In the summer of 1978, I awaited a letter from Housing Services to reveal my soon-to-be freshman roommates. I had just graduated from a small school in California and didn’t know a soul who would be matriculating with me that fall in the Class of ’82. I’d be living with a handful of strangers for the next nine months and — just like everyone else — I was anxious to find out who they were. Little did I know how much my roommates would come to define my freshman year experience. There are a few six- and eight-person suites on campus, but most of the dorms are configured for two or four roommates. There were about 1,160 members of our class listed in the Freshman Herald and a couple of them would be stuck living with me. Who would the lucky winners be? When the letter arrived I was shocked. I had been assigned to 121 Dodge-Osborn in Wilson College and my new roommates numbered 12, counting me. This had to be a mistake! But it was true.
We were a random slice of the class: small town, big city; Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, Black; Jew and gentile; rich, poor; East, West, Midwest, Caribbean; legacies and newbies; boarding school, day school, and public school; tall, short; athlete and bookworm. In September, we would all meet in our own little melting pot — two levels with eight bedrooms and a large great room with a 20-foot ceiling and a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the courtyard.
After we all settled into our various bedrooms, someone decided that the first order of business was to name our suite. The guys across the entryway had dubbed their six-man suite “The Swamp.” The previous year the women in 121 DO called themselves “The DO Dozen.” I think David Bookbinder ’82 suggested “The Zoo.” The place sure looked like one and the new inmates — from all over the country and all walks of life — definitely looked like zoological specimens. The name stuck.
Our second order of business was to nab the clapper before the week was out. We’d all heard the legend — if the freshman class can swipe the bell clapper from the Nassau Hall cupola, then the bell can’t ring to start classes. We had no real expectations of success. We didn’t know how to steal a clapper and we had over a thousand classmates. Surely some of them would pull it off.
The Sunday evening before the fall semester started, Charlie Windsor ’82, Larry Leibowitz ’82, and I set out. Who were we kidding? We had no plan and none of us had ever even been inside Nassau Hall. First, we cased the joint. All was quiet around Nassau Hall. We soon found our way into the pitch-dark basement where we dodged proctors and ran into various walls and the random pipes sticking out of them.
We met and joined forces with other clapper napper hopefuls hiding in the basement — Cindy Crowley ’82, Anastasia Golfinos ’82, Dave Martland ’82, and Stephen Teager ’82. After some trial and error we climbed up the levels and found the access panel to the cupola. At the top of a ladder there was a steel hatch locked tight with a dead bolt. Miraculously, Anastasia produced a power drill. I drilled the tumbler out of the lock while standing on the ladder. Upon opening the panel we beheld the bell with its precious clapper lolling to and fro underneath. There we encountered our second obstacle: The clapper is held in place with a large bolt.
Naturally, no one had a wrench. But, unbelievably, someone had a hacksaw. Dave and I climbed into the cupola where Dave started sawing away. This wasn’t the safest thing we ever did. Either of us could have fallen right out of the cupola. Some years later the University wisely put a stop to clapper-napping out of concern for student safety.
After what seemed like forever, the bolt was severed and the clapper was ours! I carried it down and out of Nassau Hall. Word had spread of a “clapper 459 in progress” and scores had come to witness the event. Outside I lifted our spoils high in the air to a thunderous cheer. We returned to the Zoo with our booty and a few hundred celebrants. There were toasts and cheers and some photos that ultimately found their way into our Nassau Herald. When the evening ended we chained the clapper to our staircase and turned in. We soon learned what the preceding 230-odd classes had already learned: Classes still started right on time the next morning. Charlie, Larry, and I bogarted the clapper for the next four years but on graduation day in ’82 we handed it over to Cindy for safekeeping. (She has it still.)
We had notched our first Zoo exploit. Others followed: Within a few weeks we decided to throw a party to launch ourselves onto the social scene; “The Zoo Wants You” posters went up all over campus. (Our party was a smashing success but it essentially bankrupted us and wasn’t repeated.) We swiped the Harvard banner from Palmer Stadium that fall, much to the amusement of neighbor Hilary Bok ’81 and her dad, then the Harvard president, who passed through the Wilson courtyard as we were posing for a celebratory photo. We toured Manhattan on one memorable night. Four of us free climbed up to the catwalk of Jadwin Gym, eighty feet above the hardwood. And we found access to the steam tunnels and went spelunking through the campus catacombs late at night. Other plans fizzled. Our grand plan to turn the waters of the Woody Woo fountain into a gelatin lake came to naught when we calculated we would need an entire tractor-trailer full of orange Jell-O. We had our limits.
Read a letter by current Zoo resident Jeremy Nelson ’20
I have seen some of my Zoo-mates from time to time but have lost touch with most of them. That often happened before the internet came along to keep everyone connected. Surprisingly, one legacy has endured all these 40 years. To this day 121 Dodge-Osborn is still known as “The Zoo.” In the fall of 2018, Zoo inmates number 481 through 492 will take up residence in the storied suite. I would not advise anyone to replicate our exploits. My advice: Seize your time at Princeton with both hands and make it your own.
Rocco Papalia ’82 is a senior executive of research and development and father of two who lives in Dallas, Texas.