Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is what you make it, so make it a good one. — Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future III, 1990
’Tis the season once again to do some giving of presents, as an indication to those we hold dear of our respect, admiration, love, whatever we’ve got that we would be missing without them. Clearly, neglecting the participation of you, the Ardent Historian, would be akin to using Your Favorite Periodical as some sort of orange-and-black police box rather than the wonderful TARDIS it can be. So as a little morsel (not as tasty as Aunt Edna’s rum balls, perhaps, but you can’t get those online) to help us recall those gifts we have here, let’s examine the tale of the second and longest-serving editor of PAW, Ted Norris 1895 *1897 from the outback of Iowa, who initially worked his way through two degrees including a cum laude in philosophy.
We come to Norris via appreciation for our recently retired and much admired next longest-serving editor, Marilyn Marks *86, whose 20-year tenure allowed her to become a fixture in your humble abode, and a significant force in recent alumni change. Take a look at any issue of PAW you choose from the 20th century, then any issue since the onset of COVID, and you can readily seize both the complexity in her adaptation to the Instafacetweetytube realities of the new world andsimultaneously assuaging the continuing yearnings of crazed alum Tigers everywhere for a connection to the Princeton they personally experienced on campus for three or four or seven (sorry, Ph.D. types …) years, a goodly while back. While I’m hardly unbiased, I do think Marilyn was more editorially successful in this balancing act than any of her constituents had any right to expect, while achieving it with a stunningly short enemies’ list and a wide-ranging amalgamation of admirers. To do this for 20 years requires character, as you might infer from PAW’s third-longest tenure, the 14 years of John Davies ’41 covering the multifaceted transformation of Princeton under president Bob Goheen ’40 *48 from 1955-69.
Big change was also facing Jesse Lynch Williams 1892, PAW’s founding editor in 1900, who looked around and immediately hired Norris as his second in command. Williams was a wide-ranging author who had written a history of the University in 1898 but was principally a creative writer who had founded Triangle with Booth Tarkington 1893 and written dozens of short stories; after leaving PAW in 1904 he would write six novels and four plays, including Why Marry?, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1917. Norris on the other hand was an inveterate journalist, first as a publicist for Andrew Fleming West 1874’s stupendous Princeton Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1896 while studying for his master’s degree, then at the Philadelphia Press, then back at Princeton under the tutelage of Williams at PAW.
Norris inherited the editor’s mantle in 1904, as new president Woodrow Wilson 1879 gained full speed in his unrelenting assault to change the newly anointed University into a serious hub of intellect. First came the creation of the academic departments, then essentially the doubling of the faculty via the young new “preceptor guys” the year following. At that point, Wilson’s quad plan was going onto the table as a direct threat to the eating clubs, Lake Carnegie was underway in a massive project that was perhaps 20th on Wilson’s priorities list, Wilson and Graduate School Dean West were each busy polishing the details on their mutually exclusive plans for the unique Graduate College, and piecemeal major fundraising was going on everywhere. Meanwhile students (remaining and soon-to-be-exiled) were screaming about the tightened academic program which made them forcibly complicit in their educations (via both departmental oversight and increased optional courses) overseen by the spunky preceptors.
Roleplay Norris for a second and imagine the letters to the editor of PAW at the time, if only from the fathers of the host of legacy undergrads who were on the academic chopping block (as perhaps the fathers should have been back in the day). Or the football fans; Princeton was 5-17-1 against Yale during his tenure. Or the devotees who had built the opulent clubhouses lining the Street. Or the architecture critics who thought the new tigers on Nassau Hall were too big. Or too small. Actually, here’s a hint: You don’t need to go back and read them because the late 20th-century issue and the current issue you just read contain the same letters, with the blanks filled in differently. There are two overriding commonalities: 1) the writer feels the omnipotent PAW editor should correct [whatever outrage], and 2) the writer has a recurring fear they could never be admitted to Princeton now, which in some cases might regrettably be true. Twenty years of this? Norris and Marks may be well beyond the discussion of records, instead fast approaching sainthood.
And then came the blowup. The crushing of Wilson’s quad plan by Moses Taylor Pyne 1877’s trustees, then his loss to West and Pyne regarding the location of the Grad College, left the nationally famous college president vulnerable to the blandishments of the Democratic Party in New Jersey, thence to the governorship in 1910 and the U.S. presidency in 1912. Meanwhile the resulting infighting over his successor filled up two years, although it did result in the perfect conciliator between the various factions, Rev. John Grier Hibben 1882*1893. This constant unrest over five or more years was covered by Norris in a near-genius fashion by falling back on detail. His 36-issue-per-year schedule gave him a chance to report on weekly trivia, be it the upgrading of McCosh Walk or the latest exploit of Hobey Baker 1914 on the campus, or his spiritual predecessor Johnny Poe 1895 off the campus. Norris buried the alums in good and true but upbeat news, following Hibben’s lead in grasping and developing any unifying advancement on campus. Class notes, then far longer than they have been in our lifetimes, became a haven of not only comradeship, but active grassroots support.
As part of a book series by Little Brown, Norris was asked in 1916 to write a short history of Princeton on almost no notice. His skills as a beat reporter leapt to the front, creating a memorable snapshot of a rapidly changing college over 170 years. In 261 pages it also gave a rich picture of the campus itself, muting externals in favor of the daily challenges of the students and later the alums. The Story of Princeton was then by far the most readable history of its type, and very precise in detailing not only Witherspoon’s great triumph with his students during the Revolution and the U.S. Constitution, but also the ruinous pigheadedness of the 1812 relegious zealots under president Ashbel Green 1783, who would have wrecked the college but for young John Maclean Jr. 1816. Norris’s coverage of president James McCosh and his huge effect upon the students and alums is truly inspiring. But beginning with his own time and president Francis Landey Patton in 1888, Norris (still editing PAW in his day job, remember) elected to suspend obvious criticism. The kindly and erudite but ineffectual Patton singly allowed the factions of West, Wilson, Pyne, the faculty, and others to gain pockets of power and ignite the acrimony which continued almost until the second World War, but you won’t find those here. So Patton’s firing in 1902 doesn’t appear, or various huffy trustee resignations, or the ill-fated quad plan, but Wilson’s simultaneous ascendance is worthy of a hero’s welcome, as is his eventual progression to national glory. This unsettling denouement of the “history” book, plus the coincidental timing just before dark events — Norris admires the Class of 1917 and their patriotic spirit, but 21 of them (5 percent of the “War Baby Class”) would be dead in two years — leave an eerie unreality hovering over the 20th-century aspects of the book. You will note that professor Thomas Wertenbaker in 1946, in his still-authoritative 400-page Princeton 1746-1896, chooses to stop 50 years short of his own time, very possibly a valuable lesson learned from Ted Norris.
The editor himself then resumed developing PAW — with very few mentions of discord — into the largest circulating andmost-published college magazine in the world as Hibben eased into fulfilling Wilson’s academic vision and the student body grew in the early 1920s. In 1924, Norris’ never-robust health caused his staff to send him on leave, virtually at gunpoint. He returned invigorated, but then on April 18, 1925, had a fatal heart attack at 58, followed by high praise lavished across the University for his unique and selfless achievements. His successor’s term lasted three months.
It’s very easy to take a PAW editor for granted in the daily scheme of the alum goings-on, but when you focus on Norris, Williams, Davies, and certainly Marks and their times, and examine their legacies, they qualify as a very unusual and continuing holiday gift for Princetonians old, new, and yet to be.
Would that we all were. God bless us, every one.