Current Issue

July 16, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 16


Loads of characters, plenty of plot

What class reunion books can tell us

By Landon Y. Jones ’66
Published in the July 16, 2008, issue

Ricardo Barros

When the men of Princeton’s Class of 1885 prepared to gather for their 25th reunion, they decided to publish a book reporting the latest doings of classmates “in anticipation of the reunion in June, 1910.” The 116 pages of the resulting hardcover volume did that and more: They not only provide brief sketches of the 165 or so 1885ers who contributed their biographies, but also open a window into belle époque life. Meet Chester Allen Arthur of Colorado Springs, “the Colorado representative on the committee for the Taft inauguration ball. He drives a four-in-hand, and otherwise leads the life of a gentleman of leisure.” Less fortunate since graduation, perhaps, was Dr. William E. Woodend. He was listed with “Address Unknown” and identified as “a broker at one time. The New York Sun of May 1, 1904, has a couple of columns on the smash-up of his firm.”

The slender Class of 1885 volume is among the Princeton 25th-reunion books assembled in a reference room in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. The 25th-reunion books — which date back at least to one published by the Class of 1853 in 1878 — are the keystone volumes in the Mudd Library collection of 25 shelves of books published by Princeton’s classes at their major (and sometimes minor) reunions. Just as 1885’s book preserves a sepia-tinged snapshot of the turn of the century, the collection bears witness to the marriages, children, job changes, aspirations, vacations, midlife crises, and personal victories of generations of alumni. These details are gathered into narrative essays — the life stories of people who choose to tell us about who they are and how they got there. The narratives they construct — what they put in, what they leave out — can tell us much about the changing character of Princeton alumni and the times they lived in.

When the Class of 1897 published its first book, a directory of classmates’ addresses, just a year after graduation, it added a special tribute to the class’s “war heroes” serving in the Spanish-American War, which had broken out in 1898. It was the first of many reunion books that periodically reflected the impact of a foreign war. At the 25th reunion of the Class of 1969, 80 percent reported that they held advanced degrees — a lingering result of the Vietnam-era draft deferment given to graduate students in those days.

The books reveal the character of their times in other ways. Early Princeton reunion books listed classmates not only alphabetically but also by their professions. In its first-reunion book, for instance, the Class of 1899 grouped classmates under the headings “studying,” “business,” “draughting and engineering,” “journalism,” and “practicing law.” (Future physicians were listed as still “studying.”)

More recent Princeton alumni cannot be grouped so easily. John Oakes ’83, who drafted and analyzed the class survey for the most recent 25th-reunion book, was struck by his classmates’ diversity. “There are many lawyers and financial people in traditional careers, but they are very open to life and ‘liberal’ in the general sense,” he says. “They have not become narrower, as you might expect. They have broadened in their interests and attitudes.” Nor are the members of ’83 single-mindedly committed to their careers. Having already dealt with the work-family balance, these alumni “say it’s not all about work for them; it’s about family,” according to Juli Greenwald ’83, who edited her class’s 25th-reunion book (which was not yet available when this article went to press). “Work is nice, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”

Other recent 25th-reunion classes appear to have shared in that experience. A visitor from Mars examining the Class of 1982’s 25th-reunion book — a lively, four-color volume that includes 350 individual profiles, a class survey with computer graphics, and several hundred photographs — might conclude that Princeton was educating a generation of adventurers. The men and women of ’82 are seen skiing, boating, helicoptering, and fishing in locations that range from Boston to Baghdad to the South Pole. They are accompanied by spouses, same-sex partners, children, pets, and at least one frog. Pictures submitted by alumni from classes as recently as the early 1970s were dominated by formal, publicity-department head shots, but I could find only two photos of ’82ers in a professional setting, and in one of them the alumnus is juggling.

Not that ’82 is lacking in professional accomplishment. Theirs is an elite chosen for success, and the book is peppered with now-prominent names: the actor David Duchovny, Democratic Party activist Bruce Reed, Hollywood studio president Theodore Gagliano, and AOL executive Lynda Clarizio. There is a large group of published authors and journalists, including Joel Achenbach, Lisa Belkin Gelb, Christopher Chambers, Bart Gellman, Michael Lewis, Virginia Postrel, and Todd Purdum — all of them from one of the last classes of undergraduates that did not use personal computers at Princeton. Asked about this literary flowering, the book’s editor, Elizabeth “Wiz” Lippincott ’82, observes, “Many of us didn’t feel the need to go to graduate school to succeed. [It was a time] when magazines and newspapers were strong, and the best education was on the job, not in a classroom.”

One virtue of reunion books is that they prompt a kind of periodic self-assessment before a comparison group of your peers. Is your career meeting your expectations? What about your family priorities? What are your goals? At their 25th, the men and women of ’82 contributed remarkably candid essays, perhaps because they felt safe addressing a trusted group of friends. They know that they are extraordinarily privileged; almost all express gratitude for the blessings in their lives. Some essays are humorous and self-deprecating. More serious ones comprise a mosaic of themes that emerge again and again: the joys and difficulties of parenting, the passing of one’s own parents, the slightly anxious jokes about losing car keys and forgetting names. The motif of the so-called midlife crisis is heard again and again from this group of ambitious 47-year-olds: “After 20 years in software sales, I finally committed to follow a calling I feel I have always had to become a teacher and football coach.” ... “Twenty-five years on, I’ve changed — more rhythm, less blues” ... “Maybe I’ve had a midlife crisis, and maybe I’ve just come to trust what I believe.”

As Greenwald discovered in editing the ’83 book, Lippincott reports that a dominant theme in the 1982 essays was “the effort made and candidness to write about finding a work-life balance. Normally you would hear about this from women, since we feel the stress of being child-bearers as well as putting our Princeton educations to work. But I thought it interesting that in almost every essay the guys wrote, they talked about trying to be with their kids and spouses as much as about their career ladder.”

In a typical entry, one woman writes about traveling the world with her company until “we just couldn’t pull off a two-career family any more. Now I’m happily home with two teenagers and a Labrador ... .” Another ’82er left his international banking job with Citibank after he and his wife “decided that the time had come to settle down and give our children, now in middle and high school, the opportunity to finish high school with their friends.” He now works at a community bank in Florida where “I am currently experiencing the enormous satisfaction, as well as the risks, opportunities, and rewards, of being a small-business owner and operator.” Lippincott herself worked as a reporter and magazine editor in Los Angeles before, as she writes in her essay, “I left the journalists’ entitled world of glamour, celebrity, and access, after 15 years, to raise my three children.”

Some of ’82’s essays are somber. “I will be a four-and-a-half-year survivor of pancreatic cancer” ... “In August of 2005, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer had spread to the liver in eight to 10 places, and the prognosis was pretty bad” ... “There have been dark years on the way to the present moment.” But as is common for high-achievers, many of the Princetonians find a positive and even redemptive narrative to explain the most difficult experiences life presents. A cancer patient reports, “This experience has made me appreciate the simple things like family and friends and even the kindness of strangers and acquaintances.” One of the book’s most moving essays was contributed by Gina Malin, the widow of Bob Malin ’82, who died of a heart attack during the couple’s 20th-anniversary vacation a year before the reunion. Gina lists 14 things her husband had done in the two weeks before he died, almost all of them involving service to others (e.g., “Helped his oldest daughter with a science project ... Mentored a young friend”). “We miss and love him so,” she concludes.If 25th-reunion books represent a kind

If 25th-reunion books represent a kind of taking-stock at midstream, the classes preparing 50th-reunion books are closer to the far bank. This year, the Class of 1958 published its 50th-year book well in advance of its June reunion. It is a substantial volume: 465 pages, 9" x 11" trim size, with 441 individual profiles set in a generous typeface that will not strain 72-year-old eyes.

Post Comments
Tell us what you think about
Loads of characters, plenty of plot
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: July 16, 2008