The Wooden Spoon
Back when Oberlin still had fraternities and sororities, and when male and female students lived in separate parts of the campus, there was the Order of the Wooden Spoon. This tradition began in 1896 during the Class Day exercises of the commencement ceremony on June 18, with a simple entry in the schedule for the events that day: Senior Julia Patton’s Address to Undergraduates was followed by the Ceremony of the Wooden Spoon.
Patton’s speech was given as students grew more and more impatient to see the inaugural Ceremony of the Wooden Spoon. The Oberlin Review described the eager curiosity “of the audience as to the nature of the ceremony…[as]…naturally extreme.”
Finally, senior Charles Alvan Brand, OC 1895, stepped on stage and brought relief to all the tension. The significance of the ceremony laid in the fact that “the homeliest man in the Senior class had been selected to give the [Wooden Spoon to the] homeliest man in the Junior class.”
According to the standards in the 1890s, Brand may have been a pretty “homely” chap, but his picture today may evoke a different reaction. Performing his duty as a recipient of the Spoon, Brand turned the responsibility for it over to junior Howard Clark Barnes. Unfortunately, there is not a photo of Barnes; thus, no basis to judge whether or not he deserved the title.
Not only was the Spoon passed on but also the sense of tradition in homeliness. Brand opened the ceremony with the statement that “it was an undoubted axiom that the harder and the longer a man works, the homelier he becomes.” He also claimed Lincoln and Socrates, two famous homely celebrities, as patron saints of the Order. After this he granted Barnes the Spoon, which was inscribed with the words, “ho aischros labeto” meaning, “Let the ugly person receive me.”
Barnes accepted the Spoon with a speech in response to Brands, also abundant with “numerous roasts and personal hits.” He also emphasized that history was being made that day.
He wasn’t far from the truth. The following year, the Ceremony of the Wooden Spoon took place once again. This time, senior Barnes passed the Spoon to junior Vernon Ozro Johnston. Although some would say that the junior’s looks were too attractive for the honored prize, it was his middle name that earned him the Spoon.
From that point on, the story of the Spoon becomes blurry. There are no records of the Ceremony taking place in the following years. What may have been a short lived tradition of humor and good intentions surely left a warm mark in the heart of the first recipient of the Spoon — Charles Brand. There are records that by 1958 he had made every attempt to retrieve the prize he valued so much and was successful in reclaiming it.
The Wooden Spoon was probably the most humorous tradition to emerge in the early years of Oberlin, but it was certainly not the only one that included the inheriting of tools or utensils.
Following the Ceremony of the Wooden Spoon in 1895 was the recitation of the Ivy Ode, after which the Spade Oration proceeded, delivered by senior John Hawley. The Spade Oration tradition involved the passing on of a, well, spade to a member of the junior class, representing the idea that work and labor are inseparable parts of their Oberlin education.
“Work happily” was one of the many pieces of advice passed on from senior to juniors with the Spade. The notion that “when drudgery [is] taken out of work then it [becomes] play,” was one of the founding principles of Oberlin, and it is one that students probably can still understand today. The junior class expressed their gratitude to the graduating class and concluded the ceremony by saying that they “pledge themselves to keep the Spade from the ambitious Freshmen and the wily Cads.” This tradition is possibly worth restoring.
There is no doubt that homely and hard-working students are still present on this campus — we all know they are here, biking their ways through knowledge day after day. In the past they were honored thus with special treats and spectacular prizes, and today they go unnoticed. Is that fair? An appeal to the graduating class: Class of 2007, bring back the humor. Restore the Ceremony of the Spoon and the Spade!