“Among those organizations engaged in the making of all geologists at Princeton is the celebrated Lunch Club,” geology graduate student Harold Bannerman *1927 wrote in a 1926 issue of the department newsletter, The Smilodon. According to Bannerman, this lunchtime gathering of graduate students in Guyot Hall typically began with a discussion of contemporary political issues — tariffs, immigration laws, and “rum running” — before transforming into a venue for fish stories.
These tall tales, often involving shipwrecks and boa constrictors, were encouraged and perpetuated by the club’s president, longtime professor Alexander Hamilton Phillips 1887 *1899. Phillips was a popular and industrious professor of mineralogy for a generation.
A native of nearby Lawrenceville, Phillips grew up on the family farm before attending Princeton. He joined the Princeton faculty after graduation, working on his doctorate as he began a 49-year career at the University. For several years he taught biology, vertebrate morphology, and anatomy before becoming Princeton’s second full-time mineralogy professor in 1898 and discovering the first radium-bearing ores in North America.
“Many tales are told of delighted alumni who have discovered him in out-of-the-way places by hearing his laugh in a crowd,” earning him the nickname Ha Ha Phillips.
Phillips incorporated innovative teaching strategies. From the wood of a pear tree in his backyard, he carved sophisticated crystal models — items that remain in the geosciences department’s collection. He was especially active in local and scientific communities, serving both as president of the Mineralogical Society of America and, from 1911 to 1916, as the Republican mayor of Princeton, a post in which he sparked at least one controversy.
In 1911, The Daily Princetonian reported that the Witherspoon Moving Picture Theatre in downtown Princeton had barred students from entry — and the article’s anonymous writer blamed Mayor Phillips. The Columbia Spectator chimed in, speculating that Phillips enacted the policy to punish students who skipped his mineralogy class. In a reply the following day, the mayor claimed innocence and blamed a theater manager, while noting “the dangers of creating a disturbance in a darkened room filled with an excitable audience.”
As his reply suggested, Phillips possessed good humor. His laugh was so legendary that in 1933 PAW reported that “many tales are told of delighted alumni who have discovered him in out-of-the-way places by hearing his laugh in a crowd,” earning him the nickname Ha Ha Phillips. And on many spring evenings, PAW recounted, Princeton seniors would sing a refrain familiar to an entire generation:
Ha Ha Phillips, Hee Hee Hee
As mayor he dug up lots of graft;
The more he got, the more he laughed.