When the Class of 1976 sponsored its first service-themed event in 2006 – a Reunions colloquium titled “Passion to Profession” – more than 100 people participated. According to Illa Brown ’76, the strong attendance and excitement in the room made organizers believe there was a chance to build on the class’s interest.


Brown and Mimi Murley ’76, with backing from classmates, founded Spirit of Service ’76, an initiative that has evolved and grown in the past five years, finding a niche in the areas of environmental and social entrepreneurship. Projects include a speaker series and a green business plan competition for undergraduates. Last year, Spirit of Service ’76 earned the Alumni Council Award for Community Service.
The project draws at least 90 volunteers and donors from the class each year, and according to Murley, the group’s neutrality has played a role in its broad appeal. “Though we may differ in our approaches, these issues affect us all and the future of our children,” she explained. “In an interesting way I also see it as an outgrowth of our stewardship and deepening compassion.”
When the Class of 1976 entered the work force, energy was a particular area of concern – the late ’70s were a time of gas lines and anxiety over Three Mile Island. Some classmates have tackled environmental topics in their professional lives, while others have been interested observers. “Thirty-five years later, there’s work left to do,” Brown said. “We are still very much engaged and want to be part of this change.”
Michael McCurry ’76, a former White House press secretary who now works as a communications consultant in Washington, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative from its early days, partly because of the way that it highlights the contributions classmates have made to a broad range of social and environmental causes. “They’ve been noteworthy in their own walks of life,” McCurry said, “so to see them is really an inspiration and also a reminder that we all could be doing a little bit more to give back.”
At Reunions this year, Spirit of Service ’76 will sponsor a panel called “Unleashing Innovation: Tackling Environmental Challenges,” at 3:45 p.m. May 27 in the new Frick Chemistry Auditorium. Speakers include Terry Cooke ’76, founder of a group that promotes public-private collaboration with China in clean energy; Jim Hornthal ’76, a partner in a firm that invests in life sciences, energy, and materials companies; and Lisa Lee Morgan ’76 *79, co-founder of a consulting company that focuses on renewable energy and alternative fuels projects. Professor Stephen Pacala, the director of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), will lead the discussion.
Partnerships with PEI, the Pace Center, the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, and the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club have helped the Spirit of Service ’76 expand its reach in a relatively short amount of time, Brown said. Organizers have viewed the initiative as “a startup with limited resources,” she said, so tapping into expertise on Princeton’s campus made sense.
Brown, a communications and marketing professional, is a board member and longtime admirer of Princeton AlumniCorps (formerly Princeton Project 55), which has placed graduates in paid fellowships at nonprofits for more than 20 years. She credits the organization with inspiring Spirit of Service ’76 and other initiatives linked to Princeton classes. “They are our role models,” Brown said. “There’s no one who is as visionary and as gutsy as those gentlemen in the Class of ’55.”