In Response to: Wilson College turns 50

I was present at the birth of Wilson College. So the PAW letter (Nov. 17) from Owen Curtis ’72 and the news of a 50th-anniversary celebration for Princeton’s first college prompted a rush of warm memories of my years at Wilson.  

Toward the end of my freshman year (1968), wild rumors began to circulate about the Wilson Society becoming something called a “college.” It was to be nonselective (first-come, first-served or lottery if oversubscribed), open to all four classes in near-equal proportions, and encompassing what were then the best residential facilities on campus:   stylish suites, great dining/party facilities, comfy game and TV rooms, and even a little satellite library with study areas. Freshmen and sophomores, joyous at the prospect of never again having to make the trek to Commons, and upperclassmen politically opposed to the elitism of Bicker, quickly signed up. So did I and many of my friends.

On our return the next fall, we found we not only had amazing rooms and great food just across the quad, but we were now members of a community that embodied and helped to enable the radical changes that Princeton (and the nation) were experiencing at that time. Wilson, it turned out, attracted a high proportion of the radicals, black students, artists, hippies, and intellectuals. And most importantly, many of the new coeds were to join Wilson as well. It was the home base for subversives and outliers of all stripes. But Wilson wasn’t just the locus of leftist revolution.

Owing to the likes of Greg Felch ’70, our well-connected social chairman, Wilson’s parties became the talk of campus. Who can forget the several appearances of the Philly band Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys; or the famous Tom Jones Night, where we screened the movie at dinner and served roast chicken, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, and chocolate pudding … with no silverware? By the time we got to the sexy oyster-eating scene in the movie, a spirited food fight was in full swing. For months afterward we were scrubbing pudding out of the corners of the ceiling and retrieving food projectiles from light fixtures. So it was soon clear that notwithstanding our commie sensibilities, we knew how to have a good time. And we were formidable jocks, too.   Since Wilson was so much larger that the clubs, we routinely beat them at virtually all the intramural sports.   This seemed to grate on Tiger, but it did serve to cement Wilson’s reputation as a happening place. Well, that and the women.

Before the end of my sophomore year, Wilson held elections for “officers” (I use the term loosely, because there wasn’t much respect for anything “official.”) Just for the heck of it I ran for chairman, in large part because the title sounded so attractively Maoist. To my surprise, due to an electoral fluke I won. Votes were split between the several cool upperclassmen (who should have won), while underclassmen voted for me (as one of their own, I suppose, but mainly because my stock had soared when my freshman prom date – from Sarah Lawrence and a former Miss Arizona – had become the stuff of legends by doing the gator in an iridescent silver miniskirt).  

As the second chairman of Wilson (the first to serve a full-year term), I was given the extraordinary privilege of working closely with Julian Jaynes and John Fleming, the first and second masters of the college. Julian gave selflessly of his time and wisdom despite being consumed in the writing of his monumental book, The History of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – a  work that presaged current neuroscience at a time when nobody in academia wanted to talk about evolving brain structure and function as impacts on human cultural development. In memory of Julian, I recommend we all join the Julian Jaynes Society (http://www.julianjaynes.org/).  

And how can I praise John Fleming in some new way? It has all been said before. I suspect that everyone who meets John comes to love him. He looms in my heart as one of the most admirable and amiable people I’ve ever known. His gawky, good-humored, immensely intelligent warmth made all us outsiders feel like we were welcome, like we belonged.  

We should also praise Marvin Bressler, Neil Rudenstine, and of course then-President Goheen who, like Woodrow Wilson before them, bucked the entrenched social system to offer a new form of residential life at Princeton.  

Wilson failed in his efforts to establish residential colleges (some say that failure was the main reason he moved out of Prospect down the street to Drumthwacket, and then to the White House). But everyone who cares about Princeton should be proud that Wilson’s successors did create a genuinely egalitarian, vibrant new community on campus, appropriately named in honor of him.

Editor’s note: A condensed version of this letter was published in the Jan. 19, 2011, issue of PAW.