Princeton Cemetery
Elisabeth H. Daugherty

If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles. — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855

To be honest, most of our Reunions contemplations assume general familiarity with the annual spectacle as currently practiced, pretty much the viewpoint of the average alum who statistically returns perhaps every five or 10 years, and who reads a few articles annually in Her Favorite Periodical, and always the Class Notes. But that does a disservice to the folks hanging out in Sri Lanka or Kenya who face a huge challenge just to make it back for a 25th or 50th. Or the less socially raucous classmates who love to see friends one-on-one or on a Zoom call with four or five roommates but regard the celebratory wonderments of the P-rade as genuinely alarming and beyond their neural capabilities. (To be fair, even those of us who deeply love the P-rade won’t argue it isn’t genuinely alarming. Just saying.)

So let’s consider the quiet alum coming back this month for the first time in, oh, maybe 30 years. There is obvious advice to be offered. Do some digging beforehand to be sure some of your close friends are coming. Figure out the important events to connect with buddies in the glee club, or squash team, or Dante seminar, or whatever. Pick out a couple Alumni-Faculty Forums, but don’t overdo it. If you like color and silliness, the P-rade is for you, and if you just follow the person in front of you in the same costume, hard to mess up. But in any case, leave some time to absorb all this.

That means different strokes for different folks, as Muhammed Ali would say. Some of us would be aided by a stop at the bar tent in conjunction with nostalgia, some of us by reviewing events of the day with aforementioned friends off in a corner. There are local nature walks now that are really fun, helping mitigate the looming reality you’re in New Jersey. If you’re either religious or a decent meditator, the Princeton Chapel is one of the premiere absorbing spots in the world; what it’s seen in its 95 years should suppress most self-concerns. To the bookworm, a dark horse candidate is Mudd Library, with its endless quiet depth of University history and primary artifacts, perhaps a quest to determine in which of the previous 30 decades or so you really should have been born and attended.

There is as well a comparable place of remove, a contemplative spot somewhat combining the qualities of the Chapel and the Archives. It’s not for everybody — well, actually it is for everybody, just not necessarily immediately at Reunions — but it gladly offers a wholly different way to view the wider world outside its confines, and emphatically outside your own day-to-day fixations. As far as Reunioneers are concerned, it lies on the road less traveled by. Down Witherspoon Street past the library, right on Wiggins Street, left immediately on Greenview. Go through the gates and enjoy the greenery, some late spring blossoms on the trees and shrubs, and the bliss of the quiet amid the bustle of the celebratory downtown.

Then when you get around to it, do a little looking around and do some idle thinking about the highly ordered but simultaneously disparate folks enjoying the grounds alongside you, albeit in a different sense. 

The Princeton Cemetery is a place of rest, but it does inspire restlessness.

You get to choose your century, then the images gather around. There’s Princeton in the 20th century, a haven for brilliant expatriate scientists and dreamers who changed the world singly and in combinatorics. Eugene Wigner, the teacher of John Bardeen *36, Nobelist, and critical leader in the Manhattan Project. John von Neumann, the textbook definition of polymath, foundational to quantum mechanics and game theory, also critical to the Manhattan Project. Kurt Gödel, possibly the great philosophical thinker of the century. Or try the 19th century as the College and the town prepared for Universityhood. Our old acquaintance Karl Langlotz, composer of “Old Nassau.” Professorial legends Henry Clay Cameron 1847 *1866 and Henry van Dyke Jr. 1873 (composer of hymns on the side). Arnold Guyot, the famed Swiss scientist so brilliant in anything geographic and so flawed in anything human. And our emotional favorite, the freed slave Jimmy Johnson, purveyor of goodies on campus for decades, whose gravestone purchased by dozens of alumni declares him in big, firm letters as The Students’ Friend. 

Of course, cemeteries are in many ways a focus of family and town, and so it is here. There are many Stocktons, whose family estate at Morven sits just down Nassau Street. Richard Stockton 1799 is here, a tribute to his great success as U.S. attorney, U.S. senator, and congressman. His son Robert F. Stockton 1813, the Commodore, is also here. He was the patron of the cutting-edge USS Princeton I, which was tragically involved in the historic cannon explosion of 1844. 

Encompassing both the town and University are epochs such as the advent of the Graduate School and Graduate College. Andrew Fleming West 1874, dean and prime mover, is here; plus his two stalwart supporters (and foils of Woodrow Wilson 1879), ex-U.S. President Grover Cleveland and Moses Taylor Pyne 1877, who also donated eight acres of land to expand the cemetery.  

The great teachers of modern times are here, of Princeton or anywhere else. The monumental diplomat and author George F. Kennan 1925. Carl Schorske, Pulitzer Prize winner who revolutionized the teaching of history. Lyman Spitzer *38, the great astrophysicist, namesake of the Spitzer space probe, and founding director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Michael Graves, professor of architecture and global influence for 40 years. 

In contrast to many other cemeteries you know, a spectrum of the community is here. J. Paul Baldeagle 1923, indigenous Lakota Sioux from South Dakota, a life-long Native American activist and New Jersey high school teacher, then lecturer at Princeton. Starting in 1807, a portion of the cemetery was dedicated to the Black community represented by the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church across the street. Its pastor Rev. William Robeson Sr. (who studied with Isaac Norton Rendall 1852 at Lincoln University) is here with his wife Maria; they are the parents of the great Black singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson. So are Howard Waxwood Jr., principal of the first integrated elementary school in Princeton in 1947, and his wife Susie, elder in the Witherspoon Church. They were two of the community sponsors for Black University freshmen who began the effort with Carl Fields in 1966. 

But none of these is how this all began. Although now administered by the Nassau Presbyterian Church (next to Alexander Hall) the cemetery was a creation of the college in 1757, only one year following its move to Princeton, to fill a specific need. That was the body of Aaron Burr Sr., its second president, who essentially worked himself to death. He was quickly followed by the third, his father-in-law Jonathan Edwards one year later, and the fourth, Samuel Davies in 1761. It is there that we encountered a musing Aaron Burr Jr. 1772 late in his life; he now lies at the feet of his father and grandfather. When the cemetery was ceded to the new church in the 1700s, the University retained this area, now known as the Presidents’ Plot. People you know are here. Harold Dodds *1914, the 15th president, was buried in 1980. Bob Goheen ’40 *48, the 16th, in 2008. Bill Bowen *57, the 17th, in 2016. In all, 13 of the 17 deceased leaders of the University are in this tiny spot off Wiggins Street, two-and-a-half centuries of both symbolism and very literally substance of the University within a single sweep of the eyes. 

As we’ve noted in the past — and there is never any harm in reiterating to nostalgic alums — the built-in purpose of an intellectual construct such as Princeton is to change, to even lead change when necessary. Much of that change over the decades is embodied in the leadership of all those you see above. It is a deep paradox that such dynamics can be symbolized in the staid and seemingly unchanging universe of a cemetery such as this (if there are indeed others), where we can find inspiration both to be at rest, and also then to go fight the good fight. But for those of us for whom it’s arduous to go back (from all this earthly ball, as they say), the journey is certainly more than productive if it entails boththe unbridled fun of Reunions and the many spirited inspirations of the Princeton Cemetery.

Dei sub numine viget