It was the day before Dean’s Date, and a rainy one at that. Everyone in the Rocky-Mathey dining hall should have been eating lunch silently, hunched over books and outlines. But instead, hundreds of students were chatting excitedly, waiting for the moment they had made time for on one of the busiest days of the year. At 12:30 p.m. on the dot, all of the lunchgoers rose from their plates of pizza and salad and broke into a standing ovation for a little old man in an orange hat who walked, cane in hand, down the long carpet of the Mathey seating area.

The man was Charlie Wilder, but students know him as Charlie, the card-checker. Every weekday he swiped the proxes of hundreds of students at breakfast and lunch — and he knew each of them by name.

“It keeps my brain active,” Charlie said when Antoine Kahn, master of Mathey College, picked up a microphone on that dreary Monday and thanked Charlie for remembering all the students and making them feel at home. Kahn’s speech — together with remarks by dining-services workers, college administrators, and students — comprised Charlie’s surprise retirement party. After 30 years at Princeton, the 76-year-old was leaving — “for health reasons, not because I want to,” Charlie noted.

Actually, this was Charlie’s second time retiring: He left briefly in 1994 after serving as a dining services manager since 1978, but it was only a few days before he was itching to return. It was then that Charlie started his stint as the legendary card-checker.

“Charlie is the reason I come to breakfast,” said Katie Fletcher ’10. “On rainy spring days that should be warm, Charlie is my sunshine,” echoed Emily Cizek ’10.

Adam Fox ’09 was one of dozens of Mathey alumni who left their eating clubs for a day to come back and pay respect to Charlie. “I couldn’t miss this for the world, dude,” he said with a grin.

“I don’t know how to express my gratitude,” Charlie told his fans in the dining hall after receiving his retirement gifts: a Mathey jacket, a Rocky T-shirt, and a scrapbook full of notes by students from around the world who have made work interesting for Charlie every day. Charlie’s famous last words? “Don’t forget your prox!”