When Denis Woulfe ’79 visited Hamline University as a prospective student, he asked the admission tour guide if he could see a copy of the student newspaper.
“As I recall, the mid-1970s had been a pretty tumultuous time at Hamline and in the nation,” Woulfe says. “Some of that unrest was still being reflected in the pages of The Oracle.”
Woulfe says he was heartened to know that Hamline gave its students the power to publish an independent newspaper. “That spoke in a positive way about what the institution cherished and valued,” he says.
Needless to say, Woulfe enrolled at Hamline. Several years later, as a junior English major, he became The Oracle’s editor-in-chief. He went on to spend his entire career in the newspaper industry, beginning with an internship his senior year at the Monitor, a Saint Paul community newspaper. Now he is managing editor of that paper, as well as one that covers two neighborhoods in South Minneapolis.
A proud history
The Oracle was first published as a twelve-page monthly journal in 1888, making it the second oldest student newspaper in Minnesota. Only Carleton College’s student newspaper is older, having published its first edition in 1877. As The Oracle celebrates its 125th anniversary this fall, one thing remains the same: In its coverage of news, trends, and events relevant to the Hamline community, it provides a window into the history of the campus and its happenings, particularly what was important to students at the time.
In October 1888, the first editors of The Oracle made clear their mission in the opening editorial. “The feeling has become general that Hamline students should have an organ to represent them,” they wrote. “A paper like this is an advertisement, good or bad, for a college, and acts either as a drawing or repelling force. To draw shall be the aim of this journal.”
In its early days, The Oracle published literary essays, poems, and student orations. Other sections included an account of the personal activities of students and faculty members, such as visits to family and friends, and the coverage of campus events. The Society Directory advertised meetings of Hamline’s literary societies (a precursor to fraternities and sororities), and an Exchanges section shared news from other colleges.
By January 1889, the opening editorial of The Oracle began to address campus issues and the world at large. The Oracle’s first photograph—a shot of Ladies Hall, Science Hall, and University Hall—appeared in the May 1889 edition. Although “keeping a healthy body as well as a healthy mind” was often encouraged in The Oracle’s pages, regular coverage of athletics doesn’t appear until the fall of 1893.
The Oracle began publishing semi-monthly editions in fall 1898, continuing as a twelve-page literary and news journal. It became a six-page weekly newssheet, no longer including a literary section, in 1907. By 1914, The Oracle had changed to a tabloid newspaper.
Through the decades, the news covered in The Oracle remained that of relevance to its core readership of Hamline students. Even coverage of major national and world events was connected to the community. There were articles about memorial services for Hamline men killed in World War I and the administration’s academic plan for draftees during World War II, for example, but no large-scale coverage of the wars themselves.
By the early 1960s, a focus on world events was reflected in student opinion pieces, and in 1964, The Oracle ran a special section titled “Election ’64,” which published student op-ed pieces on major issues of the current political campaigns.
Over the years, students have occasionally published a tongue-in-cheek April Fools edition of the paper, which has been known as The RhetOracle since 1976. By the 1970s, the paper had four sections covering news, opinion, sports, and arts/entertainment. Today’s Oracle includes all of those sections, plus a newly added whimsy page, with cartoons and student-constructed crossword puzzles.
Throughout its history, The Oracle has been entirely student run. At times, faculty members or local journalists have served as the paper’s advisors, but never as its directors. English Professor David Hudson has been the faculty advisor for The Oracle since 2000. He stresses that his role is to advise the staff on topics such as long-term planning or legal, ethical, and personnel issues that may arise.
“I don’t review or approve copy or tell the students what stories to cover,” he says. “Those decisions are entirely up to them.”
A respected forum
Past editors of The Oracle agree that a congenial relationship with Hamline’s administration and student leaders has been key to the paper’s autonomy and success in creating a healthy dialogue on campus.
Richele Messick ’03, a former Oracle news editor and editor-in-chief, noted that part of the paper’s mission was to invite op-eds and letters from the Hamline community so that issues of concern could be discussed within The Oracle’s pages. “I always felt like The Oracle was a respected forum and that we were allowed to write and print what we decided was important,” she says.
Carol Schultz Lindahl ’69 found that her work on The Oracle—she was on staff for four years and editor-in-chief during her senior year—overlapped with her student worker job in Hamline’s News Bureau, the official media relations arm of the university, allowing for a close relationship with administrators on campus. In 1968, Lindahl interviewed Richard Bailey at his previous institution shortly after he was appointed president of Hamline.
“I always felt supported by President Bailey and by Larry Anderson, who was director of the News Bureau. Larry was very willing to help students who worked at The Oracle,” she says. Lindahl majored in mathematics and went on to become a technical and medical writer. She also returned to campus for twelve years to work for the News Bureau.
Woulfe recalls a time when he and another Oracle staff member were summoned to a dean’s Summit Avenue home to discuss a sensitive personnel matter at the university.
“We were flattered that we were being treated with that kind of respect in terms of the role The Oracle played in covering important issues,” Woulfe says. The dean also told the students that as soon as the paper was delivered to the student center, a secretary from Old Main would collect copies to distribute to top administrators.
“It was pretty heady stuff to think that The Oracle had that measure of importance on campus,” Woulfe says.
Illuminating decision-making at both the administrative and the student level was considered part of The Oracle’s purpose, says Robin Juni ’88, who majored in physics and political science and was editor-in-chief during her senior year.
“We tried to provide some transparency about how decisions affecting the Hamline community were made,” she says. “We were advocates for free information about what went on behind the scenes, whether it was the student congress or the administration.”
A proven training ground
Hamline doesn’t offer a major in journalism, so working on The Oracle helps students get experience in the field, as well as develop skills that transfer well to other fields. Many of The Oracle’s past staffers still use the skills they learned as writers, designers, and editors producing a weekly newspaper.
Messick, who majored in communication studies and religion, says her work on The Oracle prepared her well for her current job in PR and media relations as vice president and communications manager for Wells Fargo. She spent many late nights in Drew Science Center putting the paper to bed and “loved every crazy minute of it,” she says. “Because of Thursday’s all-nighters, I definitely did worse on Friday morning biology tests, but the experience I gained was worth it.”
Messick and Juni both say that running The Oracle gave them a crash course in management: of time, people, and finances. Lindahl agrees that what she did as editor-in-chief would today be called “project management.”
“The most challenging thing was to manage a group of people to get a task done at a specific time,” Juni says, “as was disciplining yourself to produce a well-written story on a deadline.” Juni attended law school after Hamline, practicing environmental law for twenty years before becoming the assistant dean of students at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.
Working on The Oracle continues to provide students with real-world journalism experience in writing, reporting, and meeting tight deadlines, says current editor-in-chief Preston Dohls-Graf ’15, who is majoring in history and minoring in legal studies.
“We aim for good stories that are backed up by facts and quality reporting,” he says. Sometimes, given college students’ busy lives, stories fall through or deadlines aren’t met in time for Sunday’s layout session, and that’s when things get interesting, Dohls-Graf says.
“I’ve learned to think on my feet, come up with backup plans, and execute them effectively,” he says. Staffers at The Oracle “wear many hats,” multitasking when needed. “Getting to try new things is all part of the fun,” Dohls-Graf says. “Sure, it’s under pressure sometimes, but people who really love The Oracle have to love a little pressure.”
A bright future
Today’s Oracle staff continues the paper’s proud history, producing a twelve-page weekly tabloid with students from all disciplines, fitting for a liberal arts university. It has been lauded as one of the Midwest’s best college newspapers, and in 2013, won the first-place award for its full-color, thirty-two-page special edition magazine and fourth-place award for four-year weekly tabloid at the Associated Collegiate Press Best of the Midwest Conference.
The Oracle has moved into the digital age by sharing stories online and exploring Facebook as a potential forum for the discussion of campus issues.
Those who have worked on The Oracle in the past share an appreciation for its influence on campus and a hope for its continued success.
“It seems it will always have an important role in communicating what’s important to the Hamline community,” Lindahl says.
Woulfe agrees with that sentiment, adding, “I hope they pass The Oracle out in the admission office.” (They do.)