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Although he had only been University president for a week, Joab Thomas had already begun his initiation into Parmi Nous.

In fact, sitting in the press box at a football game in 1990, he surprised alumni and administrators by singing the University's entire alma mater, according to the society's newsletter in Pattee. All Parmi Nous members must learn the song.

When he retired in 1995, members said in the newsletter they would miss his presence.

"A visit to the president's office for his signature on a placard was always a high point of the initiation process," reads an article in the newsletter.

Like Skull and Bones, Parmi Nous is a senior honor society -- or as some call it, a secret society.

The group was founded in 1908 by Thomas Piollet, a football player at Penn State and a member of the Thespians, according to La Vie.

He called the group Parmi Nous, a French phrase meaning "among us," said John Black, director of communications and administration for the Penn State Alumni Society. Black was in both Parmi Nous and Lion's Paw as an undergraduate in the 1960s.

The society's symbol is closely tied to the group's name, he said.

Collegian graphic / Lori Kunkle

"The symbol represents the name -- among us," he said. "The symbol to me represents divergent things coming together. It graphically illustrates the phrase 'among us.' "

The society's president and student trustee, Nathan Nair, turned down repeated requests for an interview, saying that Parmi Nous was "a private matter." Other members also declined to be interviewed. The current membership of the society is not made public.

When Parmi Nous was given a list of questions, Nair would answer only one about whether the society influences campus and University politics. He would not respond to other questions, which included how many members the group has, its purpose and its history.

"Parmi Nous does not in any way attempt to subvert or control the politics on this campus, nor does it try to subvert or control University politics through under-handed or unethical means," he said.

The group does not really do anything besides honor students, said David Dapko, the society's adviser.

"They don't do anything specifically as an organization, but they do lots of things generally," Dapko (graduate-telecommunications) said. "They vote in elections. They go to sporting events, all as an effort to support the University, but not collectively as an organization."

The group is also not a secret society, he said.

"There's no big secret to this. . . . They are a registered student organization," Dapko said. "The secrets lie within the symbol and rituals. There are secrets in every organization I've been a member of."

One current member who would talk was Undergraduate Student Government President Jaime Desmond. Because she was inducted into the society this spring, she said she does not know much about the group.

The society's purpose is to honor and recognize students, she said.

"It's to honor Penn State and those who have done a lot for the school," she said.

Her membership in the group created controversy after The Daily Collegian published an anti-endorsement about her campaign. The editorial said the candidates were not putting students first -- a campaign slogan -- because "the (secret) societies offer some 'student leaders' a chance to make policy decisions with no input from the students who will live under them."

Parmi Nous members rallied to her defense, saying the accusations were false.

Who's in Parmi Nous?

In addition to Desmond and Thomas, there are several other well-known Penn Staters in Parmi Nous.

University Board of Trustees President H. Jesse Arnelle was a member in 1955.

Joe Paterno became a member in 1966. Quarterback Wally Richardson is also a member, as was former Penn State football player Stephen Pitts.

Other notable athletes include Mary Ellen Clark, an Olympic bronze medalist in diving who was a member of Parmi Nous in 1985. Of the eight athletes the University sent to the Olympic games in Atlanta, six were members of Parmi Nous, according to the organization's newsletter.

Mike Herr, better known as Mike the Mailman, also is a Parmi Nous member.

At least in his day, Black said, Parmi Nous drew its members from a wider group of students than Skull and Bones.

"(Skull and Bones) tended to focus on people in the student government. Parmi Nous tended to focus on people in athletics, publications, theater, Blue Band and other groups like that," said Black, who was also editor in chief of The Daily Collegian for two years.

To get into Parmi Nous, students must have at least a 2.20 grade point average, according to the constitution. Both Skull and Bones and Lion's Paw have no required GPA.

Students tapped in the spring must have at least sixth-semester standing and students tapped in the fall must be in their seventh semester, according to the constitution.

To be tapped, students must be approved by 80 percent of the active members present in a vote.

Members are chosen from six fields: athletics, dramatics/forensics, publications/communications, student government, spirited activities and Greek organizations/honorary.

The initiation fee is never more than $25 and members must pay a $5 social fee each semester, according to the constitution.

Secret rituals

Just before midnight this fall, a small crowd gathered on the steps of Old Main. Many of the 15 people were blind-folded. As a member shouted at them, they shouted things back such as: "Skull and Bones, Skull and Bones/To you we hiss and boo/We are Penn State's finest/We are Parmi Nous."

So went part of the initiation ceremony this fall for 12 new members of Parmi Nous. Inducted members included Alyssa Cherkin, overall chair of the 1997 Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, Jeff Feinblatt, captain of the men's fencing team, Dana Fritz, a men's basketball player, Matt Rizzo, overall Homecoming chair, and Barry Ritz, former president of the Lion Ambassadors, according to the group's newsletter.

The initiation ceremony for Parmi Nous lasts two nights, according to the newsletter. Copies of the newsletter in Pattee often have members' names and faces crossed out with black marker. The Skull and Bones newsletters in Pattee have no faces or names blacked out.

On one initiation night, a Parmi Nous member reads Penn State's history to inductees in Old Main. The initiation also involves going to the rock that marks the original quarry for the stone used to build Old Main and listening to part of Parmi Nous' history. The group then has a post-initiation party at a cabin rented near the quarry.

New members are initiated within two weeks of being tapped, according to the constitution. There is a formal and informal initiation ceremony.

"The informal initiation shall be used to test character, stability and patience," according to the constitution.

A home of their own

At the moment, Parmi Nous is trying to get an office such as the one Lion's Paw has in 419 Old Main, according to the newsletter.

Possible locations could include Rec Hall, the HUB and the Alumni Center near the University House.

The newsletter notes it will be difficult to find an office.

"The College of Health and Human Development acquired large portions of Rec Hall for office space when it was vacated by the athletic department with the completion of The (Bryce) Jordan Center," the article says. "The HUB, which is currently preparing for a major renovation, and the planned Alumni Center are also difficult options, because dedicated space in these facilities requires a significant financial contribution."

News about the Alumni Center near the University House was published in the newsletter several weeks before it was announced to the public by the University.

The group does have support from at least two administrators though, the newsletter says.

"Nate (Nair) has used his name recognition as the student trustee to discuss the issue with, among others, Director of Athletics Tim Curley, and Parmi Nous Honorary Peter Weiler, the associate vice president for University development," it reads. "Both Tim and Peter have pledged their support for the project."

Nair would not comment on the subject.

Curley has had numerous conversations with Nair, he said, but not about finding an office for Parmi Nous.

"I don't remember being involved in the conversations about office space for this group," he said. "I have not been involved with those discussions."

Weiler did talk to Nair about the topic, but said finding space for any student group is hard.

"We have several societies and student organizations that would probably like the same kind of office space," said Weiler, who is an honorary member of Parmi Nous. "I don't think in any of those facilities you can be selective and say you can do this for one and not for the others."