In the first episode in our new format, history columnist Gregg Lange ’70 and digital editor Brett Tomlinson talk about the Billington brothers, David ’50 and James ’50, the famous cannon hoax of 1969, other notable campus pranks, the selflessness of Princeton’s Medal of Honor recipients, a new Mudd Library exhibit celebrating the 75th anniversary of WPRB, and more.
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BT: I’m Brett Tomlinson, digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
GL: And I’m Gregg Lange of the Great Class of 1970, who should know better. Welcome to the Rally ’Round the Cannon podcast.
BT: Now, we’re trying a new format for the podcast this year. If you’re a fan of Gregg’s history column – and you should be – have no fear: You can still read it on the PAW website. But on the podcast, we’re going to be going beyond the column to talk more about Princeton history, including highlights from the magazine and PAW Online — and history-themed events and exhibitions on the campus.
Gregg, I’d like to start with your September column, which highlights two alumni who are familiar to many Princetonians, many generations of Princetonians — David Billington, class of 1950, and his brother James, also Class of 1950. What was it about their stories that captured your interest?
GL: Well for starters, I was on campus when they were both teaching there and both really building significant reputations. Jim was everybody’s favorite history professor. (Jim McPherson was sort of moving up fast on the outside with his Civil War stuff.) But everybody in the history department and the Wilson School adored Jim Billington. David was really creating a complete new way of looking at major engineering projects and was just a couple years prior to starting his landmark civil engineering 262 course, which really changed the face of how engineers and architects talked to each other, talked to art history people, talked to construction crews, talked everybody. And what’s fascinating is first of all, they’re not twins — not to cut into the column — but they’re two years apart in age. They look nothing alike. They’re still very close. Ann Waldron did a magnificent article in PAW, oh 30 years ago now, with the two of them that’s absolutely fascinating. They almost complete each other’s sentences. They claim to have learned many, many things from each other in comparing these two completely diverse disciplines.
David, who was two years older, went to Princeton after service in World War II. Jim went straight out of high school. Jim was the valedictorian and Rhodes scholar who got a Ph.D. at Oxford in three years — try that today. David went and did a Fulbright in Europe, studying bridges in Belgium of all things, came back, worked for architectural firms, for engineering firms, taught at night at Princeton, and then made it onto the faculty. Totally different career paths, and yet very close to one another and having many critical insights in common. Jim goes on to become the librarian of Congress, David grows to become one of the great engineering professors in the United States. Many, many diverse elements to them, many, many commonalities — a real change-over point at Princeton as well at the end of World War II. There’s just an infinite number of things to talk about, and I try to get a few of them into the column.
BT: And this month on our sister podcast, the oral-history podcast PAW Tracks, we have three of your classmates talking about the September 1969 cannon hoax. It was great fun for me to do that interview. I’m curious about what you remember from that prank, and how the campus reacted at the time.
GL: Personally, I’m offended to this day because they didn’t ask me into the cabal at the beginning. I guess they figured I had loose lips or something. But I didn’t actually hear about it being them until the very end, the last day of this thing, even though we sat and ate meals across from one another for the ensuing three days.
Anyway, the cannon hoaxsters really had the campus up in arms mainly because, with the security forces up in Stanhope Hall at that time and the cannon sitting between Whig and Clio, this had all happened literally under the noses of the proctors and everybody else. A lot of people at Rutgers laid claim to it, which all of course turned out to be fabricated. It completely obsessed the campus for three days, and I was surprised to find out in the podcast that they had thought about never revealing what they’d done until the rain washed the dirt away from the cannon, which would have been completely sadistic, but in keeping with my friends.
It was astonishing how melded the campus was – it was on the front page of thePrince everyday and on that basis they finally leaked the story to the Prince on the day before the Rutgers game. You got up, went to your door, and found out that the whole thing had been really a colossal hoax. It’s one of the genius ones in Princeton history, probably even more so because I don’t think technically it was illegal, although we sure didn’t push that one way or the other that much at the time. It was a fabulous, fabulous piece.
I did a PAW article a few years back on Princeton hoaxes for a comedy issue, and that came out number two. I must admit that the Great Train Robbery of 1963 was something beyond creativity – it was just total madness. So that came in number one by a whisker, but certainly the cannon hoax was a very respectable number two.
BT: On a more serious note, in the magazine we have an update to a 2009 PAW feature story about Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, Class of 1932, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in the Pacific in the Battle of Tarawa. Last May, Bonnyman’s remains were found, finally, more than 70 years after his death. You’ve had a chance to take a look at that story. What did you think?
GL: It’s so important to the people remaining — and that’s actually a much larger group than you’d think, it’s not just the families, it’s all the veterans of the various wars that we’ve been involved in — that stuff like this keep not only recurring and that people keep at it, but that they keep recalling the whole point of the thing. I wrote a column about a year ago that included the citation of Col. John Page of the Class of 1926, who died in Korea as the most recent Medal of Honor winner from Princeton. You have to picture in your mind the idea that anyone who wins the Medal of Honor flat out knows they’re going to die. A few of them actually survive (and probably have traumatic stress as a result of that) but they all know they’re going to die — or almost by definition they wouldn’t qualify.
It’s something that, as the culture has become separated from the military in the United States, is harder and harder for people to identify with. Fewer and fewer people they know have military experience. That aspect of the current structure of the military is not a good thing, and it’s very important to revive these circumstances, especially to revive these people and make sure people understand what selflessness is all about, what idealism is all about, and how people can actually bring themselves knowingly to perform this way. It’s non-human in a sense. And it’s important to understand it – more so to people who don’t have an exposure to the military on a daily basis. So I do encourage people to think about that.
I also have a feeling that an awful lot of alumni these days may not even know what or where Tarawa is. If you don’t, go to Wikipedia or go to Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary series. Figure it out and think about it.
BT: Sound advice. This episode is coming out on Friday, the 11th of September, and you’re planning to be back on campus for a couple important events this weekend – the opening of an exhibit at Mudd Library, celebrating the 75th anniversary of WPRB; and also you’ll be with other alumni and students welcoming the freshmen in the Class of 2019 in the annual Pre-rade.
GL: I would say this about the PRB exhibit, which I’ve seen a tiny bit of online, pre-opening. It opens to the public on Monday the 14th of September, so if you’re in Princeton early this fall, don’t miss it. (It’ll be open until after Reunions next year.)
The gang at Mudd, Dan Linke and his associates, have done yet another marvelous job of finding particular iconographic examples of history to put up. In the case of PRB it’s 75 years, which sounds modest in relation to Princeton, but in 1940 there was no such thing as college radio. And as a matter of fact Princeton has been among the first – PRB has – to do many things in college radio over the years, including going FM and going stereo and a whole number of other things. It operates as a separate educational not-for-profit from the University, which makes the folks in Nassau Hall happy because they don’t have to worry about the FCC. Anyway, that exhibit opens up, there are many interesting pieces in it, including audio clips and types of equipment that you can only find in a nightmare these days but that people were using regularly 50 and 60 years ago. I also love the title of the exhibit, which is “A Haven for the Creative Impulse,” which is exactly what the denizens of First Holder basement and now Bloomberg basement are all about, themselves, while attempting to draw the public to them. So it’s a lot of fun. I urge people to go see that. We’ll have more on WPRB this fall. Both Barksdale Maynard and I are going to do pieces in October. I’ll include some audio as well in my online column, and that’ll be fun.
The Pre-rade, which is a brand new thingey for those of us ancient historians, in that this is the 12th year of the Pre-rade, is a reverse P-rade in which the freshmen enter campus through the FitzRandolph Gates immediately after the opening exercises in the Chapel. Then everybody goes down the hill and has a wonderful barbecue on Alexander Beach – it’s never a bad idea to come up with something that is an excuse for that. And then the Princetoniana Committee tries to herd the freshmen together on Blair steps and teach them “Old Nassau,” a couple cheers, and a couple fight songs. There are many old members of Princetoniana – Bob Rodgers ’56 most especially – who were basic in getting that started and whom we remember when we do that. So that’s a great event. If you’re around campus on Sunday, come join us.
BT: We’d like to hear from you, the listeners, about the new format – you can leave a comment on the episode page at paw.princeton.edu or on the podcast feed in iTunes. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you have a question for Gregg or a topic you’d like us to explore in a future episode, please send those along, too, either in the comments or by email.
GL: Thank you all so much. We’ll see you soon.