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Nov. 18, 2009

Vol. 111, No. 5


An hour-long view of paradise

Showing off a much-changed Princeton, peppy Orange Key tours remain charmingly unpredictable

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the November 18, 2009, issue

Walking backward, Emily Silk ’10, chairwoman of Orange Key, leads a campus tour in October.
Frank Wojciechowski
Walking backward, Emily Silk ’10, chairwoman of Orange Key, leads a campus tour in October.

Scenic Princeton has proved a tourist magnet ever since John Adams stopped by on his way to the Continental Congress and was shown around by an enthusiastic math professor. Early visitors clamored to see the cannonball scar on Nassau Hall and Aaron Burr Jr.’s old bedroom. When Nassau Street was paved in the early 20th century as part of the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, automobile excursionists descended, and by 1925 there was a “summer crop of motor tourists from Dubuque and points west prowling over the campus, admiring the Collegiate Gothic buildings,” PAW noted. Big crowds were expected in 1939 with the opening of the World’s Fair in New York, so President Harold Dodds *14 hired three undergraduates as a Campus Guide Service. This chipper cohort escorted 2,700 people around the University that hot summer. Thus began the ­enduring tradition of Princeton tour guides, still going strong after 70 years, with ­offerings as informative, ­colorful, and quirky as ever.  

In 1953, year-round tours got under way from an Information Office at 2 North Reunion Hall, staffed by 50 volunteers from Orange Key, a multifaceted student organization established during the Depression to entertain visiting athletic teams. Today, Orange Key’s only mission is to run these hour-long tours, which have increased in popularity from 4,600 visitors in 1955 to 13,000 in 1975 and — well, lately it’s been too many to count, perhaps as many as 45,000. Most are high school kids and their parents, but frequent too are retirees, foreign travelers, job applicants, nostalgic alumni, even rowdy middle-school students.  

As Princeton has changed, so have the tour guides. When the Campus Guide Service debuted, two of the three employees were Southerners, chosen to appeal to visitors from that region, and they made sure to point out that half the Civil War dead whose names are engraved on the walls in Nassau Hall fought for the Confederacy. Everything is different today, and guides represent the panoply of a transformed student body. “I especially love to give tours to students from underprivileged communities,” says Clare Herceg ’11, referring to visits arranged by inner-city high schools. “I enjoy dispelling stereotypes and revealing just how diverse Princeton is.”  

“If you want to view paradise,” Willy Wonka sang during the trip through his chocolate factory, “simply look around and view it!” Movie lovers may recall how that excursion turned problematic. Orange Key guides can relate to Wonka’s difficulties in dealing with obstreperous tourists: On a debut excursion in 1939, a young woman from Houston demanded to know, “Where does Einstein hang out?” Today, insouciant teenagers show off their brainpower, wondering aloud, for example, if Princeton is broad-minded enough to allow a budding genius “to study the history of grass.” (This type often will beg a letter of recommendation from the bemused guide.) Sometimes it’s the parents who ask uncomfortable questions as their progeny squirm helplessly, as in gauging the social scene by quizzing a male guide point-blank: “Do you have a girlfriend?”  

“Certain clever dads like to ask, ‘What’s your least favorite part about Princeton?’” warns Orange Key historian Keith Hall ’10. “I tell new guides to have an answer ready, so they aren’t tripped up.” Likewise they are taught to deflect the indelicate inquiry, “So, what were your SAT scores?” Some questions are obscure or just baffling, such as “How many buildings are on campus?” or “What kinds of flowers are these?” in Prospect Garden. (Guides in 1939 likewise reported a disconcerting level of interest in botany.) “Sometimes they ask the most random stuff,” laughs Colleen Kent ’11, summer tour manager. “I’m like, no, I don’t know exactly how many professors are in the East Asian studies department!”

The spit-and-polish guides of 70 years ago were flabbergasted by visitors’ casualness. Bryan Bell ’41 reported his discomfiture at escorting a Romanian girl who “insisted on taking snapshots of Princetonians sunbathing on the campus,” not to mention the plump Missouri housewife who posed for a camera “sitting blasphemously astride the Princeton Tiger.” Once a Communist official from the Republic of Georgia refused on principle to enter the Chapel, but the determined young guide dragged him in with the words, “If you don’t believe in our God, you can at least see our architecture!” Still today, curious things happen. Daniel Gadala-Maria ’09 recalls showing around 50 Taiwanese tourists. “At Blair Arch, all the cameras came out. They asked me to pose for a picture. I agreed, and next thing I knew I was posing for 50 pictures. And then it happened again between Whig and Clio, with me sitting with each one of them on a tiger.” Justin Cahill ’11 was asked to escort a pack of Cub Scouts. “I kept all of the boring admissions information out and stuck to the most dramatic stories and fun legends. I had them scream at the top of their lungs in Holder Arch. They couldn’t believe what I told them about college. ‘You can really stay up until whenever you want?’ ”

Like any freewheeling oral tradition, Orange Key tours have proved fertile ground for mythmaking. Some patient anthropologist ought to trace the sprouting and growth of certain favorite chestnuts: the graduate student who was assigned to shadow Einstein everywhere, recording his mutterings; the giant snowball wedged in Brown Hall archway to trap everybody inside; a dozen more-or-less inaccurate versions of the “cannon war” with Rutgers. Then there is the “bulldog story” at the University Chapel: Architect Ralph Adams Cram wanted to build a small edifice, but Princeton forced him to erect a huge one; in revenge, the Yale man put his school mascot on the downspout. But Yale belongs in the gutter anyway! (Ahem, Cram, in fact, pushed for an even larger chapel, and he never went to college.) This fib, it turns out, originated with a 1966 internal memo that offered it as a fresh, new tidbit to enliven tours, one destined to hang on with bulldog tenacity for generations. To Orange Key’s credit, when guides learned recently that the bulldog story is false, they began prefacing it with, “According to legend ... .” Only a Scrooge would argue that humorous myths have no place in making a memorable tour.

The 100 or so guides are all volunteers, unlike the paid docents at Harvard and Yale, genially regarded by their Tiger counterparts as mercenary shills “who will say anything for $5.95.” (Princeton guides who serve over vacations and during the summer are paid.) Each guide gives at least four tours per semester; the average is one every other week. Dedication is crucial: They must show up on time, rain or shine. Prospective guides lead a “confirmation tour” evaluated by two officers, and 100 of these tours go splashing through the slush of February every year, a grueling ritual. Half the applicants will be rejected, with attendant hurt feelings, but the standards remain the same as they were spelled out in 1939: Participants “must be top-notch.”  

Former Orange Key vice-chairman Christopher Molosso ’09 summarizes what he looked for in a guide: “Is the information accurate? More importantly, is the person charismatic? Is his or her voice loud in some settings and quiet in others? Do [prospective guides] laugh at themselves when they crash backwards into a pole?” (Blind spots are a serious ­hazard. “Warn me if I’m about to run into something,” Hall said with a smile to one group of shuffling tourists, who promptly let him get hit by a car.) Those who make the cut are surprised by a knock at the dorm-room door. Each is handed a chocolate key, and an orange scarf is thrown around his or her neck. Cheers soon give way to a relentless grind, however, since each initiate must study thoroughly the Guide for Guides, the jealously guarded Bible of the organization, which PAW, after swearing itself to secrecy, was allowed to glimpse. First assembled in the 1960s, it is edited annually by the historian and has grown to be almost unwieldy in its vastness — 80 dense pages of facts and lore.  

Post Comments
2 Responses to An hour-long view of paradise

Tom Riehman Says:

2009-11-27 09:50:05

Was alerted to this issue of PAW when my life-long friend said cover had photo of the '57 Darmouth snow game, which we both attended when we were 12. Then I read the tour guide article and it was just fantastic and informative. I myself am a '67 Seton Hall grad and love the campus in the Fall.

Dan Linke, University archivist, Says:

2009-12-02 11:21:59

Great article, but I wanted to correct the perpetuation of a campus myth regarding Princeton's Civil War dead. According to records in the Princeton University Archives, of the 70 names of the Civil War dead engraved on the walls in Nassau Hall, 36 died fighting for the Confederacy, and 34 died fighting for the Union. While not an even split, it certainly underscores the University’s appeal to Southern students in the antebellum period.
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