Fourteen months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Reunions weekend was, for the second time ever, held virtually. But unlike last year, when class leadership and University organizers had a mere seven weeks to pivot to online, this year’s offerings reflected four months of prep time, allowing for many pre-filmed segments and plenty of in-person filming.
The virtual 58-minute P-rade — or V-rade — was similar to last year’s, with marshals popping into a small screen with their usual pleas to move along and to be safe. But this year, emcee Gary M. King ’79 took on some scripted segments, in addition to ushering along the “procession” peppered with brief historical facts about each class’s era. Additionally, each major-reunion class recorded messages from its leadership to their classmates.
At the beginning of the V-rade (bit.ly/v-rade), just as King steps up to a lectern set up on Poe Field to introduce himself, he’s interrupted — via split screen — by Joe Schein ’37. “Wow!” he exclaims before Schein informs him that as the oldest living alumnus, he should rightfully be narrating. As King searches for a response, Schein gives up the gag: “Just kidding,” he says, adding, “Go get ’em, Gary!”
“To have been imbued with the spirit of humanism, which exists so very strongly at Princeton, is a great gift.” —Joe Schein ’37
As the V-rade winds its way toward the end, another unexpected scene unfolds: Five members of the Class of 2020, all masked, arrive in a burst of black and orange onto Poe Field celebrating and cheering, waving their class banner and pom-poms. Raucous recorded applause greets them before they stop at King’s lectern, where outgoing Alumni Association president Rich Holland ’96, also in person, steps in to officially welcome the class to the alumni body with a “huge locomotive.” A similar scene unfolds for 2021, which has a slightly larger delegation of eight, probably because students remained on campus.
The weekend had its usually prolific variety of gatherings, including virtual dinners, dances, singalongs, and even a montage of a past Reunions fireworks display set to “Old Nassau.” Some events sought to transport participants farther afield — three virtual field trips whisked attendees to Taiwan’s night market; a live tour of Itacaré, a small fishing town in Bahia, Brazil; and to a “booze cruise” through Spain, accompanied by a recommended sangria recipe.
Last year, much of Reunions weekend was overshadowed by participants’ vast sense of uncertainty about what the pandemic would mean for the future. This year’s atmosphere, thanks to increasing vaccination rates and nationwide reopenings, was one of relative hopefulness.
V-rade audiences heard a note of wisdom and optimism from Schein, who was “given” the Class of 1923 Cane for the sixth consecutive year. To the Class of 2021, the 106-year-old said: “To have been imbued with the spirit of humanism, which exists so very strongly at Princeton, is a great gift.”
President Eisgruber ’83, decked out in his striped reunion jacket, set forth a promising vision in his livestream address for an audience of about 560. Eisgruber updated alumni on how spring-semester COVID accommodations for the approximately 1,600 graduate students and 2,900 undergraduates on campus — and the 700 who lived nearby — resulted in infection rates that were lower than in the surrounding areas. Princeton students often refer to the campus as an orange bubble, and the key, he said, was “to make that bubble real.” Next year is expected to look much more like normal, he said.
“Princeton’s best gift to me was the people it gave me. ... I’m so proud of us.” —Allison Slater Tate ’96
Eisgruber also answered alumni questions, including about expanding the student body (both new residential colleges are on track for completion in time for fall 2022) and how to make Princeton less stressful. (He responded that while Princeton was helping students cope with stress and to focus on the things that matter, stress is “going to be a part of life when you’re aiming to do things you can be proud of.”)
Perhaps because some COVID-era rules had been lifted by Reunions weekend, the distanced celebration, while unavoidable, still smarted. “There is no way that anything virtual touches the magic and the emotions of Reunions weekend at Princeton,” said Allison Slater Tate ’96, president of the 25th-reunion class. Still, she noted: “Virtual or not, Reunions always reminds me how amazing, wonderful, and special my classmates are. Princeton’s best gift to me was the people it gave me. ... I’m so proud of us.”
Marking the 50th reunion, class president Podie Lynch ’71 expressed pride in the eclectic offerings the 1971 executive committee and class-reunion team were able to assemble. Their programming included class-exclusive forums; class get-togethers, virtual and in person (see page 39 for ’71’s rogue on-campus P-rade); an all-’71 service of remembrance; and the “’71 Jukebox,” a multimedia collection of ’71 talent. “We all took our obligation to our classmates seriously — to deliver the best experience possible, as if it were as important and valid as if we were in-person,” says Lynch. “After all, we know we’d only get one 50th reunion, and this was it.”
The question of when and where in-person make-up celebrations might take place loomed large for many. Last year, the University made clear that tripling Reunions in 2022 was not logistically feasible. In February, the University announced it was eager to work on finding nontraditional in-person alternatives for classes that have missed celebrating their 25th and 50th reunions on campus. And in mid-June, a new announcement from the Alumni Engagement office asked that all classes with major reunions in 2022 wait until January to launch Reunions registration to allow the University time to iron out logistics. Additionally, a dialogue with the Class of 2020 about celebrating its graduation on campus is underway, according to the director of advancement communications, Erika Knudson. She said the University may offer a celebration “in conjunction with Reunions, if that is their preference.”
Last year, in addition to the strife of a global pandemic, Reunions began during a time of great civil unrest, only three days after the murder of George Floyd. This year’s programming included many panels reflecting upon the year of racial reckoning. One, called “Princeton Diversity Discussions: A Year After George Floyd’s Murder, Where Do We Go From Here?” tackled that topic head on. In a panel called “Toward a More Perfect Union: Reckoning with the Past, Naming the Future,” participants discussed racism and the practice of renaming institutions named for figures whose actions or views are seen as racist. One panelist, John Cooper ’61, a historian whose biography of Woodrow Wilson 1879 was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, argued that Wilson’s good outweighs his bad, so Princeton should not have renamed its public-policy school. But panelist Dan-El Padilla Peralta ’06, a Princeton classics professor, disagreed. “We’re still talking about Wilson. He has not been erased,” he said.
Another panel, called “Grounded and Centered: The Role of a Center to Combat Racism at Princeton and Beyond,” shared with attendees the vision behind a grassroots effort among alumni to create a new campus center that “institutionalizes the University’s commitment to combat and eradicate racism at Princeton and beyond,” according to its website. The group’s petition, which was launched last year, amassed more than 800 signatures from Princeton alumni and faculty as of mid-June.
Another panel dealing with race, called “Coming Home: The Past, Present, and Future of Native Americans at Princeton,” focused on Native and Indigenous alumni and went on for more than two hours. Enthusiastic participants learned about the search for a professor to fill a new, endowed chair of Indigenous studies — a development announced in December. History professor Martha Sandweiss, chair of the search committee, noted that the committee will also be looking for a “small cluster of other junior and senior hires that can expand our abilities to support Indigenous studies in an even broader sense. ... For Princeton, this is a very big step forward.”
At its annual Reunions meeting May 21, the Alumni Council celebrated virtual alumni events of the past year and announced several honorees. Among those recognized were this year’s recipients of the Award for Service to Princeton: Frederick E. Cammerzell III ’72, Nancy Lin ’77 s’76 p’10, Susan Katzmann Horner ’86 s’79 p’20, and Laurence G. Latimer *01 (go to paw.princeton.edu for more on the winners).
During the meeting, Holland also announced the new Alumni Council Executive Board, which will be headed by Mary J. Newburn ’97, the current vice chair. Monica Moore Thompson ’89 will serve as vice chair alongside treasurer Juan E. Goytia ’00 and assistant treasurer Adam E. Lichtenstein ’95 *10. Holland passed down the Alumni Council gavel to Newburn via Zoom at the end of the event, virtually “handing” it to her in a symbolic transfer of power.