“I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.”
— Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”
This is the annual “Lives Lived and Lost” issue of Your Favorite Periodical, and we’ll get to that presently. But first I wanted to pass along an item of recent note that captured my imagination for reasons both obvious and, I suspect, obscure. It has to do with women wrestlers, and before you hit the send button to our Editorial Infrastructure regarding the virtues of WWE, let’s take a breath and note that we’re actually focusing here on Demetra Yancopoulos ’22, one of two women currently active in NCAA Division I wrestling. We have to thank the Prince and reporter Josephine de La Bruyere ’22 for a wonderful piece on Demetra’s hard work training as a member of the Tiger varsity — in this case “hard work” is a euphemism for getting and giving an unholy pounding each day as a rite of passage in a Top-20 wrestling program, which is precisely what Princeton has at long last become.
And while Yancopoulos’ efforts (never mind her various rounds of major knee surgery) are worthy of great focus and admiration, she’s not the topic. It’s her coach, Chris Ayres, who asked her to join the team, whose daughter is the captain of the Princeton High School wrestling team, and who worked to get women’s wrestling certified as a high school sport in New Jersey. Had he not expended all this effort, he still would be making great strides in the wrestling world, at the peak of an arduous 14-year career at Princeton. He graciously recalls his predecessor in the Tiger wrestling salt mines, Mike New, who coached Audrey Pang ’05, the NCAA’s first woman varsity wrestler, 15 years ago. Along with her, Ayres can’t believe it took that long here for another woman grappler to, uh, grapple with the system. Beyond concrete accomplishments, it seems to me his simple attitude of welcoming and seeking change, challenge, and expansion of the way we imagine our world, this is what we really mean by Princeton being in the service of the nation, or humanity, or whatever. Maybe it doesn’t seem as grandiose as Bob Goheen ’40 *48 and Bill Bowen *58’s vision of Princeton as an unparalleled community of learning; maybe it has to do with Ayres himself having been a walk-on wrestler at Lehigh who ended up an EIWA champion. One thing about truly being of service: If you do it right, nobody really cares much where it came from — they’re just grateful you’re there. And if they aren’t, you do it anyway, because service is its own reward.
Which is a very useful introduction to the late Paul Volcker ’49. You’ll read about him and his financial prowess elsewhere in this edition, which is as it should be. But I’d like to focus on some of his more recent efforts relating to service and its necessity in governing and improving people’s lives. The most concrete example is The Volcker Alliance, a foundation begun in 2013 with one of the simpler mission statements you’ll run across: “The mission of the Volcker Alliance is to advance effective management of government to achieve results that matter to citizens.”
The alliance focuses on studies and programs, large and small, that put forward not only the cause of good government but the people who are needed to make it happen. This involves everything from formal alliances between universities and local or regional government entities (to customize research and development solutions to the precise location and task), to the curricula required in the next 10 years to more effectively train future government experts and civil servants.
Meanwhile, Volcker himself spent quality time, including a goodly amount at Princeton even after his retirement, proselytizing government service as potentially attractive, but more importantly as crucial to the successful functioning of the country and its component elements. If you were awake during the Great Recession, I would think you’d have a hard time arguing with him. He was openly alarmed at the tendency of highly skilled graduates to go into corporate finance or consulting or whatever while the public good suffered. The diagnosis in his biography Keeping At It is succinct:
“Distrust and ill-will permeate attitudes toward government. Too many of the best in the assailed bureaucracy, both in Congress and in key administrative posts, have left too soon, doubting that their voices could be heard or that their goals could be achieved. That needs to change.”
Fortunately, there are some who have stayed, at least to a point. The current presidential impeachment process alone has unexpectedly highlighted Marie Yovanovitch ’80, a State Department veteran, testifying to her ill treatment at the hands of the White House as she attempted to simply do her job as ambassador to Ukraine. Jennifer Williams *16, another foreign-service veteran and aide to Vice President Mike Pence, ignored White House orders to evade Congressional testimony and corroborated the widely held staff view that delaying military aid to Ukraine was wrong, and essentially unprecedented. Meanwhile, David Holmes *02, political counselor at the embassy through much of the extended time in question, in his testimony connected the dots involving the increasing pressure on Ukraine to deliver political favors in exchange for the White House releasing the aid. Among those hearing the testimony was Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi ’95 of the Intelligence Subcommittee, who emphasized the tricky need to protect national security while providing public transparency for the muddled events in Ukraine. And just to show that Ukraine isn’t the only fraught spot where Tigers appear, Jonathan Cohen ’85, a career State Department officer essentially since his graduation, is our new ambassador to Egypt, at the edge of the current Middle Eastern cauldron.
We should not either ignore an equally honored and longstanding form of government service, highlighted recently at a gala celebrating 100 years of ROTC at Princeton. The military has long been an outlet for the intelligent and demanding recipients of a Princeton education. In addition to greetings at the dinner from Gen. Mark Milley ’80, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in attendance among the 200 alumni veterans were the three retired flag officers from my own class, Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis ’70 (U.S. Marine Corps), Rear Adm. Kirk Unruh Jr.’70 (U.S. Navy), and Brig. Gen. Steven Xenakis ’70 (U.S. Army).
Or we might consider the service outside the government proper of this year’s Alumni Day award recipients, Anthony D. Romero ’87 of the ACLU, and Kip Thorne *65 of Caltech and all points intergalactic.
And at the state and local levels as well, of course, Princetonians serve in positions large and limited, visible and hidden, arduous and workaday. Volcker’s point is, simply, that more — just about everywhere — would be better. His former academic home, the Woodrow Wilson School, has set a symbolic stake in the ground since 2006 with its Scholars in the Nation’s Service initiative, now sending a dozen of Princeton’s foremost student minds to experience government service each year. But that’s less than 1 percent of the student population. My own fixation for decades has been Universal Federal Service, in which every person in the country, sometime between say, ages 18 to 25, would work fulltime for the public good in some way suitable to her talents and proclivities, whether in a hospital or national park, public school classroom, military base or food bank. The crucial point is that this can’t be regarded as costly or problematic; the investment here is existential, which is really what Volcker is saying. This is not to build a better country or a better world; it’s to save the one we have created.
Of course, this won’t instantly fix middle school teachers’ salaries or multiple dangerous overseas tours of military or State Department duty, or in contrast blunt the allure of Goldman Sachs and Google. In the end, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and examine the target of the service imperatives of Woodrow Wilson 1879 in 1896, of Adlai Stevenson 1922 in 1954, of Harold Shapiro *64 in 1996, of Sonia Sotomayor ’76 in 2016, and of our departed friend Paul Volcker in the Volcker Alliance in 2013. If we can do that, we may well end up directly in the focus of what he felt it came down to, after a lifetime of consideration: satisfaction. Our great accomplishment and good fortune in being Princetonians is not an end in itself, it is a portal to dramatically improving and thus satisfying ourselves as we help out where we can. And we need to remember that sometimes, that may involve the road less traveled by.