming. It leads the Homecoming parade and stands on the football field as the team rushes out for the game. Later in the year, Iron Arrow members also have “Honor Courts,” where they welcome the basketball and baseball teams onto their respective fields. Privately, they hold members-only luncheons, commencement celebrations and bring in speakers.
The biggest and most mysterious Iron Arrow event is its tapping ceremony, which is held twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring. In a somewhat mysterious fashion, it’s a private ceremony held on public grounds: the Iron Arrow mound near the Rock. It’s a personal experience that is shared with many other people involved in the organization. Members can share their individual tapping stories but not the significance or details of the group’s activities.
Additionally, new members are literally tapped with a mythical iron arrow, presented with one of the coveted jackets and marked with three lines of orange, green and white paint on their foreheads. After the last tapping, they participate in a 24-hour drum vigil during which they rhythmically beat the drum and stoke the fire. Throughout the day and night, many other members visit the mound to witness the honor. The meaning of these proceedings could not be disclosed.
The initiation of new Iron Arrow members is also very secretive. Legend has it that the tribe treks to the Everglades, but no one will reveal the exact location. Punishments for breaking the code of silence remain unknown.
“I don’t think anyone ever has [revealed anything],” mused Doyle. “I don’t think members want to tell. It’s an experience they appreciate.”
Rumors abound regarding Iron Arrow. Michelle-Marie Pena, a senior who was tapped in Spring 2009, heard that new members have to wrestle alligators as part of initiation. Diego Perilla, a graduate student tapped in spring 2005, has been asked if he can walk on fire, since he is Iron Arrow’s Medicine Man.
“It’s silly,” Perilla said. “Many of these secrets and stories that people make up are a result of students making up answers instead of asking us questions.”
It may be silly, but the mystery remains. Just look at those colorful pieces of cotton, the most recognizable traditions of Iron Arrow, imbibed with secrecy.
The bottom line is that regardless of the mystery, “The goal of Iron Arrow has always been to carry out University of Miami traditions,” said Perilla. “And keep the spirit of The U alive.”
Rubin added, “Even though it was a long time ago, I still get a kick out of putting on my jacket for Homecoming. It’s still touching.”
“It’s not the same as being in a social fraternity or sorority. You’re not living in a house or seeing the same people every day. It’s more like being in a professional organization comprised of successful, smart people. And when you get together and see each other, it’s provocative, pleasant and fun. Without trying, it tends to keep you involved in the university,” said Bruce Rubin.
Iron Arrow members share their stories.
1. Elena Doyle, Chief
Tapped: Spring 2007
“I was working at Pier 21 and my boss, who is in Iron Arrow, told me to come in really early for a meeting. I had a test, so I tried to get out of it, but I couldn’t. I was actually reading about women in Iron Arrow in Rendezvous with greatness (a book about the history of the university). I was very emotional. I thought I was going to pass out.”
2. Diego Perilla, Medicine Man
Graduate student: public health and administration
Tapped: Spring 2005
“It took them three times to tap me. One of my classes was cancelled, so I was not where people thought I would be. It was an amazing experience because a good friend of mine and my favorite professor were tapped a couple of minutes before me. Dr. Durel was a mentor of mine since I started at UM, so it was an honor to be in the same tapping class as her and see her crying of joy when I joined her in line.”
3. Bruce Rubin
Founding chairman and senior counsel at rbb Public Relations
“I don’t remember the year because I was not a student. I had graduated in 1969 and was tapped in the mid-1970s. I had no idea that I was being inducted. A pal of mine invited me to breakfast at the UM Holiday Inn (http://www.holidayinn.com/hotels/us/en/MIAUM/hoteldetail?). We were having coffee there, and it turned out to be a set-up. The group came in, banging their drum and tapped me.”
4. Michelle-Marie Pena
Tapped: Spring 2009
“I had a meeting set up with Margaux Manley, the associate director of student activities and student organizations. I had just come out of an 8 a.m. ecology class, and I ran to the Smith-Tucker Involvement Center to make it to the meeting on time. I sat on the green couch reading the latest Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/) magazines Margaux kept telling me that she was running behind. I had a long conversation with Laura Stott, talking about almost every detail about my older sister’s wedding. In the middle of the conversation, I hear the drums. I talked louder to continue the conversation over the drums. Pretty soon, they walked straight into the STIC, and they grabbed me. I was in complete shock. Later that day, as we were leaving the mound, the tappee behind me accidentally broke my shoe, making it an adventure to continue walking in line.”
words_hilary saunders. photo_courtesy of iron arrow.