Reading the feature about Norman Thomas 1905 in the Jan. 23 PAW brought me back to one of those wonderful Princeton moments.
It must have been in the fall of 1964, as I think it was during a presidential campaign. Mr. Thomas came to speak on campus, and about 100 undergrads squeezed into some small room; as a politics major, I was expected to be there, and I was. I had some modest sense of the role he had played in national politics, but my expectations were low. After all, he surely was old and tired, and I was young and brilliant.
He must have been in his early 80s, and he did not look well. It was obvious from the first moment that his eyesight was poor and his hearing was worse, dropping my expectations even further. And then he began to talk. It was stunning. This was a man whose mind had not lost a beat, whose memory and wit were fantastic, whose knowledge was prodigious. He handled a group of “sophisticated” young Princetonians as if we were a crop of clucking chickens. Always kindly, always with humor, but clearly in command of facts and of the room, he grasped the subtleties of national politics at a level so beyond mine that I could only marvel. And I will admit that my worldview of elderly people, a club whose membership is in sight for me today, changed on that night in an irreversible instant.
Mr. Thomas deserves his place in the top 25 for reasons of his many accomplishments and courage. But for me, he earned it that night in 1964.
The selection of Donald Rumsfeld ’54 for the 25th spot in a succession of notable Princetonians should be reconsidered. My opinion is shaped by the death of a 26-year-old cousin from a car bomb while on duty in Iraq. Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Schiavoni — high school graduate, husband, father of two — lost his life in an unjust war as a proxy for our own privileged children whose affluence insulates them from the financial exigencies that keep America’s “all-volunteer” military humming.
After five years of chaos and carnage, we have become desensitized to the shock-and-awe helped along by an illustrious two-time defense secretary whose standing doubtlessly would be closer to the top if Princeton graduates were ranked for crimes against humanity.
Re John Rawls ’43 *50, influential alumnus No. 4: Jack and I became friends on the freshman wrestling team. I knew he was smart, so I asked him if he could tell me what calculus was all about. Jack had a speech impediment, but got this out: “Simple. Take 10 steps from a wall. Turn around and walk toward the wall — but after the first step, take half for the next and half again and so on. Bob, you’ll never get to the wall. That’s calculus!” He sure influenced me. I never took calculus.
The recent issue dealing with “the most influential Princeton alumni ever” was read with great enthusiasm. To learn about them was educational, and reflects the thought given by the selectors in their evaluations. Overall, I’d give it a 1- (under the old grading system used when I was an undergraduate).
There was, unfortunately, one distressing inclusion — not of an individual making the select list, but in a write-up. It has to do with James Madison 1771, written by George Will *68, he of historical and baseball-writing fame. Mr. Will has another characteristic, one not worthy to be included in this otherwise fine collection of tributes. Behind that boyish look, the glasses, the bowtie, and soft-speak, lurks a writer with a very poisonous pen. Mr. Will could not, in his tribute to Madison, resist the opportunity to introduce a smear of Jimmy Carter. The comment was totally unnecessary, and did nothing to add to the plaudits for Mr. Madison. Shame on Mr. Will for spoiling an otherwise elegant and dignified issue of PAW.
Let me congratulate you on your most recent issue, “The Most Influential Princeton Alumni Ever.” I found the review deeply fascinating; however, I did find it somewhat incomplete. I must admit that I deeply resent the omission of myself, John Griffin ’99, and the influence that I’ve had on the school that must at least equal if not exceed those on your list.
Granted, I’ve never won a Nobel prize or “led the school,” or even gotten very good grades, as if that nonsense counts when it comes to being influential. Attached, please find a revised cover that I’ve taken the liberty of making for you. The wig was a bit scratchy, but what’s a little pain when it comes to correcting history? I trust you will correct this grievous error immediately.
Re Princeton’s most influential alumni: I’m living proof that my four favorites —
• Robert Venturi ’47 *50, witty master builder to whom I aspire to emulate by day;
• Alan Turing *38, whose impenetrable originality is wax to my wick at twilight;
• Richard Feynman *42, with whom inversely squaring quanta renders no dream unimaginable at night;
• Philip Freneau 1771, for his rebellious patriotism championing liberty for each new day’s dawn.— have indeed influenced the four corners of my personal 24/7 per a paper I’ve just completed in their honor, 30 years after graduating Princeton, theorizing everything (simultaneously “all for one” per Freneau’s independence and “one for all” per Feynman’s particle/save synchronicities).
Hence, I look forward to seeing how the list can no doubt evolve before I, too, match the current list’s runaway “dead white male” demographic.
Browsing Letters 2007-2008