When I received the offer to become president of Rice University almost six years ago, I don’t think I had any possession in the shape of an owl or with an owl depicted on it.
Now I am constantly on the prowl for an owl, and through purchases and gifts, my wife, Ping, and I have acquired owl-laden pins, pendants, rings, earrings, ties, cuff links, key chains, water pitchers, decanters, glasses, candles, soap and small boxes, as well as innumerable owl sculptures of every shape, size and material.
“Our passion for our university is reflected in our passion for its symbols, and no symbol has endured longer or endeared itself more to the Rice community than the owl. ”
Single owls, double owls, triple owls (hearing, seeing and speaking no evil) and quadruple owls. Some are literal representations and some abstract. As I travel around the world, I look for an owl to buy in every country I visit, and I typically return with some small owl souvenir for my office staff. I have cloisonné and lacquer owls from China, ceramic owls from Korea and Japan, copper owls from Chile, a marble owl inlaid with semiprecious stones (in the style of the Taj Mahal!) from India, glass owls from Venice and a wooden owl carved by Native Americans near the Grand Canyon.
In fact, I have developed a somewhat uncanny ability to walk into a shop, look around quickly, and spot the two-inch owl 30 feet away. (Possibly an exaggeration, but if so, only a slight one.)
In short, I have fully succumbed to owlmania. The dictionary defines a “mania” as “excessive excitement or enthusiasm” for something (assuming we fall short of the psychiatric definition of “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement”). Of course, we at Rice would never agree that our mania for owls is excessive. It is merely appropriate.
The official Rice owl is not just any owl. It is the Athenian owl taken from a Greek coin that is nearly 2,500 years old. Most Greek gods were associated with some animal, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was associated with the owl. Thus the owl became the symbol of wisdom in Western culture.
This past summer, my family and I were in Athens. As you might imagine, Athens is to owlmaniacs what Havana is to cigar aficionados. Everywhere you go in Athens, you find things that have not only an owl on them, but an owl that looks like the official Rice owl on our seal. Even the Greek version of the one euro coin features the traditional Athenian owl. In fact, you can find more Rice symbols in Athens than you can in Houston’s airports or at the Galleria — unfortunately.
Although those afflicted with owlmania can be a bit indiscriminating — almost any owl will do! — it is nonetheless important that we also treasure and elevate our official owl. You probably already have begun seeing that owl a bit more often, and not only as part of our shield. Last year, for example, in addition to having a “RICE” pin in the official Trajan font, we began producing small pewter owl pins that can be worn discreetly on a lapel.
I am not alone in my enthusiasm for all things owl, and for good reason. One of the critical roles of symbols is that they enable us to communicate to others our common sense of identity and belonging to a community — in this case the Rice community. Thus, owlmania is a common characteristic of Rice alumni and others dedicated to Rice. In the homes of Rice graduates, you are likely to find more than a few owls. And as I wander around offices at Rice, I discover that even the most rational and mild-mannered of my colleagues have succumbed to the affliction.
This is as it should be. Our passion for our university is reflected in our passion for its symbols, and no symbol has endured longer or endeared itself more to the Rice community than the owl, whether it takes the form of Sammy the Owl, the “war” or “predator” owl of athletics, or the three Athenian owls on our shield. Owlmania is simply one more way in which we demonstrate our loyalty and affection for Rice.