Woodrow Wilson ’79.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. June 1,1956.

Editor’s note: This story from 1956 contains dated language that is no longer used today. In the interest of keeping a historical record, it appears here as it was originally published.

Mr. Chairman, President Dodds, Alumni of Princeton, and especially members of the Class of 1909, whom I see here in goodly numbers:

The subject assigned for my brief talk today was “Personal Recollections of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton”; but I have changed it to “The Influence of Woodrow Wilson on the Princeton Undergraduate, 1902-1910,” which gives me more elbow room and affords opportunity for an appraisal of certain qualities of Woodrow Wilson which have been all too seldom stressed.

I have done everything within reason to make my data authentic. Indeed, the process of preparation has been a significant experience. After working, with the assistance of Mr. Dix, the Librarian, and Mr. Clark, the Curator of Manuscripts, and their staffs, in the Firestone Library for a few days on the original letters and miscellaneous writings of this great man, I felt like a pygmy as I started for home. Old memories hidden away in the back of my mind were stirred, and I now see, as I never saw before, how he has influenced my life and stiffened my backbone at critical times.

What I purpose doing is: first, to state the undoubted fact of what he meant to the men of my time in Princeton; and then to try to explain how this came about.

So let us roll back the curtain of history, forget the governorship, the Presidency, the First Great War and the League of Nations and take ourselves back to Princeton, in the fall of 1905 or thereabouts.

Everyone on the campus called him “Woodrow” – not to his face, of course – and he was our hero. It was infinitely more than popularity. He seemed surrounded by an aura of destiny. We hung on his words as on those of our inspired and incomparable leader. We still think he is the greatest university president there ever was anywhere; and we are everlastingly grateful that we spent four full years under the spell of his eloquence. There are many here today who can testify to the accuracy of this seemingly extravagant statement. What was the source of his power over us?

Again and again before he became president of the University in 1902 he was voted the most popular member of the faculty. This was doubtless due in large measure to the extraordinary vitality of his lectures and the deftness and the humor with which he dealt with late comers and with dogs and with a whole miscellany of unexpected occurrences in the classroom. With his brown derby, riding here and there on his bicycle he was a familiar figure. On one occasion, I am told, he pedaled across the campus in all the regalia of a top hat, frock coat, and striped trousers. Once I was greatly impressed with a statement by him that he bought a new tuxedo every year.

While often distant and severe, and always dignified, he had an inexhaustible fund of wit and humor; and he was a great story teller, specializing in stories about Negroes and socialists, with a liberal sprinkling of personal reminiscences and limericks. They gave a dance at Prospect one evening and we boys sat around in his study so long listening to his story telling that Mrs. Wilson came in and chased us out, as the girls had been waiting for about three-quarters of an hour.

That he was kindly and considerate and helpful is attested by a host of anecdotes; and many members of my class were on terms of intimacy with him. Some of them loved him dearly; and I heard one of them say the other day that “Woodrow” was a second father to him. His personal letters are indisputable evidence of a warm and affectionate nature.

But, giving due weight to all this, I think we must look elsewhere for the explanation of our devotion to him. He was no hail-fellow-well-met; nor was he a Mr. Chips; nor did he make friends easily, with the undergraduates or others.

Here is what he writes of himself to his classmate Frank C. Garmany on April 2, 1879, while still in college: “I, perhaps, am colder and more reserved than most of those who are fortunate enough to have been born in our beloved South; but my affection is nonetheless real because less demonstrative.”

Were we grateful for the preceptorial system and for his valiant and successful efforts to raise the standard of scholarship at Princeton? Perhaps, in a few individual instances. We vaguely sense that the good old days were supposed to be over; but I doubt very much if more than a fraction of the class ever did more than half a day’s real work, except just before examinations. We heard all he said about not letting the side shows run the circus; but it got out that he had once said, “the Constitution of the United States guarantees to a man a certain amount of loafing; otherwise it would come under the head of cruel and unusual punishments,” and we thought that was fun. No one ever dreamed that undergraduates might, should or could work the way they say they do now. We were chasing one another around so fast trying to get the extracurricular activity bandwagon that it was years later before most of us realized how right he was.

But how he could talk! And we flocked to hear him: at Whig or Clio, at Murray-Dodge, in the pulpit quite often on Sundays and on all sorts of miscellaneous occasions. What a spell-binder he was! At first we were fascinated by his perfect diction and the skill with which he chose just the right combination of words to express his meaning. Pretty soon it dawned on us that what he had to say was important. There was no mistaking his sincerity; he spoke with a singular intensity; he was always quoting from the Bible; and bit by bit he got his spiritual message over to us. I never saw a man who could say the same thing in so many different ways…

Moral principles, ideals, action, achievement, power; all these spelled out to us in the words of Christ, with continual emphasis upon unselfishness and sacrifice, the peace and good will to men which went beyond one’s own borders and reached out to all mankind, and the unending fight against what he called “the thraldom of evil.”

Can you imagine what all this meant to us boys! Here was a man who really believed in unselfish devotion to one’s country, who was seeking, in the words he quoted from the Bible, to “prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” and to lead us out of the wilderness into green meadows where ideals and principles were formulated and acted upon. This is what young people craved to hear in 1909, it is what they crave to hear now, and it is what they will always crave to hear.

And Woodrow Wilson never let us down. He was consistent from beginning to end. He never compromised on a matter of principle, indeed he told us that “on a principle a man had no right to yield.”

Let me give you a significant example of his consistency. One of his favorite parts of the Bible was the First Psalm. Here are the six verses in full:

  1. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
  2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.
  3. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water; that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
  4. The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
  5. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
  6. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

He liked to talk about the tree planted by the rivers of water which bears its fruit in due season. One evening he told us it was interesting to think that every man has his season; and then he went on to say, “Nothing is guaranteed of the tree, only the fruit. It is neither here nor there what becomes of a man’s person.” This was in 1908 or 1909. I got it from a compendium of the diary notes of one of my classmates who passed away many years ago, which was loaned to me confidentially.

Compare this with the following report of a dialogue between the President of the United States and his physician a few days before the collapse which brought to an end his fight for the League of Nations, as reported in Gerald W. Johnson’s “Woodrow Wilson – The Unforgettable Figure Who Has Returned to Haunt Us”:

Grayson was worried almost out of his wits, but the President stubbornly adhered to his schedule. What if it did kill him? He had seen battle fields where brave men had died by thousands in this cause. Was he to quit because to fight on was dangerous? The question silenced the doctor but did not lessen his anxiety.”

Now for just a dab of color here and there and I am through.

Woodrow Wilson, as I have said, was a stickler for just the right word in the right place. Two of his most famous speeches have been confused in the minds of Princetonians. The first was “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” delivered in 1896 at the Sesquicentennial Ceremonies, and the other “Princeton for the Nation’s Service” in 1902 when he was inaugurated as President of Princeton. The one looked back, the other looked ahead. This was another instance of the consistency and unity of his character. He was always telling us “You are either going forward or you are sliding backward. There is no such thing as standing still.” And he spoke of the generations behind us crying us on to do better things than otherwise we could even attempt, and “generations beyond” calling us on “to a day of happier things.”

A word to the men of my time who are here today. Of those who heard it, who will ever forget his 1908 Baccalaureate Address on “The Free Life?” Do you remember the Princetonian banquet in the spring of 1909, when Woodrow Wilson made Arthur Brisbane look sic, with his talk about making money in the newspaper business? Do you remember the last time we as undergraduates heard him speak, when he told us about the un profitable servant, quoting from St. Luke, “We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”? That was the synthesis of all his teaching, the “secret of what it is to live,” by launching out into the paths beyond the call of duty. And that night when he was the sole speaker at our senior banquet when he spoke for over an hour on social justice? It made out blood tingle for a long, long time.

Yes, my friends, this is the explanation of our reverence for Woodrow Wilson. He is a continual and effective disproof of the widely held fallacy that men do what they do for material reasons. And it is well to keep in mind the fact that the things of the spirit, including freedom and justice and tolerance, brought our beloved republic into being, and spiritual qualities will rule our destiny in the future.

I hope there are some here who remember their Horace. The opening lines of what is perhaps his most famous poem are:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

Regalique situ pyramidum altius

I have built me a monument more lasting than bronze, higher than the royal pile of the pyramids.

And a few lines later,

Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam

I shall not wholly die. A great part of me shall escape the goddess of the funeral pyre.

And so the spirit of Woodrow Wilson lives on; he speaks with my voice today, and with a thousand voices of devoted citizens grown old in the service of their country: beckoning us to the heights beyond the call of duty, encouraging us to be steadfast and immovable in support of the principles and ideals he taught us, and bidding us to fight on forgetful of ourselves, for Princeton and for America, under the banner of Christ.

This was originally published in the June 1, 1956 issue of PAW.