Princeton Portrait

Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

Princeton’s lineage of brilliant, terrifying Chaucerians — John V. Fleming *63, D.W. Robertson Jr. — began, perhaps, with Dean Root. Robert Kilburn Root was his given name, but Dean Root is what his contemporaries left in the records, perhaps a reflection of his personal gravitas. He seems to have tried to be easygoing. At one University dinner, a guest thanked Root for his hospitality, using his title. Root said, “Ted, Ted, don’t be so formal. Call me Mr. Root.”

Dean Root came to Princeton in 1905, one of Woodrow Wilson’s original preceptors. He remained for more than 40 years, advancing to chair of the English department (1926–33) and dean of the faculty (1933–46). His was a different Princeton: Weekly services in the University Chapel began with a formal procession in which Root and his colleagues wore full academic regalia. As dean of the faculty, Root lived in the Dean’s House (now Maclean House), where the students kept tabs on his doings through the bay window. (In 1938, the Princetonian appointed him to its Honor Roll “for not drawing the curtains in his parlor and thus permitting vicarious enjoyment of his teas, bridge, and domestic reading.”) Mastery of Old English was required of every English major, which made Root’s course on the history of language (“Root’s Roots”) a well-beaten pilgrim’s path. Remarked one commentator, “Dean Root has been particularly noted for his clear and precisely organized lectures, which have unfailingly ended exactly as the bell has begun to ring at the end of the hour.”

“Imperceptibly, the arid dean disappeared, and I was talking with a person.”

In 1945, a former student of his — the late writer William Zinsser ’44 — went to Root, hoping to transfer credits from academic programs offered by the Army toward the completion of his Princeton degree. Zinsser recalled how nervous he was to ask for sanction from this stern medieval figure: “Imperceptibly, the arid dean disappeared, and I was talking with a person. Could it be the same Dean Root, this warm old man who wanted me to tell him what I had done and thought and felt in North Africa and Italy? ... At the end, a look of sadness came into Dean Root’s eyes, and he said, ‘Tell me — I suppose Siena has been mostly destroyed?’ I told him that Siena hadn’t been touched by the war and that the great striped cathedral was still there on top of the hill. Dean Root smiled and saw me to the door. ...Not long afterward, he wrote to say that I had met the requirements for a degree … .”

One benefit of a stern reputation is the opportunity to indulge in unexpected jokes. Root once shocked the audience at Class Day by describing the graduating seniors, using slang, as “476 guys.” He was letting the seniors know he was aware of the verse they gave him in the Faculty Song: “A playful lad is Robert Root / He’d like to give us all the boot. / He raised his standards up too high / And graduated just one guy.”