An alumnus recalls the creation of the Woodrow Wilson Society

In May 2009, I was contacted by a Princeton freshman who was taking a seminar class on Woodrow Wilson and his impact on Princeton. Her topic was “the founding of Wilson Residential College from its foundations in the Woodrow Wilson Lodge and Society and whether it fulfills the ideals Woodrow Wilson strived to achieve in his proposed Quad Plan.”

She needed the input of those involved in the early days of the WWL and WWS, and she had a series of questions. My original responses to her have been expanded to include references to classmates and also some of my personal experiences and reflections.

I very much appreciate the unexpected opportunity — and support of many — afforded me here to recollect, reflect on, and revive some of the special memories, experiences, and fond friendships from that exciting time in our lives beginning that memorable day when we all gathered in Alexander Hall, were welcomed to Princeton, and our adventure began—little more than a half century ago. Sadly, many have not been able to continue the journey with us to this occasion and class milestone. They are sorely missed but very much alive in our memories, and the friendships we had the pleasure of sharing remain as important and heartfelt to us today as they were then.

Members of the Woodrow Wilson Society in 1960-61, in a photo published in the Bric-a-Brac.
Members of the Woodrow Wilson Society in 1960-61, in a photo published in the Bric-a-Brac.
1961 Bric-a-Brac

Was the Wilson Society egalitarian?

Yes, it was completely egalitarian. Anyone who wanted to join could join. There were 8 or 10 graduate students who also joined and took part in activities. Although the first female undergraduate students were not admitted until 1969, the first female graduate student was admitted in 1961. In 1962 eight more were admitted, and one of those, a graduate student in the romance languages department, became the first female member of the WWS. There was just one African-American student in ’63 at that time, Ed White, who was not in the WWS. However, a number of students were from Africa, and three of them belonged to the WWS. One of them, Henry Bozimo, from Nigeria, chemistry major, was Vice-Chairman when I was Chairman. The other two were Akinremi Ojo, also from Nigeria, and Andre Dolumingu from the Congo.

Did a wide variety of people join the Wilson Society, or was it limited to certain groups?

There was a pretty wide variety of groups and individuals with various interests. Actually, ‘motley crew’ would be an apt description! There were many who were pretty traditional, too, in many ways, but, as a group, they probably could be characterized as being more liberal on the political spectrum at that time. You could definitely characterize some groups within WWS as intellectuals, some as bohemians, some so-called “Ban the Bomb’’ peaceniks, another group that would have been called geeks, a group of the Jewish faith, a number of foreign students and one Asian-American — the very capable, phlegmatic Ed Lim ’62 who went on to the World Bank — and, a number of graduate student members were active participants. There were probably a higher percentage of WWS members who had attended public schools vs. prep schools, and a higher percentage of scholarship students, compared to those in the eating clubs. There was a good mixture of students in the humanities and in math, science and engineering.

The overwhelming majority of WWS members pursued traditional careers in law, medicine (myself included), engineering, teaching and politics/government service. Many like myself would also be described in many ways as pretty much straight arrow — I was president of my H.S. class, valedictorian, captain of the football team and a competitive golfer (at the time!) and played in the National Junior Amateur in 1957 (obviously I did not win, but neither did Jack Nicklaus, who also played in it). By the way, our class had a pretty good freshman golf team. Pres Seckel played the No. 1 spot and had a game we all admired. Dick Haverland, Art Mateucci, low-key Frank Petito — a good friend and later Columbia Med School classmate — and I were just a few of the others on the team. I would say as a generalization that these disparate groups had a couple things in common:

1) a little more independent and, in that sense, perhaps of an unconventional bent (the term at the time was “non-conformist” — and, in retrospect, part of a much larger societal and sociological process/upheaval in the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s, and the country has never been the same since!) and

2) for a number of different reasons, opposition to or disapproval of or discomfort with or, in some cases, just plain indifference to the Bicker process, which was required for acceptance into an eating club.

How was the Wilson Society perceived on campus?

I would say the perception by others on campus was evolving as the membership grew and expanded to larger and varied segments of the undergraduate population.

Looking at the origin and lineage of the WWS, it traced back to the 1956-57 time period when a very small number of students requested, and were granted by then-President Dodds, a place and facilities to meet and form a social group outside the Bicker process. Whether it was regarded as a fringe group at the time, I do not know. This group became the Woodrow Wilson Lodge and met in Madison Hall.

The 1958 Bicker had a large number of students who received no bids — over half of whom were Jewish. This occurred following several years when the goal of 100% bids had been achieved. Many expressed opinions, including in the Princetonian, that some changes needed to be made.

Darwin Labarthe ’61 declined to join Bicker in his 1959 Bicker year, and 10% of the class — 80 students — joined him. He was elected President of his class that year and also became Chairman of the WWL. At that time President Goheen, the administration, and a substantial number of faculty supported the development of the Wilson alternative project.

Chuck Balestri recalls his experiences with Labarthe’s very creative ‘marketing’ plan for new member recruitment:

“Labarthe had the bright idea of giving an invitation to sophomores in their first semester to take some evening meals at Wilson Lodge in Madison Hall. Eminent faculty were scattered around the tables. I know, as I was one of those sophomores and recall eating at tables with George Kennan, Erwin Panofsky, Sean O’Faolain. By the time Bicker season rolled around, I was already committed to Wilson.”

The year I decided not to go through the Bicker process, Tyl van Geel had succeeded Labarthe, and the University had provided new facilities in Wilcox Hall in 1961 for the organization — then renamed the Woodrow Wilson Society at President Goheen’s suggestion — as part of a newly constructed residential quadrangle on campus. Most of the residents in the surrounding quadrangle were not members of the WWS when it first opened. Of course, with the strong support and resources of the university, this critical step was instrumental for this “movement” to continue to expand and thrive.

Coincidentally, in 2009 my wife Rebecca and I happened to be driving through Staunton, Va., and we came upon the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum and adjacent WW early childhood family home. Among the various displays in the museum were one depicting WW’s activities in his tenure as President of Princeton. One aspect of that featured WW’s vision of student campus life organized around self-contained quadrangle residences, the Quad Plan. Over a period of a few years, President Goheen had been gradually implementing the plan and vision WW had some 50 plus years earlier — starting first with Woodrow Wilson Lodge, the transition to the Woodrow Wilson Society, and culminating in Wilson College.

(Speaking of residential dorms and complexes, we would be remiss not to extend kudos to WWS member David Feinberg ’63 for his magnanimous donation in the construction of Feinberg Hall dormitory in 1986, which is part of Wilson College and a major contribution to the architecture of the campus. Affable and outgoing, Dave majored in the Woodrow Wilson School and was, for a brief time, a fellow classmate at Columbia Medical School—along with another WWS member, Demetrius Stasiuk, who also attended Columbia — until Dave decided to move on and deal with real estate projects on a grand scale and did so with abundant success. [Further aside on Columbia: at Princeton I had had never formally met the venturesome and energetic Sam Perry RIP but through unexpected circumstances we became roommates and friends the first year of Med School and shared some good times together.]

On the topic of generous contributions to Princeton, kudos are also in order for the ever-enterprising Dennis Keller, major donor to the building of Whitman College, trustee of Princeton and the U. of Chicago. From Student Pizza Agency impresario to the ubiquitous DeVry University—quite a meteoric and amazing career path and trajectory! Another entrepreneurial footnote: Fred Meisel deserves mention for that successful campus sensation, The Princeton Nighty Agency, along with the popular model Fred recruited — does the name ‘Suzy’ come to mind ? Fred and I were lab partners in Prof. Alyea’s unforgettable chemistry course — pyrotechnics and all! Despite the fact that all final lab data from our research project on bicarbonate pH’s disappeared while in my custody Fred was very forgiving and our friendship survived.)

In any case, as mentioned, the architectural reality of Wilcox Hall was crucial for the progression from Wilson Lodge. It provided very modern and comfortable facilities for eating, social activities, lounges for reading, and recreational facilities for ping pong and pool. Very conveniently, it also housed a small open stack library and had dorm rooms which, for a fee, could be used for the guests of WWS members. Wilcox served as a welcome home base, was very popular and in frequent use by members.

I became Chairman during that first full year in our new facilities. I prevailed in a hard fought, close election over a formidable and esteemed opponent, Larry Kadish, later to become a distinguished surgeon. One of the pillars of my campaign included a quote from Aristotle, which I am relieved to say I cannot recall! The other officers that year were the talented Henry Bozimo, Vice-Chairman, as mentioned; gregarious David Hall, Chairman of the Social Committee — also a good friend, fellow philosophy major, ever eager to argue the opposing point of view at any time of the day or night! — Martin Weinrich, our erudite Chairman of the Education Committee, and the industrious Martin Seligman ‘64, Secretary.

The membership had grown significantly to around 220. We were part of and very active in the intramural program with the eating clubs for many team activities — (Earl Drabenstott was the noted pool shark on the intramural circuit as I personally learned!) — and I believe our standing on campus was progressively growing. The Chairman of the WWS was automatically a member of the Undergraduate Council. The very adroit negotiator and capable Chairman of the UGC at the time was Walter Slocombe, Pyne Prize winner, who later went on to a distinguished career in the federal government.

Of course, the eating clubs themselves had a range of distinct features and attractions and some had colorful ‘thematic’ descriptions, too. On campus, there certainly was a perceived hierarchy of social status/acceptance. In that regard, the WWS would have been rated at the lower end of that social status hierarchy.

I can recall with certainty one member of the WWS who was rejected in the Bicker process, but I believe there were also a couple others. Many students were opposed to the Bicker process and concerned about its impact on some vulnerable individuals. In addition to the personal disappointment, getting no bids in the Bicker process also could carry with it a definite social stigma. Something similar obviously can happen with fraternity rushing, but in most of those situations, there is a well-established independent community of students in schools that had fraternities.

There was never any hint of ideology on the part of WWS members that I was aware of favoring the abolition of the eating clubs per se — just a desire to have a viable and meaningful alternative. Everyone in the WWS also had friends — very good friends — and acquaintances in the eating clubs and many paired roommates were split between the WWS and an eating club. One such example was my good friend, the highly principled Manny Carballo RIP, Cuban-American, close observer of Fidel’s doings, debater extraordinaire, WWS member, and his roommate and our mutual friend and eating club member, Ben Laden RIP.

We all were very impressed with the weekend entertainment in some of the clubs, including the likes of legendary Ray Charles, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Countless WWS members for sure would have loved to be there!

Incidentally, although I was not aware of it at the time, subsequently I heard others comment that Princeton, as part of its earlier legacy as a Southern gentleman’s school, had a higher degree of social status consciousness in its DNA history compared to other Ivy League schools.

My freshman year, I was in Edwards Hall and shared a small room with one roommate V.I. Wexner RIP. (What an unlikely pairing that was: a hick from the sticks, first in family to go to college and a precocious, very bright NYC kid with a ready sense of humor, novelist aspirations and two PhD parents. We remained close in neighboring rooms for the duration and were comfortably ensconced in the only two rooms on the fifth floor of Pyne Hall for the last two years.) We were told by our genial janitor, Ben, that Edwards was originally the dorm for valets and our room in the corner at the back of the first floor had been a storage closet! Nonetheless, for just $75 per semester for room and board it certainly was a great bargain for a scholarship student.

While genial Ben definitely had the right idea, the historical details were a little different. Chuck Balestri’s research on this indicates that his dorm, Witherspoon, was built in the late 1870's as a luxury dorm to attract students of means. It featured suites with two bedrooms, a living room, servants quarters in the attic and an historic first for U.S. college dorms … indoor toilets! (Princeton in the Nation’s Service!) Edwards was built right after Witherspoon as a "poor man's dorm" with only single rooms and outdoor toilets. With later student body expansion, Edwards’ single rooms accommodated two students and Witherspoon’s suites four students. (An irony: Edwards’ swank new renovation around 1985 made it a very desirable dorm for students, many of whom wanted singles by then.)

I believe nearly the entirety of Edwards Hall was composed of scholarship students and included some foreign students, many independents and a good number who became WWS members.

By the junior year, the hierarchy of differential pricing of rooms and residence halls ceased, and every room everywhere was the same egalitarian price. Thanks to that new policy, V.I. and pulled off our Pyne Hall room assignment coup. Allocation was on a lottery system beginning with the senior class down. Hence, with this change a legacy ‘class’-like barrier was broken down, and a universal and uniform system installed. On the one hand, one possible residual vestige of the Southern gentleman ethos may have been a tradition among some students of ‘cool’ academic restraint, as reflected in the phenomenon of getting a low profile ‘Gentleman’s 3,’ which reflected a conformity in thinking. On the other hand, there was (and is) no doubt in my mind, as a philosophy major, that the intensive individualized experience of the Princeton preceptor system was a superior system to facilitate learning and successfully cultivate independent thinking.

Reflecting back not just with regard to the WWS, but also regarding campus and academic affairs and the university’s direction and leadership, I’m not sure President Goheen gets all the credit he should for his stewardship of Princeton during his pivotal time and tenure — a time of significant social change and transition going from the relatively placid 1950’s to the upcoming unrest and more turbulent 1960’s. He certainly had a lot more on his plate at that time than just ‘in loco parentis’ determinations and ‘dorm rules’ — remember those!

As Chairman, I had the opportunity to meet individually with him periodically. He was a soft-spoken, brilliant and very thoughtful, earnest person. He was a classics scholar before becoming President. He showed interest in the progress and activities of the WWS and would ask if any additional support or resources might be needed.

Did members of the Wilson Society consider it to be an alternative to Eating Clubs?

Most definitely, and an enhanced and broadened alternative at that, and, with the expanding membership and President Goheen’s support and resources of the University behind it, most importantly a meaningful and viable alternative. In the junior year, students also had the option of being an ‘independent’—that is, eating on Nassau St. or on hot plates in their rooms. I knew a small number who were steadfast independents and followed this path, and, as noted, many resided in Edwards Hall.

Was the Wilson Society in reality a melding of “intellectual and social life,” as its constitution states?

Yes, definitely, we strived to integrate academic/intellectual/cultural and social activities. That, along with an open noncompetitive membership, were hallmarks of the WWS. Prof. Smith of the philosophy department was our first faculty liaison and served as a quasi master–in-residence.

When I became Chairman, he was out of the country and I wrote to him formally asking if he would serve in that role. He accepted and enthusiastically embraced it in his frequent presence and other means of support.

I believe President Goheen strongly encouraged the faculty, if they were so inclined, to participate in the activities of the WWS, and numerous faculty were involved in a number of ways both on an occasional basis and a very loyal ongoing basis. WWS had the good fortune and luxury to choose among the many faculty who were interested in participating in the WWS, which was a reflection of the faculty enthusiasm and support of the WWS. Individual faculty had to be proposed and voted on by the membership.   Many faculty were regular participants at designated dining tables we had for various subjects: German, French, Philosophy, Literature, History. These tables were very popular and well attended. WW members really enjoyed the lively and informal give and take of the topics and conversation. (My good friend and Organic Chemistry co-conspirator, steady Paul Arkema was stellar at the German table — originally class of ’62, Paul graduated in’63 after taking a year off to study in Germany.) The faculty also were regular participants in various readings of plays and other group social activities.

Here is a partial list of professors who made important and generous contributions for the success of WWS and the enjoyment of its members: Malcolm Diamond, Hans Arsleff, Sherman Hawkins, Sheldon Judson, A. Walton Litz, Aaron Lemonick, Tom Roche, Walter Kaufman, Dick Ludwig, Dennis O’Brien, Ernest Gordon, James Smith, Kim Sparks, Ira Wade, Jerome Blum.

It was really great to have a wider and more frequent association and relationships with many of the professors and instructors and, in many cases, continuing mentoring relationships. I later returned to Princeton to visit with Prof. Richard Rorty, who was my thesis advisor — a considerate and very brilliant teacher. Chuck Balestri describes his enduring lifelong important faculty relationships in detail. Chuck — a man of abiding good will and grace — and I happened to play on opposing high school football teams in downstate Illinois, and we connected again in the WWS.

Many times Prof. Smith or other faculty WWS participants would arrange a visit to some professional, engineering or medical school location that was of potential career interest for some WWS members. These visits were much appreciated. The faculty participation component was a prominent feature and attraction of the WWS.

The WWS also had regular social gatherings with dates, as did the eating clubs. One of the things about social life/ dating at that time at Princeton is that there were a couple major, big-time party weekends, and so much depended on the specialness of those few occasions. That was magnified by virtue of Princeton not being co-ed at the time. Expectations and anticipation were so heightened that it could create kind of an ‘all or nothing’ experience until the next periodic opportunity for a big party weekend. As noted above, the eating clubs did have some of the best rock ‘n’ roll entertainment of the time, and they were very special occasions. The WWS attempted to spread out and plan more frequent, maybe less intense, social activities and try to have them as a ‘regular’ part of campus life. I would also say that it was characteristic of the WWS membership that someone   would have an idea to do something, organize something—such as the reading of a play—and it would get done for others to attend or enjoy as they wished. I can think of several special occasions when that happened. In that respect, there was quite a lot of vitality, individual initiative, and spontaneity that was very refreshing.

What did a typical Wilson Society meeting/gathering consist of?

The membership had regular meetings — with some ‘more or less’ conformity to Robert’s Rules of Order — for discussion and planning of activities, reports, rules and guidelines for use of WWS facilities and resources, and votes would be taken. As can be imagined with the disparate membership, the discussion could be wide ranging, and idiosyncratic viewpoints were expressed. For the election of new officers, there would be spirited occasions for the candidates to speak and to ‘campaign’ —   such as it was — and to present their platform and vision for the WWS.

Closing Thoughts: Woodrow Wilson Lodge/Society/College 50th Anniversary Celebration

As I reflect back on our time in the WWS, I think of it as an exciting, expectant, and special time with a sense of optimism — new things were happening, new doors were opening, new dimensions to campus life were unfolding. Thanks to the efforts and leadership of students in preceding classes who were willing to take a stand and seek out an alternative going forward, a new and very welcome and welcoming home became available for WWS members. This was made possible with the crucial responsiveness and support of the University administration to put forth plans and resources that allowed this movement to expand, thrive and eventually unfold into the transformation of residential quadrangle campus life we have today —   the fruition of Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the Quad Plan over a century ago.

The celebration and discussion of this historic evolution was the focus of the 50th anniversary of the Woodrow Wilson Society, held in November 2010. Before a gathering of alumni who had been in Wilson, President Shirley Tilghman toasted the Wilson tradition and spoke of the importance of Woodrow Wilson, Robert Goheen, and student initiative.

Other speakers were Professor Eduardo Cadava, the current Master, Professor John Fleming, twice Master of Wilson, Professor Nancy Malkiel, Dean of the College, and an alumni panel from the early ’60s and ’70s, including Darwin Labarthe. The event is available online at:

The current term ‘empowerment’ was not in the vernacular of the time, but it very accurately applies. A goodly number of students, who had felt powerless and without options regarding personal choice and comfort for dining and social activities, became empowered through the WWS to order and arrange important aspects of their campus life and activities, to promote student faculty interaction in an informal setting, and to integrate academic, intellectual, cultural, and social activities in a manner they desired. Individual initiative, which had started the whole process, was always encouraged and President Goheen’s administration responded. Vitality and spontaneity and creativity were rich and rewarding results. Society members in the early years, as described, were a diverse group — not in terms of today’s criteria, but in the sense of being the most heterogeneous group of students on the campus at that time since WWS maintained a standard of inclusiveness and an open membership. Friendships and a sense of camaraderie in this enterprise thrived. I’m certain I speak for many present and bygone members in saying it was a genuine pleasure to participate in and be a part of all that the Woodrow Wilson Society offered.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Chuck for indispensable, ongoing and generous help with research, editing and fact-checking as we compared notes on WWS recollections and as this project unexpectedly expanded — maybe mushroomed is a better word! — in length and time, and to Selden whose persuasion and persistence closed the deal and reeled me in after Chuck made the initial pitch to me to contribute a posting for this special 50th Reunion occasion. I’m very glad they did and I thank them for it.