The Wise Owl Club (09/21/2018)

We have a guest columnist for this week’s Footnote. Dr. Jim Connors at the University of Idaho authored this week’s Friday Footnote. Thanks, Jim.  If you want to contact Jim regarding this information he can be reached at

For over a century secondary agricultural education programs have offered hands-on instruction in agricultural mechanics.  These courses often involved work in an agricultural mechanics laboratory developing skills in welding, metal fabrication, woodworking, electricity, concrete, etc.  This instruction usually started off with in-class lessons on tool identification, proper usage, and of course laboratory safety.  Any work in an agricultural mechanics laboratory would first start with the proper use of safety glasses or goggles.

However, only the most senior instructors in our profession may remember the Wise Owl Club.  As most people in agricultural education know, the owl has been a symbol of the Advisor in the FFA since its inception in 1928.  However, owls are also known for their eyesight that allows them to hunt prey in total darkness.  As a result, the owl is also a symbol for the Wise Owl Club.

Throughout the industrial revolution in America, workers often faced severe hazards that could easily result in eye injuries or the loss of their eyesight.  The Wise Owl Club of America started with a suggestion by a worker at the American Car and Foundry Company in St. Louis, MO in 1947.  The worker, Joe Folks suggested, “Why not make something special out of those who have had their vision saved by eye protectors?  Make something special out of a close call.”

Figure 1 Wise Owl Club display table with photos of three workers wearing safety glasses—and a stuffed owl also wearing safety glasses. (Record Group 434, National Archives Identifier 22118410)

The idea was quickly picked up by the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness.  The society developed educational materials and worked to get eye protection legislation introduced in state legislatures across the country.  The goal was to require the use of appropriate protective eyewear by all students and teachers in school classrooms and laboratories.  The model eye safety law as drafted required all students and teachers to wear approved eye protective devices when participating in certain vocational, industrial arts, and chemical-physical laboratory courses.

An article in The Agricultural Education Magazine (O’Neil, 1972) by James E. O’Neil, Director of Industrial Service for the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness titled “Wise Owl: Symbol of Sight” explained the club to the agricultural education profession.  According to O’Neil, there were over 50,000 members in over 6,000 chapters.  Any school or agricultural education program could charter a chapter of the Wise Owl Club.  However, eligibility for membership required that a student or teacher must have had their eyesight saved by the use of some type of eyewear protection.  Teachers or school officials had to verify that the accident occurred and the individual’s eyesight was saved by using eye protection.  Lifetime membership was $2.00.  Members received a membership certificate, gold lapel pin, and shop badge.  Special Citations were available if a member had his/her eyesight saved more than once.  It was recommended that membership certificates be awarded in special ceremonies that could be used to educate and stimulate interest in eye safety.

Figure 2 Leo Kalis shows the broken tool that could have blinded him and the protective eyewear that saved his vision and earned him membership into the Wise Owl Club. (Record Group 255, National Archives Identifier 17474611.

The Wise Owl Club was eventually adopted by the Prevent Blindness America organization (  and operated as the Wise Owl Eye Safety Recognition Program.  Current statistics on the organization’s website state that over 86,000 individuals have had their eyesight saved by wearing eye protection and are members of the club.  Unfortunately, the organization no longer operates the Wise Owl program.  The organization does offer general eye safety information on its website.

The Georgia group of Prevent Blindness organization ( does offer a Star Pupils Eye Health and Safety Curriculum series for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.  No curriculum for promoting eye protection for secondary students and teachers could be found.

As agricultural education programs continue to offer courses in agricultural mechanics and students work in laboratory settings, eye protection continues to be a critically important safety practice. The Wise Owl Club was used to promote eye protection and recognize individuals who used proper eye protection devices which helped to save their eyes from injury.  Perhaps the Wise Owl Club of America should be reorganized to promote eye protection in all areas of career and technical education and among agricultural education instructors and students across the country.

Teaching Ideas:

  1. Review your school’s policy on eye protection in career and technical education classes, agricultural education courses, and science laboratories.
  2. Talk to your agricultural teacher(s) about their philosophy of using eye protection in agricultural mechanics laboratory settings.
  3. Review curriculum materials used in your agricultural education program to teach shop safety prior to students using laboratory equipment.
  4. Work with your agriculture teacher(s) to obtain and display educational posters about shop safety, eye protection devices, and personal protective equipment.
  5. Contact local businesses and inquire about their policies on personal protection equipment (PPE) they require their employees to use while on the job.
  6. Conduct on-line research on careers in Environmental Health and Safety.

One more teaching idea from Gary Moore:  While teaching high school I created four  “special” sets of safety glasses. When I caught students not wearing safety glasses, they had to wear one of the “special” glasses depending upon what they were doing. Your local optometrist could probably give you glasses to use and help you “doctor” them up. Here is a description of each.

  1. The lens were shattered on one set. It was hard to see through them. This somewhat simulates the value of wearing safety glasses.
  2. The lens were coated with shellac. The vision through them was blurry and represents what happens with metal or wood splinters in the eye.
  3. The lens were shellacked with very small clear circles in the middle of each lens. This mimics how vision might be affected by fumes from certain chemicals.
  4. The lens were painted black which represents blindness caused by not wearing safety glasses.

The students had to wear the glasses for 10-15 minutes. They got the message.


National Archives (2017). The Wise Owl Club.  National Archives Pieces of History.  Retrieved from

O’Neil, J. E. (September 1972).  Wise owl: Symbol of Sight.  The Agricultural Education Magazine, 45(3), p. 70.

The Norwalk Hour (October 31, 1978).  Join Wise Owl Club. Did safety Goggles Protect Your Eyes? Published in The Norwalk Hour, Norwalk, CT.

Walker, J. (2007).  Recognize workers to encourage PPE acceptance.  EHS Today.  Retrieved from


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