Albert Perry

The book: In this series of vignettes, Perry tells the story of Johnny Poe, a football icon whose story still looms large in Princeton lore. This novel follows Poe’s on-campus journey. He was one of six brothers to play football at Princeton, and at a time when freshman leaders were generally picked from among the well-known names on the football team, he was elected president of his class before ever setting foot on the field. This story also unpacks the challenges Poe faced as he flunked out of Princeton during his first year. Perry’s goal with Johnny Poe at Princeton (self-published) is to paint a more vivid picture of Poe and how his short time at Princeton set the stage for the rest of his life.

The author: Albert Perry ’64 earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton in English and was a member of Cap and Gown Club. For more than two decades he taught English and history at New Canaan Country School. He died in his home on Oct. 31 at the age of 82.



On September 25, 1915, John Prentice Poe, Jr., was killed in combat on a battlefield in France during World War One.

The years between his glory days at Princeton and his final breath had brought him little if any satisfaction. By his own account Johnny would be a failure in real life, his countless jobs ranging from coaching football at various colleges including Princeton to gold prospecting in Nevada to cow punching in New Mexico to selling real estate in Baltimore, to name just a few. Only as a soldier in uniform would he ever feel a semblance of fulfillment, roaming the earth, at home and abroad, to volunteer in whatever war was being fought at the time in order to experience, in his own words “the grandest game of all.” After twenty years, he liked to say, Johnny had been a veteran of ten wars, mostly minor engagements in parts of Central and South America.

The only real source of satisfaction stemmed from his unrelenting love for his Princeton classmates. To anybody who has read his letters, Poe was a man with a remarkable literary gift. The owner of a seemingly photographic memory, he was able to quote entire passages without the use of reference books, encompassing subjects from romantic poetry to ancient history to classical literature, that would have no doubt astonished any one of his professors at Princeton whose courses he had once failed as a student. At his tenth reunion, he won a trophy for writing the best letter for the Class Record, a prize decided upon by the secretaries of three other classes.

Johnny felt an immense sense of joy each time he returned to Princeton for his class reunions. A remarkable storyteller, he would invariably regale his classmates under the tents until the early hours of the morning with his tales of adventure, or more often misadventure, pertaining to his countless domestic and foreign intrigues. Without notes or preparation he was able to hold his audience spellbound for hours with the same blend of literary and historical allusions he displayed in his letters, with the inclusion of his rare mix of humor and self-deprecation. Johnny Poe, now a middle-aged man, must have known all along that he could, with any effort, have been an excellent student in his college days at Princeton.

The details of his final days are hazy at best. The historical record shows that Johnny, at the age of forty-one, signed up with the British army in 1915, two years before the Americans entered the Great War. As always he had been a soldier in search of a war - a soldier of fortune - in this instance the “war to end all wars” in Europe. Soon he was assigned to a battery of heavy artillery in France that was positioned too far behind the front lines for his liking. Wanting to be closer to the field of action, Poe requested a transfer to the Black Watch, a Scottish infantry regiment famous for its ferocity in the line of fire - despite the occasional derision aimed at the kilts and high stockings required of the men during battle. It was under these circumstances that Johnny Poe was killed as a soldier in the British army at the Battle of Loos in France, a one-sided victory for the Germans.

The accounts of Poe’s death varied in the immediate aftermath of the battle, which resulted in huge losses for the Allies. In one version the brave American soldier was seen carrying four of his fallen comrades to safety after he himself had suffered a fatal wound. Another account described him as making a last-ditch sprint across an open field, calling out a series of numbers alleged to be football signals from his glory days at Princeton.

The purported truth was hardly less heroic. According to an eye-witness account, Poe was part of a squad carrying bombs across an open field when a German bullet struck him in the stomach, stopping him dead in his tracks. “Never mind me,” he pleaded to his comrades, “go ahead with the boxes.” Upon their return, they came upon his dead body not far from where they had left him. The men buried his remains near an area called Lone Tree, named for a tree that stood solitary in the middle of a field separating the English and the German armies.

Chapter 1. Class President

On the first Wednesday of the fall term, Johnny Poe was elected president of the freshman class at Princeton.

Nobody seemed to know exactly why the elections were always held this early in the fall, the third week in September when freshmen were mostly strangers to one another, but at the time students had neither the means nor the inclination to challenge either the rules or the traditions of the college. So it was inevitable that the officers of the entering class were almost always those men whose reputations preceded them, whose names were recognized invariably because of their renown as those freshmen who had made the Varsity football team, an honor that heaped instant fame on the student himself and instilled a sense of pride in the class as a whole.

The first meeting of the freshman class was held at one o’clock in the Old Chapel, used as a lecture hall and meeting room ever since the completion of the new Marquand Chapel in 1882. The Old Chapel had more than enough seats to accommodate the 275 members of the Class of 1895. Built in mid-century to encourage religious devotion among the undergraduates, the chapel no longer held its original aura of sanctity for the students. The only reminders of its original function were the hard wooden pews they sat in and the large organ still occupying one end of the outdated structure.

As was the custom, a select group of juniors had charge of the freshman class meeting, one of whom was Phil King, star quarterback on the Varsity football team. As soon as there was a semblance of order, King explained to the freshmen the purpose of the meeting as well as the rules of procedure, one of which was that each of the nominees was asked to stand so that all in attendance could catch a glimpse of his countenance. Truth be told, more often than not the class officers at Princeton were elected on the basis of their good looks as well as for their celebrity status, a fact of life to which Poe would prove to be an exception. Johnny would always be the first to admit that his face would never be one to grace the cover of any of the popular weekly magazines.

In short order the name of Johnny Poe was submitted, put to a vote, and affirmed with unanimous consent by the Class of 1895. The outcome was greeted with an outburst of thunderous applause that raised the already high noise volume in the room another several decibels. With the announcement of Poe’s election, a group of assorted classmates lifted the new president onto a platform beneath one of the arches of the old chapel, when another roar broke out, this time a mass appeal for quiet so that their newly elected leader might offer a few words in the form of an acceptance speech.

When the noise finally subsided, Johnny’s words were brief and self-effacing, endearing him even more in the eyes of all who were there to witness his first appearance before the entire freshman class.

“Fellows, I am proud of the honor you have bestowed upon me. My face can’t be ruined much, so I’ll go in all the battles with you head first.”

The room erupted once again in an outburst of boisterous and unrestrained approval. From that day on, Johnny Poe became the undisputed leader of his class, beloved and respected by every member.

Excerpt from Johnny Poe at Princeton by Albert Perry. Republished with permission of the Perry family.