Whether you’re beginning out freshman year or finishing your final quarter, the tree of wisdom has become all too familiar. Every day, we see the little blue symbol mounted on buildings, stitched to backpacks and waiting in our inbox. Yet, its significance is still often overlooked. So, what does it mean?
Since its adoption in 1976, the tree of wisdom has become synonymous with DePaul University. “The name refers to our motto, in which DePaul hopes to offer our students more than knowledge, but real wisdom for living well throughout their lives ahead,” former DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider said.
Originally referred to as “The Tree of Knowledge,” the symbol earned its current moniker in 1995, when former DePaul President Rev. John T. Richardson, Rev. Paul L. Golden and Davis Sims constructed an official explanation for the symbol through a series of memorandums.
Their final statement, which is still promoted by DePaul, states, “The Tree of Wisdom expresses the university’s integration of education and religion by combining the forms of a tree and a cross.”
According to DePaul, the central symbol is a modified cruciform, suggestive of the university’s Catholic roots as well as the human form—with outstretched arms giving “spirit and life” to the environment. The upright, balanced figure conveys the strength of knowledge and values.
Viewing the symbol as a single unit, the tree stands firmly on the ground. It has “age and fullness” in its trunk and limbs, suggesting tradition; and “youth and simplicity” in the internal negative white space represents leaf forms and sapling growth.
Typographically, the symbol incorporates the lowercase letter forms d, p and u. The “u” extending upward from the trunk is a true arc. According to DePaul, “Its position relative to the figure represents support, rather than containment, just as the university supports the human spirit in the pursuit of knowledge and the deepening of religious values.”
“In the end, it simply means ‘DePaul,’” Holtschneider said. “Our students and alumni who wear it are showing pride in this institution, and that makes me proud to see.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone at DePaul who wears The Tree of Wisdom as proudly as grad student Brenda Chavez, who has it tattooed on her back.
“The integration of a tree and cross representing education and religion is everything I believe in,” Chavez said, crediting the symbol for her enrollment at DePaul. “I loved the idea of attending an institution where the foundation is built on Catholic values, but the courses, faculty, staff and student body are coming from different backgrounds so the education is unique and holistic.”
This principal of inclusivism was considered thoroughly during the creation of The Tree of Wisdom, which was designed by Barry Salvin over 40 years ago. Daring for its time, Slavin’s design initially received mixed feedback. “The cross is overpowering,” said former faculty advisor Al Kipp in a letter from 1975. It was feared that the Catholic symbol would be a stumbling block for the university’s large Jewish audience.
“This religious aspect is reflected in the use of the blank space (or negative quality) and extends itself to openness,” said former faculty member Mary Jo Graf, an advocate for the design. “This is, in essence, what has been carried on at DePaul and has been stated by the alumni—Christianity (specifically, of course, Catholicism) is apparent at DePaul, but it is understated and is carried on through attitudes and approaches to people.”
“It’s ahead of its time—and that’s exciting,” said Tim Unsworth, former head of DePaul’s alumni and development offices. “We are doing something here that has not been done elsewhere. We’re making a statement about ourselves that looks forward—not to the right or left or behind.”
As ambiguous as The Tree of Wisdom has become, DePaul’s coat of arms is even lesser known. It’s an emblematic description of the founding of DePaul and is reserved for use on official, formal and ceremonial documents—like the diploma many received in June.
According to DePaul, “the main section of the shield consists of a nine panes forming a heraldic cross, the symbol of the Christian faith.” In the center pane is a heart, the symbol of charity for St. Vincent de Paul whose lifetime of service to God and humanity made him the international symbol of charity. The upper section contains three fleur-de-lis, symbolic of his homeland, France, and the Holy Trinity.
Two references are made to Chicago. A line, suggestive of the wall of Fort Dearborn, separates two sections of the seal, and the phoenix rising from flames is symbolic of the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871.
In the ribbon is DePaul’s motto, “Viam Sapientiae Monstrabo Tibi,” (Proverbs 4:11), which translates to “The way of wisdom I will show you.”
Another DePaul mark with a curious origin is the Blue Demon—the university’s athletic logo.
In 1900, when the first athletic team to ever represent DePaul was organized, the monogram “D” was selected for the all-boy school’s jerseys. For this originated the nickname “D-Men,” which eventually evolved to “Demons.” In 1922, the name became official. The color blue in the name and logo signifies loyalty and was chosen in 1901 by a vote of the student body.
While a Catholic university promoting a demon logo might seem like a terrible contradiction, the idea is purely phonetic, rather than satanic. “In fact, the original design of the “Blue Demon” is from the gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris,” Richardson said. In 1999, the current Blue Demon logo replaced the original design—known as “Billy Blue Demon”—which was created in 1979.
“Symbols are important,” Rev. Ed R. Udonvic, former senior executive for the University Mission, told The DePaulia in 1996. “No symbol can become a substitute for substance, but it can promote the university’s history and purpose.”