I’ve got a little list

Let dreamers dream what worlds they please, those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure nor wise nor good, we’ll do the best we know:
We’ll build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow.

— The Ensemble, “Candide”

2019 Alumni Day honorees Mellody Hobson ’91, left, and Carol Quillen *91
Victor Powell (Hobson); courtesy of Davidson College (Quillen)

We come again to Alumni Day, an entertaining and meaningful time for alums who don’t necessarily need multiple kegs and tents to enjoy themselves whilst dusting off the orange and black wardrobe. (For more thoughts on this, see my column from February 2015.) By far the most important item for me is the Service of Remembrance, but that is not to belittle in any way the bestowing of the Madison Medal and Wilson Award on a pair of inevitably admirable and supremely qualified alums, whose lectures earlier on Saturday morning unfailingly remind us why they won and we didn’t, but also of the things to which we can still aspire, no matter at what stage of our own passages we may be.

While virtually every campus organization has multifarious forms of recognition or blandishment it rolls out for its loyal alums, there are strikingly few University-wide forms of achievement recognition for us, which in turn makes the ones that we have, like the Madison and Wilson prizes, all the more impactful. Beyond the Alumni Day awards, you (by which of course I mean almost nobody) can receive an honorary degree, but I’d say alumni/ae receive on average about one per year. You have a far better chance of becoming a University trustee, but then they make you work. A lot. For years. Like being an oarsman on Cleopatra’s barge, the honor lies more in the PR than in the day-to-day.

So this Alumni Day, awardees Mellody Hobson ’91 and Carol Quillen *91 carry symbolic import for the thousands of other accomplished alums who will never hear their names called, not to mention those in the financial services and higher-education industries in which they toil. It’s also most instructive to note the nature of the Princeton experiences that led to their achievements, which almost always contains surprises. Hobson studying in the Wilson School makes sense, of course, but as a senior she led a policy task force to South Africa and wrote her thesis on Apartheid’s Unintended Consequence: The Politicization of Black Children in South Africa, adding context to her presiding over one of the nation’s largest minority-owned investment firms. Quillen, with a history B.A. from the University of Chicago, worked on a Firestone exhibition on Women’s Education from Plato to Princeton with our favorite history profs, Natalie Zemon Davis and Tony Grafton, but her dissertation was a more strategic The Humanist as Reader: Petrarch’s Use of the Writings of Augustine. I would hazard to say both projects were both helpful in Quillen’s becoming a leader in liberal-arts education.

This then is the context of Alumni in the News, an email blast from your friends here at Your Favorite Periodical, which wanders by your brainstem with nuggets regarding your fellows and their toil in the garden. Given the web’s linking capacity, it’s actually more functional than a gossip column in the print edition, and more flexible. I happened to be thinking about Hobson and Quillen and awards when the Dec. 11 version wandered in by chance, and I found myself looking at all the following remarkable folks, whose notations I embellish with some of their Princeton activities just for fun.

Gen. Mark Milley ’80 (a little unfair, he already has the Wilson Award), was just nominated to be chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, an astounding accomplishment for an ROTC grad. Famed as a hockey alum, he majored in politics and wrote his thesis on A Critical Analysis of Revolutionary Guerrilla Organization in Theory and Practice.

Maria Ressa ’86, active in student government and music, was one of those Theatre Intime junkies, directed Mame, and wrote and directed a play, Sagittarius, for her thesis in the English department. She is now fighting for press freedom in the Philippines, harassed by the government there, and was one of Time magazine’s People of the Year for her reportorial work.

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U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer ’96 from Washington is the new chair of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition. He certainly got a strong running start on that with his Wilson School thesis Recovering from the Addiction: The Social and Economic Impacts of the Pacific Northwest Timber Crisis. Active in undergrad politics, he also was co-winner of the Pyne Prize and received a Marshall Scholarship.

Newly named Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee Rev. Phoebe Roaf *89 is the first woman or African American to hold the position. She first considered applying to the Wilson School’s MPA program as a student in the school’s summer program in policy skills for minority students. Her subsequent community service led her first to law school, then to seminary.

A quick transition to Brad Smith ’81, president of Microsoft, who’s trumpeting the Airband program for imminent access of three million rural Americans to broadband (including yours truly, God willing). I wish his Wilson School thesis on The Politics of Refugees: The Development and Promotion of International Refugee Law weren’t so obviously related. His undergrad political career may have peaked in an imaginary boxing match between Smith and provost Neil Rudenstine ’56 in the Prince 1979 joke issue.

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean ’57, another Wilson awardee, quoted in Alumni in the News as an admirer of the late George H.W. Bush, has had history on the brain for a long time, as shown by his thesis Niemcewicz: The Biography of a Polish Patriot, 1756-1842, Including His Impressions of America. Not to mention Kean’s legendary marketing slogan as governor, “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together.”

Also quoted at Bush’s death was ex-Rep. Jim Leach ’64, who prepared for a political future by wrestling, playing rugby, and captaining lightweight football as well as via his politics department thesis The Right to Revolt: John Locke Contrasted with Karl Marx.

Ex-Fed Chair Paul Volcker ’49 has published his memoir, which would be required reading in Washington economic circles if anyone there could read anymore. Another Wilson Award recipient, as an undergrad he was the big man in the middle for the JV basketball team, leaving time to write his Wilson School thesis on The Problems of Federal Reserve Policy Since World War II. Ya think?

Exactly how you train to become CEO of offworld pioneer Virgin Galactic is open to debate, but George Whitesides ’96 did it by running for student government as often as Derek Kilmer (above), and becoming president of the Footnotes and the Class of ’96, then being elected alumni trustee on graduation, while writing a Wilson School thesis on The Revolution in the Revolution: Algeria in United States Foreign Policy, 1954-1996. Space tourism, here we come.

Christine Emba ’10, our youngest citation, is a Washington Post columnist who was decrying Ivy League admissions mania. She cut her teeth on the editorial board of the Prince and as president of student-run Nassau Research. Her Wilson School thesis dealt with Financing the United Nations: Withholding, Withdrawal, and the U.S.–U.N. Relationship.

Musical America’s Composer of the Year, Julia Wolfe *12, was of course in the music department, but her dissertation is a fascinating organization study of the early years of New York City’s unique Bang on a Can Festival, Embracing the Clash. Nine of her compositions are in the Mendel Music Library.

Meanwhile, the Conductor of the Year wins our informal prize for career transitions. Carlos Miguel Prieto ’87 was indeed a solo cellist as an undergrad (as well as a billiards champ with a similarly deft touch), but his degree was a BSE in computer science, and his thesis on Issues of Plant Automation Using Programmable Logic Controllers.

And the third musical award, Vocalist of the Year Anthony Roth Costanzo ’04, has been here before as our Tiger of the Week when he won the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions. A strong actor and writer as well as one of the world’s pre-eminent countertenors, his senior thesis was a full musical production of his The Double Life of Zefirino, later a short film by Gerardo Puglia.

Silas Riener ’06, renowned dancer-choreographer who was also Tiger of the Week when working with Merce Cunningham, meanwhile has won a fellowship at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. He took up dance only on arriving in Princeton as a replacement for high school sports, and majored in comparative literature, where his thesis was Fugue State: the Idea: Poems, Dance, Theories of Congruence. That while choreographing in the certificate program in dance, and teaching English in Thailand with Princeton in Asia.

The boffo news that Maggie Betts ’99 will be directing Viola Davis in a Hollywood biopic of groundbreaking congressional firebrand Shirley Chisholm follows her Breakthrough Director award at Sundance. She started out in the English department, and after some acting with Theatre  Intime her thesis was a screenplay/novel Innocent Erendira: An Adaptation of “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A third ex-Tiger of the Week is Time magazine senior writer Sean Gregory ’98, who played for the great 29-2 men’s basketball team of 1998. He wrote sports for the Prince on a busman’s holiday and studied at the Wilson School, where he wrote Neighborhood Action: Community Development Corporations and Lessons from the South Bronx as his thesis.

Gregory’s topic in Time is the legendary John McPhee ’53, teacher extraordinaire and winner of the Wilson Award, whose 30th book The Patch is receiving the normal breathless reviews. Always in character as himself, McPhee wrote for the Nassau Lit, but is famed as the first undergrad to get the faculty to accept a novel, Skimmer Burns, as his thesis. Just glance above to see the effect that has had.

Now, some Alumni in the News emails are longer, some shorter, some maybe not quite so astounding, but many even more so. When we hear from Hobson and Quillen on Alumni Day, these and thousands of others are bubbling below the surface. We should hear them as well, whether or not we know or readily recall their names, because among their astonishing quality and variety they share with us a highly honorable and distinct identity. They’re Princetonian.