How a bunch of college sophomores outsmarted Princeton

Along with his classmates, J.D. Oznot ’68 was pictured in the 1968 Nassau Herald. The portrait was actually a picture of E. Alden Dunham ’53, Princeton’s admission director. The illustration at right is based on that photo.
Hal Mayforth

ON APRIL 16, 1964, E. Alden Dunham ’53 gathered his speaking notes and prepared to walk to a formal dinner at the Princeton Inn. “It was a beautiful day,” Dunham later recalled, “everything in bloom, just perfect for the annual trustees’ spring dinner.” Early that morning, Dunham, the Princeton University director of admission, had overseen the mailing of 1,165 admission notices to high school seniors across the country. Dunham was excited to share the results of the admission process in his annual speech at the trustees’ dinner. After the trustees had enjoyed a celebratory meal with wine and cigars, Dunham would take his place at the front of the room and describe the great Class of 1968. “This was always a satisfying moment, full of superlatives each year about the best class ever admitted to Princeton,” Dunham would write later. 

Accounts of what happened next differ slightly. But it seems that just as he prepared to leave for the Princeton Inn (today’s Forbes College), Dunham received a call from a reporter at The Daily Princetonian named Thomas R. (T.R.) Reid ’66. He listened. “I’ll have to call you back,” Dunham said, and he hung up the phone. Dunham called an emergency meeting with his co-workers. He pulled out the admission files he had been obsessing over for months and attempted to make sense of what he had been told. His head was spinning with questions, especially these: Could what the reporter said possibly be true? And if it was, how in the world did students pull it off? 

Six months earlier, in October 1963, Reid and his three roommates — all in the Class of 1966 — walked from their dorm room at 225 Joline Hall to the parking lot across the street from the University Store, where they could discuss their plans without worrying about who might be listening. There, Reid, Steven D. Reich, Frederick W. Talcott, and Arthur F. Davidsen laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most elaborate ruses in Princeton history: The legend of Joseph D. Oznot was born.

REICH SAYS it was Reid who first presented the idea in their dorm room. Reid isn’t so sure. “I don’t know if I was the first to present it,” Reid tells me, “but I bet we had beers in our hands when we came up with it.” Talcott takes a similar view, saying that the idea for Joe Oznot likely arose out of one of their many nights of cards, beer, and pizza. 

At some point one of the four asked his roommates: What if we get a fake student admitted to Princeton? At first, it was just a funny concept — an idea to laugh about over midnight beers. But the more the roommates talked about it, the more serious the idea became.

“We realized how much had to go into it,” says Reid. “The backstory, the essays, the tests, the application, the interview. We also knew it would take a little bit of money.” The four were ready for the challenge. The first task was coming up with the applicant’s name. The leading contender was Joseph David Oznot — when shortened to Joseph D. Oznot, the name revealed its own secret: “D. Oznot” as in “does not” exist. “We didn’t want to inadvertently get some real kid admitted, so we searched several big-city phone books,” says Talcott. 

Between fall classes and assignments, the four added detail after detail to Joe’s story, often over late-night rounds of bridge. They inserted hints about Oznot’s fictitious nature at every opportunity: His birthday was April 1. His father, a private detective, was William H. Oznot: W.H.O. (Reid says the occupation was chosen because “you would need a private detective to figure this out.”) The students practiced writing Joe’s signature until each could produce an identical “plain-vanilla” script. “This way all four of us could sign Joe’s name for him, in case he was unavailable,” jokes Talcott. “We thought of every detail. We all kind of became Joe Oznot,” says Reid.

Talcott remembers being inspired by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, his favorite book; Oznot’s mother’s maiden name was listed as Heller. “We were inspired by that story to try out some disruptive things,” Talcott says. Mainly, however, the students were just looking for fun. “We were enjoying our sophomore year and we were pretty ... sophomoric,” Reid recalls. 

Oznot needed a home life — an address for university correspondence, a high school, and a city to call home. The sophomores considered their own hometowns. Talcott, Reich, and Davidsen were from the East Coast — a riskier option because East Coast applicants were more common. But Reid was from Dearborn Heights, Mich., and the students believed that Ivy League schools at the time were especially impressed by intellectuals from the Midwest. So Reid called his childhood friend Steven E. Cook, a sophomore at Michigan State University, who agreed to manage the elements of Oznot’s story that related to his home life. Cook offered his Michigan State fraternity house as Oznot’s home address and chose the local East Lansing High as Oznot’s high school. Cook also procured copies of East Lansing High letterhead for the rest of Oznot’s official application.

When no one jumped at the opportunity to take the SATs again, the students drew straws. Reid and Davidsen came up short. Reid, a classics major, would take the achievement test in Latin in the morning, and Davidsen would take the verbal and math SAT in the afternoon. When the day of the test arrived, Reid woke early in the morning, combed his hair, and made his way to Princeton High School, where the test was being administered. “Compared to today, it was so easy,” Reid says. “You didn’t have to show ID or anything. … There were 100 or 200 kids there, and I just walked in, filled in the name, and they weren’t conscious of a thing.” 

Between fall classes and assignments, the four added detail after detail to Joe’s story, often over late-night rounds of bridge.
Hal Mayforth, illustration of the Oznot entry in the Class of 1968 25th-reunion book

READ MORE J.D. Oznot ’68, 25 Years Out

Reid breezed through the Latin test, answering the high-school-level questions with ease. Outside, he swapped clothing with Davidsen, who entered the school for the afternoon exam. With his background in math and astrophysics, Davidsen left the high school feeling confident about Oznot’s performance. Indeed, Reid got a perfect score on the Latin exam, while Davidsen scored in the 700s on the verbal test and got a 792 in math — falling short of the 800 he pulled off when taking the test in his own name. “We used to hold that up as documented proof to Art that he was getting dumber,” Talcott says. With Oznot’s impressive skills in Latin and math, the roommates painted their applicant as someone who bridged the technical and the humanities. 

More details followed. Oznot’s grades in Latin and mathematics were flawless, but he had earned a B in English and science — and the applicant got only a C in his shop class. He was co-chair of the Math Club and president of the Latin Club. He had played classical piano for nine years and also played in the jazz band. Over the summer, Oznot studied calculus and Virgil yet found time to work as a sales clerk at a local retail store. On top of all this, Oznot was class treasurer in his senior year. “He turned out to be better than all of us, because he was the work of all of us,” Talcott says.

In one nice touch, the conspirators made Oznot co-founder of the East Lansing High School lacrosse club. Talcott explains that lacrosse made Oznot “a minor-league jock, an innovator, and a spreader of East Coast civilization to our friends west of Pittsburgh.”

In his application essay, Oznot spoke about his math teacher, who was also an artist, a jazz musician, and “an all-around humanist.” Oznot wrote that his teacher “had great insight into the many other academic areas that caused me to think about the problem of education and to want to unite my study of the scientific and artistic disciplines.” The essay played perfectly to the tune of the Commencement address given by President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 in 1963. The four students thought the essay was brilliant at the time, but it has not held up very well. “Oh my God,” Talcott says when he hears the line recently. “Who wrote that crap?” 

Joe Oznot’s creators were ready to mail in his completed application. “We wanted to wait until the last possible day to mail everything in so that no Lansing Princeton alumni would check in on Joe and find out that he lived in a Michigan State fraternity house,” says Reid. Only the issue of the interview still remained. Just before winter break began, Talcott sat in front of his stone-framed window in Joline, gazing across the green grass of Mathey College. He could see one of the large windows of West College, home of the University admission office. Talcott picked up the phone in his dorm room and dialed the office.

“Hello,” Talcott said, doing his best fatherly impression, “my name is William H. Oznot. My son Joe Oznot is an applicant to Princeton.” Talcott went on to explain to the office that he and his son would be taking a trip to New York City over winter break, so he was wondering if Joe could come to the campus for an in-person interview. The office bought it. “It was a good thing they didn’t have caller ID back in those days,” Talcott says.

But who would show up for the interview? Davidsen called up his friend Charles A. Lieppe at Columbia University. On the day before Christmas in 1963, Lieppe took the train from New York City to assume the identity of Joseph David Oznot. He wore a three-piece suit and a striped Brooks Brothers shirt, finishing the look with a pair of Bass Weejuns. Davidsen supplied him with a volume of Virgil to hold under one arm and a copy of Sports Illustrated to hold under the other. In his brief essay about the prank, Dunham recalled that the interview “did not go all that well.” But it apparently went well enough.

EARLY IN THE MORNING OF APRIL 16, 1964, Princeton University mailed letters to 1,165 high school students across the world informing them of their admission to the Class of 1968. Later that day, the admission office posted a list of the lucky students. Reid made his way across campus to the office. He scanned the list of admitted students. 

Reid couldn’t believe his eyes. Joseph D. Oznot had been admitted to Princeton. He laughed as two thoughts ran through his head: First, that the article he was about to write would be a shoo-in for the front page of the Prince. Second, that he was about to be thrown out of Princeton. 

After notifying his friends about their success, Reid went to the newspaper’s office and picked up the phone. He recalls that he dialed the number of the admission director. “Hello, Mr. Dunham, I’m a reporter from The Daily Princetonian. I understand that one of the people on the list of the admissions doesn’t really exist — care to comment?” The line went silent, until Dunham said he’d have to phone back.

The only written account of the following moments comes from an essay Dunham — who died in 2015 — wrote for the Class of 1966’s 25th-reunion yearbook. He remembered that he took another look at Oznot’s folder — nothing seemed out of order. “But to play it safe we decided to call the [high] school,” wrote Dunham. “Our mouths fell open when the principal of East Lansing High School in Michigan told us that Joseph David Oznot was not.” What to do? Dunham wondered. What about the trustees? The press? “We quickly decided to give full credit,” Dunham wrote. Reid says that when he got a call back from the admission director, Dunham told him that Joe Oznot was a “a magnificent hoax.” He commended the unnamed sophomores for their ingenuity. “I was really looking forward to having that concert pianist around next year,” Dunham joked.

That night, at the trustees’ spring dinner, Dunham spoke of the great Class of 1968 — a class filled with leaders, geniuses, jocks, and one imaginary student named Joe Oznot. “I must say,” wrote Dunham later, “the trustees reacted that evening even more warmly to Joe Oznot than to the number of jocks in the Class of 1968.” Joseph D. Oznot was a hit.

On April 17, 1964, the front-page banner headline of The Daily Princetonian read: “Admissions Accepts Nonexistent Freshman.” Reid, who went on to become a journalist, still revels in being on the front page. He admits to a violation of journalistic ethics: He never told Dunham that he and his friends were responsible for the hoax. But the media went wild with the story, and the names of the conspirators got out. “When my dad saw it in the paper,” Reid says, “he was furious.” 

Fortunately for the conspirators, the University — and the rest of America — responded kindly to Oznot. In September 1964, Reid’s fame as a creator of Joe Oznot reached its peak when the 20-year-old undergraduate dressed in his nicest suit and tie, combed his blond hair neatly, and appeared on the CBS television show To Tell the Truth. After reviewing the footage recently, Reid says he’s embarrassed by the hoax, despite fond memories. Years later he joined Princeton’s board of trustees — “one ink-stained reporter” among corporate CEOs and senators — and “when they found out I was part of Oznot, my stature on the board went way up.”

On the board and beyond, Joe Oznot has become a beloved legend for many Princeton alumni, students, and faculty. He has appeared in reunion yearbooks and PAW Class Notes columns, and even found a place in the Class of 1966’s 50-year reunion movie. In the Class of 1968’s 25th–reunion yearbook, his “classmates” contributed a biography of his life after Princeton. According to this account, Oznot became a private detective like his father, married a woman named Dorothy Earhart (great-niece of Amelia Earhart), started a business for “finding lost luggage,” and developed a “fondness for test-driving heavy military vehicles.”

ON JULY 19, 2001, Arthur F. Davidsen passed away. A week later, T.R. Reid and Fred Talcott rose to tell those gathered at the memorial service about their good friend Artie. Artie had accomplished many feats in the field of astrophysics, but Reid and Talcott chose to speak about something else. “This is a story about collaboration, creativity, and real friendship,” they began. Reid and Talcott went on to tell the incredible story of Joseph David Oznot. They spoke of the tests and the applications and the interview and the jokes. They spoke about late-night card-playing in Joline and making something out of nothing. They spoke of the laughs they shared over Oznot and fun they had together. Talcott says: “I believe we had most of the room smiling.” 

Isaac Wolfe ’20 is focusing on philosophy and Near Eastern studies.