In Response to: Student unions

I read “Student Unions” (Alumni Scene, Feb. 9) with personal interest and enjoyment. However, I found the article to be a bit misleading and somewhat incomplete.

I was a 17-year-old high school graduate when, in September of 1946, I came to Princeton as a non-veteran member of the Class of 1950, some 500-plus strong. Chaos reigned for some weeks while the University tried to settle in us “regular freshmen” along with a huge number of returning military veterans of all classes, back to even before 1941. Most of these veterans had been previously admitted. Some had not had the chance to attend or finish even one semester. Others were drafted or enlisted having completed only a few semesters or years; others were from the V-12 programs.

Thus, in the fall of 1946 there were men of all ages and classes starting together. Some were married during the war, and some afterward, in 1945 and early 1946. Many had seen years of bitter combat, and some were disabled. As the article said, the University was not really prepared for returning vets, married or not. It certainly did not have any plan to address the issue that most of the nearly 3,000 students were now men one to five years older than the normal undergraduate would have been in their respective classes.

We were all told that if you got married before you graduated you were out, or “compelled to withdraw,” period. Gradually, during 1946, 1947, and 1948, if you were a veteran with combat or long service experience, and if you wished, you sometimes could persuade the dean to let you get married and stay in school, particularly if you were an upperclassman. Of course, there were some who never told the University they were married, and kept their wives hidden. Most had to wait until after graduation to marry their sweethearts, assuming the girls would wait.

There was the great desire in all of us to settle down, get an education, get married, and have children, all in the shortest period of time, whether we were vets or not. Although we were born in the ’20s, we all were the product of a long, tough Depression, followed by a long, ugly, all-consuming war. Princeton failed to quickly and properly recognize that we and the world had changed.

For the rest of us in the original Class of 1950, there was no hope that the dean, or deans, would agree to a marriage before graduation. I know because I tried many times, as an upperclassman, and always was turned down summarily, even though my marks in aeronautical engineering were 2+ or better.

When I went home for Christmas of 1947, I started to date a young lady I had known since third grade. We often had been in the same class in grammar school, junior high, and high school, even though I ended up going to five different schools in three different towns from 1940 to 1946. By 1946, I had returned to my original hometown and we had graduated together. In 1948 we fell in love.

In the early spring of 1949, we were formally engaged to be married. Although she was able to come down to Princeton on a very few weekends during my upper-class years, staying mostly at Terrace Club, I hitchhiked the 40 miles to my hometown north of Princeton on most other weekends, leaving Friday afternoon and coming back to school Sunday. There was no practical public transportation at all, but sometimes I was able to get a ride with someone I knew. Since you also were kicked out of school if you garaged a car closer to Princeton than your parents’ home, I was able to bring my wife-to-be down myself for only one House Party weekend and at graduation time in 1950. Otherwise she had to get a ride with someone else, or take the train from New York, since she did not have a car.

I was successful in squeezing my classes, studying, and senior research project into mostly a five-day, nearly 80-hour week in my last three semesters.

Even though I attempted to explain to the dean that I probably would get even better marks, be able to participate in more student activities, and it would be safer for both of us if he allowed us to get married in the summer – or at least at Christmastime – of 1949, he hardly would listen to my arguments. I even explained our plan was that she would rent a small apartment well outside of Princeton somewhere near the train line to New York, where she was working weekdays. And/or I would transfer my Model A legally to her name, so she could come by car and pick me up on some weekends. I would continue to room in Southwest with my veteran roommate, but of course, all women had to be out of the dorms by 7 p.m. Again, there was the threat of expulsion.

We eventually were married one week after graduation in June 1950, and left by car for my job in Seattle immediately thereafter. We have been very happily married now for over 60 years, with four children, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild so far. My Princeton education stood me in very good stead for my 35 very-rewarding years at Boeing, as did the one-year, very intensive Sloan Fellowship program at Stanford University Graduate School of Business in 1962. My company paid our way, along with my salary. We lived for one year in Palo Alto in a rented house with four small children. I did very well in the program, although it was hard on the family. I proved to myself that I could be married and do well in a tough university, both at the same time. All of my four children and 10 grandchildren are now successful graduates of universities in the states of Washington or Georgia. None ever applied to Princeton.

In summary, it was not, as you said, “not unusual” for a student to get married from 1946 through at least 1950. Only veterans had an outside chance for permission.

I ended up graduating with 871 others in June 1950, 330 of whom were from other classes. Of the 872 men, 500 were veterans, indicating that at least 50 or so of my original class in 1946 were veterans also. I know of only one original member of my class who was married during our four years. He kept it secret until he had his diploma in hand. Although his wife visited Princeton on some weekends, no one ever guessed!

I do not know what Princeton’s policy on the same subject has been since the 1970s, or is currently, but I assume the issue is largely moot, mores being what they are today.

Knox Little ’50