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February 9: Iron Mask: A Conspiracy in Plain Sight

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On this date in 1968, the University of North Dakota's student newspaper, The Dakota Student, revealed a bombshell – “Iron Mask exists.”

Two days earlier on the 7th, student senator Margaret “Maggie” Rogstad had introduced a resolution to investigate that secret society. Two days later on the 11th, at a special meeting of Student Senate, student president Wayne “Rusty” Drugan outed himself as a member of Iron Mask before resigning his position. On the 13th, Jim Conmy, editor of the Dakota Student and disillusioned Vietnam veteran, wrote a scathing editorial denouncing Iron Mask for spycraft.

The existence of Iron Mask had not exactly been news. This men's secret society had existed at UND since November 7, 1922. During its early years, its members were even listed in the pages of the Dacotah yearbook.

Iron Mask had its defenders. According to attorneys John Marshall of Grand Forks and Thomas Wold of Fargo, “The major purpose of IRON MASK has always been to serve as a clearinghouse for ideas of individual members. IRON MASK has never pretended to function as a legislative body for making policy decisions for the University... At no time has the organization served as an arm of the administration. It is not a Gestapo or spy agency for the university or any other groups or organization.”

Yet, the 1937 Dacotah yearbook proclaimed, “... these members band together for secret activities to coordinate the student body and the administration to the advantage of both.”

The 1938 Dacotah yearbook reported, “Its activities, varied or limited as they might be, are carefully withheld from publicity, and while there is no attempt at personal gain by its members, the organization attempts through its united efforts to be a vital force on campus, if not a recognized one.”

In 1968, times were changing. During the 1930s, the idea of a secret society working hand in glove with UND's president had been openly portrayed as glorious and honorable. Even alluring. By 1968, students would revile the same organization for that secrecy. Their cynicism received some administrative support. Dr. Ronald Barnes, UND's vice president of student affairs, disapproved of secret organizations.

Dakota Datebook by Andrew Alexis Varvel

View a list of references here.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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