Wearing your heart on your shoulder

[Religion Professor Paul] Ramsey’s a self-righteous gent
Who preaches from the Testament.
But beer does more than Ramsey can
To justify God’s faith in Man.
The Faculty Song

Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio. He was a recipient of the Alumni Council’s Award for Service to Princeton at R
Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio. He was a recipient of the Alumni Council’s Award for Service to Princeton at Reunions 2010.
Illustration by Steven Veach

Last time, you’ll recall, we were discussing time capsules and the varied attempts of various groups to memorialize themselves. We ended by applauding (or locomotivating, if you prefer) the clever effort by members of the Class of ’52 to entrust their legacy to their grandchild class of 2002, which at its own 50th reunion will open 1952’s time capsule and pass its story on to the young graduates of 2052. And, hopefully, so on.

While profusely praising that effort, especially in the context of an institution of the Long View like Princeton, let me contrast it with the poignant message left us by members of the Class of 1922. They memorialized the angst of their entire era by simply noting the following on the back shoulder of their beer jackets:

And who’s to say the student body’s graphic concern over Prohibition isn’t as weighty a historical note as anything entombed in the cornerstone of the Chapel three years later?

The beer jacket, one of our unique gifts to American culture along with the college marching band, Hoagie Haven, and the word “campus,” is celebrating its centennial; the Class of 1912 was too cheap to pay for laundry, so it hit upon the utilitarian notion of wearing blue-denim work suits to drink in, transforming spills from curse to art form (take that, Jackson Pollock!). In 1914 the beer suits were modified to white canvas (easier to see lurching across Nassau Street?); in 1918 the first class design appeared on the back – a beer stein, inevitably – and Princeton seniors have been tinkering with them ever since.

Allie Weiss ’13 has done a fine job recalling the whys and wherefores of the beer jacket’s colorful history for the Reunions issue of PAW, and you’re well advised to read every word. (Don’t forget my summary, sung to the tune of “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” from Annie.) I wanted to follow it up with a few fun examples here, and then muse a bit about why we care enough to bring it up in the first place.

Let’s think about the jacket logos thematically, for starters. In addition to the typical preoccupationary books, Gatsbyesque seniors, tigers, and flivvers, various notable interests pop up now and again to add spice. Take the overenthused art historians of the Class of ’30: You’ll note the class numerals don’t impede the classic lines of the Venus de Milo:

World affairs began to intrude as the Depression got perking, and stayed prominent through the end of World War II. Early on, the Class of ’34 did a clever sendup of new President Harold Dodds *14 and Roosevelt’s new NRA (note the letters hiding the class numerals), and threw in the undefeated football team and the end of Prohibition (remember?) for good measure:

After four more years of economic malaise and with the Nazi specter rising, the Class of ’38 devoted its entire design to its outlook:

Then, complex designs reached their zenith with the Class of ’41’s worldview that included both Hitler and FDR (look carefully):

This was followed by a long, painful series of logos including military hardware, which finally was relieved by one of the most cheerful designs ever, from the Class of ’48 and its great Henry Martin as the tuxes reappeared to replace the rifles:

After Korea, the designs became more beer-and-party-oriented, the cheery epitome of which may well have been that of the self-proclaimed Overall Class – the last hurrah of the “well-rounded student” before the ascendency of the “well-rounded class” – the Class of ’66 (note the Tiger in the tank):

Since coeducation, designs have become progressively more abstract and institutional, the materials a bit nicer, but the class identity remains as pronounced. This year’s design, with the class numerals once again worked cleverly into the tiger on the back and complete with the ever-popular chevron from the Princeton shield, even looked fetching on the Class Day speaker:

Steve Carrell h'12 and his classmates.
Steve Carrell h'12 and his classmates.

Devoted Princetoniana chief Bud Wynne ’39 long ago began assembling the copper stencils for these beer jacket logos; he succeeded in finding and cataloguing most, and donated them to the Archives. The Princetoniana Committee also began to inherit, then seek out, beer jackets and class-reunion blazers from alums. On Bud’s passing, the mantle was picked up by Bob Rodgers ’56, who moved the collection to new, more fabric-friendly confines and started to fill in gaps in an orderly way. With Bob’s death, the togs and fabric-swatch book have passed to John Wriedt ’85, who put together a rip-snorting exhibit of the jacket collection in Bob’s memory for Reunions this year at Frist:

That’s Bob Rodgers ’56’s blazer among the beer jackets.
That’s Bob Rodgers ’56’s blazer among the beer jackets.

This brings us to the nub of the issue: These are three bright, complex, devoted guys; why would they spend their precious time – lots of it – on such things as drinking costumes? Well, of course, historical perspective, blah, blah, blah, but come on … That’s not why alums roll out their beer jackets at their 40th or 55th or 70th reunion parties, when their blazers would be spiffier. After long consideration, I think we find the answer best in great literature, not the real world (which Princeton isn’t, anyway). Not the literature of Hemingway, Fitzgerald ’17, and Melville, however, but the literature of the “Faculty Song” (see above) and Lewis Carroll. Your beer jacket is not only your (stained) material connection with your friends; it is your standing invitation to attend the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, to return to Neverland, or – in the parlance of one of the greatest Princeton honorands, Maurice Sendak – to venture again Where the Wild Things Are.  

I suppose somewhere out there are true grownups, to whom such things honestly seem not only frivolous but demeaning; who really don’t give a fig if Tinkerbelle lives or dies, or whether Max’s wolf suit will interfere with his sailing, or whether their freshman roommate still is addicted to peanut M&Ms. But would you want to have a beer with one? 

P.S. Speaking of honorary degrees: As we go to press (or whatever this is here in digiville), news arrives that Peter J. Carril may now be addressed as Doctor, in the same vein as Doctor J or Doctor Bill Bradley ’65 (an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1983) or Doctor Bill Russell (an honorary Doctor of Humanities in 2001). This is a very fine thing, not because athletics is important at Princeton, or important at all, but precisely because Pete would never tell you that they were; he is a teacher of human beings, not sports, a truly great one, and among all the learned people, many of them global leaders, who have walked the same ground, he is as fine an instance of Princeton in the nation’s service as we now have. Congratulations not only to Pete, but to the trustees who understand and honor this, and bring credit to us all in turn.

P.P.S. For this last columnar sojourn of the academic year, we have fallen into the habit (scratch that, the long-standing, honored tradition) of listing here for your summer iPad perusal our musings of the last 12 months, so that your tearstains of regret for the seasonal absence of Your Favorite Periodical don’t mess up your SPF 40. No, no, it’s all part of the service …