In a span of three weeks, Princeton lost four giants: Robert Fagles, a renowned scholar and translator of ancient epics; Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48, a beloved former president; John Sherrerd ’52, a trustee emeritus who supported Princeton in countless ways; and John Wheeler, a visionary physicist and teacher. Christopher Connell ’71 reports on Goheen’s life and impact on page 28. The others should not be overlooked.
Fagles, 74, died March 26 of prostate cancer. He was best known for his popular translations of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which became best-sellers. Success of the books beyond the academy surprised him, and he responded with gratitude and satisfaction. “It has renewed my faith that Americans of every age and station are inveterate readers,” he told PAW soon after publication of his equally popular last book, a translation of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid (see the Jan. 27, 2007, issue at www.princeton.edu/paw). To the many students he taught in more than four decades at Princeton, he was a hero who combined unparalleled scholarship and great warmth.
Wheeler died April 13 of pneumonia at the age of 96; he taught at Princeton from 1938 to 1976 and at the University of Texas, Austin, for a decade after that. As a scientist, he helped invent the theory of nuclear fission and worked in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. As a teacher, he inspired generations of physicists and made his field more accessible to others. Wojciech Zurek, a quantum theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who was a graduate student at the University of Texas, told The New York Times, “I know I was transformed as a scientist by him — not just listening to him in the classroom, or by his physics idea: I think even more important was his confidence in me.”
There is Sherrerd, too, who drew fewer headlines when he died April 9. He was 78 and died of a brain tumor. Sherrerd devoted himself to Princeton — his license plate read “Jay 52” — and over the years built an astonishing record of service. He was, as President Tilghman said, “a tiger of the finest stripe”: a trustee for 20 years, a director of the Princeton University Investment Co. for 10, and a dedicated volunteer. He made large gifts to the University (he was instrumental in funding Princeton’s Class of 1952 Stadium) and persuaded others to do the same. Sherrerd’s daughter Anne *87 said that her father believed excellent education should be available to everyone, and so he was a forceful proponent of Princeton’s “no-loan” financial-aid policy and gave immense support to the Gesu School, a Jesuit-run school in a low-income Philadelphia community. That school’s new gymnasium is named for him.
Leaders like Goheen have built the character of Princeton; teachers like Fagles and Wheeler have changed the lives of countless students. And it’s volunteers like Sherrerd who help make certain that future students will have similar blessings.