Griffin 1920: House F, the original Doyle Owl captors
Griffin 1920: House F, the original Doyle Owl captors

Following the Owl

When did the Doyle Owl make its first appearance?

By Jon Bates ’67 and Cara Nixon | November 13, 2023

Before the Doyle Owl was a slab of concrete painted red, battered and bruised from years of scuffles, it was a simple, albeit large, statue stolen by students. But how was it stolen? Why? And what started the snatching between dorms, the beloved tradition of tussling over the owl? The initial thievery of the statue, as well as the story behind the annual fight over it, have been shrouded in mystery. 

The Initial Pilfer

Over 100 years ago, legend says the owl was taken from somewhere near the Reed campus. In the early 20th century, owl statues were often used in gardens or on roof tops to discourage birds and their droppings. But given the base of the original Doyle Owl, it most likely came from a building of some kind, removed from its architectural perch. 

What spurred the theft is up for debate. Was it classic college fun? Were students, after weathering the influenza epidemic and World War I, simply in search of an activity to satisfy their youthful energy, otherwise stolen by tragedy? Or, more simply and less seriously, was the owl just salvaged from someone’s trash, tossed away when it hadn’t done its job keeping the birds at bay?

We may never know exactly how or why the owl was stolen, but we do know—pun not intended—who. In the early years of Reed, the campus was barren compared to what we know it as now. The dormitories were all in the Old Dorm Block and identified by letters from west to east, with the sixth dormitory being “House F,” known now as Doyle. The dormitories at this time were not interconnected or coed, and not all of them were occupied by students; several were devoted to unmarried faculty. But House F housed a group of male students, and though many dorms hosted formal dances which were popular on campus, House F had the special distinction of owning a record player and 80 records—unmatched entertainment for the day. 

Attendance at these dances was recorded and often reported in the Quest or the morning paper, the Morning Oregonian. Indeed, even the chaperones were listed in the reports. The women typically had dance cards which were filled in prior to the actual dance. Dress was formal, and on at least one occasion, the students were in tails and white tie. 

The House F dance in 1917 is the first recorded linking of House F and owls, which begun well before the actual owl statue appeared. The Quest reported: "The programs are characterized by the little black owl perched on the letter F, the adopted emblem of House F."

The following year, the owl theme was even more prominent at the annual dance: Black owls and colord [sic] lights greeted the guests of House F boys at their dance last Saturday night. The faimiliar old assembly hall was lined with th wide-eyed night birds; the percht on window shades and picture rail, on bare walls and light globes, watching the merry company that gatherd to dance away the early night hours.”

The article ends with: “The dance closed to the strains of the House F owl song so often heard issuing from
the upper regions of that house in the wee, sma’ hours of the night.” 

A couple years later, at a dance in 1919, the following ambiguous excerpt may be the first instance in any account of a singular owl, perhaps a statue.

“The owl of course was much in evidence. One was aware of his dominating presence from the moment he first blinkt from the lamps on the stairway until the last strains of the Owl song had died away.” (Quest March 5, 1919, Vol. 7, #13, pg. 1)

While there is not an explicit reference to a statue, the use of “the owl” and “he” suggests a particular owl rather than multiple owls. The phrase “blinkt from the lamps” may tie to a subsequent and much clearer stage of the owl.

We may never know the specifics of how the mysterious owl was obtained. But the tale of the first snatching, at least, is better recorded than the initial pilfer. 

The First Snatch

In February 1920, House F again prepared for the annual dance. The headline of the Quest article prior to the event implies a particular owl will be at the dance: “House F Owl to Take Perch Next Saturday.”

But the owl never appeared at the dance. As reported the following Monday by the Morning Oregonian, the women of House D, known now as Westport, snatched the statue from House F as a prank—marking the beginning of a century-old Reedie tradition.

The Morning Oregonian reported: “House F men of the Reed college dormitory found the large stone owl, official emblem of the house which took ‘flight’ Friday night, perched over the sallyport of House D where it had been placed yesterday morning by the women of the dormitory.

"All the time the F men were madly searching every conceivable hiding place on the Reed campus and were saying hard things against the other men’s houses, the women of D were chuckling.” 

It ultimately found its way back in the clutches of House F, but not without battle scars; its right ear suffered damage during the snatch, as seen in the House F photo from that year.

The next attempted owl snatch occurred not long after the first, when, in March of the same year, House H, convinced by Griffin photographers who wanted a picture of it, tried to steal the statue but were caught in the act by House F. As punishment, Craig Eliot ’24 from House H had his head shaved. A cartoon in the Quest chronicled the event, which the Griffin also published.

In fall 1920, the Quest reported on an enhancement made to the owl. House F’s Howard McGowan ’21 installed an electric lighting system in the statue so that the owl’s eyes gleamed. By the time of the second group picture of House F residents and the owl, Howard was positioned in a place of honor immediately behind the owl. The owl appeared in his senior picture as well. 

Doyle Owl-related antics continued on from there—over the years, it’s been encased in ice, lit on fire, suspended from bridges, transported across the United States, and made to appear in a Tears for Fears music video. Though we may never know the full origin story of the mystifying owl, the spirit
of the first statue and Reed’s early students lives on in the tradition
of the annual snatch.