Brief History of the Omicron Oracle

The Omicron Oracle is the official magazine of the Omicron Alumni Association, published semi-annually and currently edited by Mark Fernau ’82 and published by Brett Ainsworth ’92. It has published continuously since 1935 except for a hiatus during World War II.

Early Days

In the early days of ISWZA, alumni kept in touch through a series of "round robin" letters, with each brother taking turns sending his updates to the others. This became impractical and unreliable within a few years, and after the 1913 installation of ISWZA as Omicron Zeta, the process was centralized in a three-man body called the Executive Board of the Alumni. These brothers, Neil D. Preston, Leon M. Brockway, and George C. Robinson, were charged with maintaining an alumni treasury and using it to record major events in each alumnus' life and keep the alumni apprised of the undergraduate chapter. They attempted this at first by enlisting class secretaries to correspond directly with the members of each graduating class.

This, too, proved unworkable, and in October 1916 the Board published Volume I, No. 1 of a paper, the Omicron Alumni News. Still, it was considered only the latest experiment in attempting to maintain close communication among the members, with an exhortation put to the membership, alumni and undergraduate, to make it a success:

Each member of the Board stands ready to put time and money if need be in gathering material, arranging it and getting out this paper. But each alumnus must understand that the Board cannot do everything and that their co-operation is necessary. The Board should receive a prompt reply to their requests for personal news and a ready response from an alumnus when asked to write on a designated subject.

The alumni should even take the initiative, write the Board suggestions, criticisms, articles on how the arrangement of the paper, the organization of the chapter or alumni body, can be bettered or any matter of interest to our brothers. Such co-operation will urge the Board to greater efforts and will, we feel sure, produce results of which we all shall be proud.

The Omicron Alumni News

The inaugural issue of the Omicron Alumni News contained all the familiar content: a report from the undergraduate chapter of its activities and membership, and bits of alumni news and gossip, address changes, and a call for contact information for lost brothers. Six months later, Vol I, No. 2 added an exhortation by E.J.C. Fischer '10 to support Lambda Chi Alpha chapters and alumni associations around the country.

As that issue went to press, however, the United States declared war on the German Empire and entered World War I, with most of the young chapter's alumni and undergraduates alike in uniform and scattered around the world. Volume II, No. 1, would not publish until January 1920, giving an account of the survival of the chapter in Ithaca, news from near and far, and the major postwar development of 1919: the reorganization of the Executive Board of the Alumni into a formal organization, the Omicron Alumni Association, which would take over publication of the Omicron Alumni News as part of its new responsibilities.

The Alumni News published 13 issues in the 1920s, No issue was published in 1930, but as of yet, the effects of the Great Depression could not be blamed. The editorial of the May 1931 issue, enumerated Vol. 12 No. 1, reported in general "it's been mighty hard to get enough news and seems harder still to get it together in presentable shape," and in the specific that undergraduate editor Bronson "Bonny" Collins had fallen down the stairs and fractured some vertebrae, and recovery was consuming his spare energies. The dire state of the economy would weigh in soon enough, however. The last issue of the Omicron Alumni News, dated March 1932, seethed at its readers for their lack of support with a scathing editorial by Robert Scott '32:

It strikes me very forcibly that you indulgent alumni are some what indifferent to this condition with regard to your chapter.

The Omicron Oracle

In 1935, after three years of silence, High Alpha Harry Fowler '35 and newsletter editor Silas B. Weeks '37 offered an olive branch to the alumni, acknowledging that their apparent lack of interest in the chapter had been matched by a lack of chapter interest in the alumni. In each alumnus' mailbox was the first issue of a new publication, named the Omicron Oracle. Despite the name, it offered only one prediction:

The Omicron Oracle is a revival issue of the former Omicron Alumni News, the regular chapter publication, which has not seen the light of day since 1932. Thru this new publication the chapter wishes to renew old contacts and establish new ones. The Chapter also hopes to awaken a much needed interest in the House by the Alumni of this Zeta. However, whether cooperation is obtained from the Alumni or not, Omicron Zeta will attempt to publish at least three issues of the "Oracle" during each school year.

As little alumni news had been submitted, with many alumni unsure of whether the chapter still existed or not, Vol. 1, No. 1 was filled principally with undergraduate news. But Silas Weeks was good as his word, and the next issue followed in June. Alumni participation returned, and the Oracle managed three or four issues a year right up until Pearl Harbor.

The October 1942 issue, enumerated Vol. IX No. 1, included reports from 9 alumni in different theatres of war, amidst the usual news about intramural football and honor society inductees. The next issue in the archives is dated October 1945 and enumerated Vol. XI No. 2; any intervening issues have been lost to history. But whether or not they existed, it was not until that issue that the future was confirmed.

Now that the fraternity has definitely started on its way toward a regular peacetime unit, we expect that the Oracle will be a regular feature, appearing at least once during each term.

Postwar Publication

In 1952, the Omicron Alumni Association contracted Stewart Howe Alumni Service, already serving many other fraternities and sororities on the hill, to manage its communications, including publication of the Oracle. This greatly improved the regularity and consistency of each issue, four to six pages of alumni news, photographs, and undergraduate profiles and reports. As the alumni rolls grew faster than their gifts, however, costs rose. In 1962, the OAA abolished its longstanding system of lifetime alumni dues in favor of an annual giving program, asking each alumnus for $10 per year. After the chapter's semi-centennial celebration in 1963, the Oracle switched to less-expensive typesetting, and then simply to typewritten pages in 1969, although it continued to publish three or four times annually, and continued to be compiled primarily by an undergraduate editor.

In 1974, Henry McNulty '69 attended a New Year's Eve party with seven classmates, who spent much of the evening sharing news and wondering about the others. In the course of writing to his former roommate, Dave Shannon '69, with these updates, Henry realized he had in essence written a class newsletter. The two of them would soon launch a Cornell LXA '69 newsletter going out to brothers of their generation, funded with voluntary contributions, which proved a great success. He would bring his considerable skills and energy as the Oracle's editor for the next three decades.

Under Henry's guidance, the Oracle achieved a new level of professionalism and consistency, publishing a four-page issue every April and November. In addition to regular servings of alumni news, a High Alpha report, and the occasional feature, from 1997 to 1999 the Oracle printed "The Edgemoor Century," a series of recollections of life the house over the decades, starting with Frank Schaefer '29 writing about the 1920s and ending with Jason Cho '98 with his take on the 1990s.

Transition to Magazine

In 2008, Sandy Gilbert '62 felt the urge to come back to Ithaca for his first Homecoming in some years, and began reaching out to his classmates to encourage the same. Excitement soon built among brothers across the whole decade of the 1960s, and Homecoming 2009 was the most successful in decades. It also motivated Sandy to launch a newsletter for Omicrons from the classes of the 1950s and ’60s, much in the spirit of Henry and Dave's '69 newsletter, but assembled and distributed online—free from constraints on size, colors, photographs, or frequency as with a print publication. This would prove an inspiration.

In 2010, the Oracle's 75th year, the OAA voted to end the print run of the newsletter; the international Fraternity had already done away with its paper magazine for several years, and the university was also curtailing its printed output. Work began on the transition to a new format, and a new editor. Sandy, a former staffer with Time and Smithsonian magazines, and Brett Ainsworth '92, publisher of a local newspaper in New Jersey, created the latest incarnation (pardon the expression) of Omicron Zeta's publication.

The first online Oracle was published in October 2011, in which Henry wrote his farewell thoughts, and welcomed new columns by university trustee Steve Ashley '62, Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council chair Ralph Wilhelm '67, and many other new alumni columnists. The new issue ran to 20 pages in full color, with more photographs than ever before, and proved a tremendous upgrade in impact. Sandy guided the Oracle for several more years, until in 2018 he retired after a decade of service to the chapter. Mark Fernau '82, an academic editor with the American Meteorological Society, has guided the publication since then.

Archives of the Omicron Alumni News, published 1916 to 1931, and of the print Oracle, published 1935 to 2011, are available to members upon request.