Friends for life: ’52 classmates, from left, James Baker, James Detmer, Barnabas McHenry, and David Paton
Ricardo Barros
Reminiscing with four roommates from the Class of 1952

The following is an expanded version of a story from the July 12, 2017, issue.

The friends we make in our youth can last a lifetime. As they move into the Old Guard, four members of the Class of 1952 got together shortly before the P-rade to share memories, trade jokes, and — as roommates will do — give each other a hard time. 

James A. Baker III, of course, served the nation as secretary of state and treasury and White House chief of staff. David Paton was an ophthalmologist. Barnabas McHenry was general counsel to Reader’s Digest. And James Detmer was a software engineer for IBM and on Wall Street. They met at the Hill School and roomed together all four years at Princeton, first in Campbell Hall, then in 1879 Hall. 

Though true to the eternal Code of the Roommate — that certain bodies must remain buried, so to speak, the four unearthed a few of them for PAW’s senior writer, Mark F. Bernstein ’83: 

James A. Baker III: We said we wanted to room together when we came here from the Hill School. And the University let us.

Mark F. Bernstein: Where was room?

Barnabas McHenry: Holder.

James Detmer: Holder Hall, third entry.

Baker: No, no, no. 3A Campbell Hall.

David Paton: Yes, it was Campbell Hall.

Baker: We roomed together in Campbell for half a year and then a room opened up in 1879 Hall, which theretofore had been off limits to freshmen. So we ended up in 65 1879 Hall for the rest the time we were here.

McHenry: We were at the south end, next to the physics lab, and twice a week Albert Einstein would go there to lecture. He wore a salt and pepper overcoat that reached down to his shoes, European-style. And we had a janitor named Dominic Intertaglia. One day one of us said, “Dominic, look out the window. That’s probably the smartest man in the whole world.” Well, Dominic said, “He’s not so damned smart. Look — he ain’t wearing any socks.” And he wasn’t! Einstein did not wear socks.

Baker: My recollection of Einstein was during our freshman year. He was giving a lecture in McCosh Hall and he was sitting on the dais. When he was introduced, everybody started clapping and he just started clapping along, too. They had to tell him, no, you’re supposed to get up and speak.

Paton: We had two tiny little rooms, each with a double bed, and a sitting room in between, with Jim [Detmer’s] upright piano.

Detmer: It was a nice one.

Paton: And Jimmy would play classical music, extremely well. We had another friend, Petey Clarkson [’52], who couldn’t read music, so far as I know, but he was a jazz pianist and he could play like mad. He later played for Eisenhower in the White House.

Baker: He died young, of polio.

Paton: Late one night, we had a little drinking spree and a bunch of us went back to our room so Petey could play our piano. And one guy must have come straight from practice, because he still had his cleats on and he did the Charleston on top of this piano. It was the most horrible thing.

McHenry: Terrible!

Paton: Barnabas had a car from time to time, but it was illegal for undergraduates to have a car, so he had to conceal it. We would take it to New York.

Baker: He named the car FitzRandolph, for FitzRandolph Gate.

McHenry: There was no need to have it, but since you couldn’t have it we wanted to have it. It was a black Chevrolet. Chevrolets in those days came in five colors: black, black, black, black, or black.

Baker: Now, you need to know one thing about the four of us. We did not all get through without having to take an enforced vacation from Princeton. That’s as much as I can tell you.

Paton: When we were still students, we went to a bachelor party at the Racquet Club in New York for a guy in the class ahead of us. As you go into the club, there is this bronze statue of a guy playing tennis. It’s the club’s pride and joy. Well, after that dinner, it went missing. About three days later, it was mysteriously found in the trunk of Barney’s illegal car.

McHenry: Must have been a poltergeist.

Paton: All of our names were taken and we were told never to set foot in that club again.

Baker: That’s not why you got asked to take a short vacation, though. It was because you broke so many windows in snowball wars that Dean Godolphin suggested that you take a short break.

McHenry: Those leaded panes were irresistible.

Paton: Jimmy [Baker] majored in history, and there was almost nothing he didn’t know. And if he didn’t know something, he had this uncanny ability to argue so effectively that we then believed that history was wrong.

Baker: (laughing) That is total, total BS.

McHenry: Just before our junior year, the Korean War erupted — without our permission, I might add. We didn’t even know where Korea was. David was reasonably safe because he was pre-med.

Baker: I was in a Marine Corps platoon leader’s class. I had to get into it because we were being drafted right out of college.

McHenry: And I was in ROTC.

Detmer: Don Murray [’52] joined the National Guard. He said that was how you kept from being drafted. Well I joined the Guard and they called us up anyway. I went to Newfoundland and didn’t graduate until ’55.

Bernstein: You four have been friends for more than 65 years. What does that mean to you?

Paton: Dear old friends from way back were once selected for some kind of sameness rather than their differences. So at one level it’s damn good fun to be with them and to enjoy how they haven’t really changed. But the richness of this reunion is in how much we have changed. It’s their matured specialness rather than the iconic sameness of a striped jacket fresh from the cleaners. 

Bernstein: How often do you get together?

Baker: Barney and I go hunting down in Texas.

McHenry: We hunt birds. They don’t fight back!