PAW Tracks

For John Potter ’65, one senior-year meeting with Dean of the Chapel Ernest Gordon changed the course of his life. He went from being a nonbeliever to eventually becoming a pastor.

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This year’s episodes of PAW Tracks feature oral history interviews recorded at Reunions last May. If you have a Princeton story to tell and plan to be back on campus to attend Reunions, Alumni Day, or for any other reason, we’d love to schedule an interview. You can contact us by email at

Some of our favorite PAW Tracks interviews feature alumni talking about the people who shaped their time at Princeton. For John Potter, Class of 1965, the most influential figure was the Dean of the Chapel, Ernest Gordon. But it didn’t start out that way.

Potter: Freshman year there was a compulsory chapel rule. You had to attend chapel or a local church half the Sundays of the year. You had a little card and somebody kept records somewhere. I did that, as many other students did, very reluctantly. My impression of the chapel and of Dean Gordon was colored by my antagonism toward the compulsory chapel rule.

Sophomore year I met Mary. Of course Princeton was all male in those days. If somebody knew a girl at one of the other local colleges, they’d call up and say, “Bring a carload of your friends over.” I think it was sophomore year just after I’d joined Elm Club, they had one of these little mixers. They had some girls there from Trenton State College, and Mary was one of them. We met and hit it off right away and got more serious as time went on. We continued to date, and then by the fall of senior year I was ready to propose, and I did.

I had some reservations about what kind of marriage because I knew I was not a believer, and yet I had this culturally induced feeling that a church wedding was best. I didn’t think Mary would want just a civil ceremony, and I didn’t really want one either but as I said I knew I wasn’t a believer. I tried to contact a number of other chaplains. There were several other denominational chaplains on campus, but they were out of town or not available. The last one I wanted to contact was Dean Gordon. But finally I ran out of options, so I gave him a call and set up an appointment with him and went to talk to him. This is about midway through senior year so you’ve got all kinds of other pressures, but this was the most important thing to me right then.

It was just after Christmas break that I went to talk to him, in early January. I went through all this stuff about “I’m not a believer.” I think I’d taken one religion course so I had some idea that Christians believe in original sin – “Oh, I can’t believe in that,” – Christians believe in miracles and the supernatural – “I can’t believe in all that stuff.” I rambled on for a while about all the stuff I couldn’t believe, and he just sat there very calmly listening to me, not interrupting.

Dean of the Chapel Ernest Gordon in 1962
AP Images

Finally he said, “Well, now you’ve told me all the stuff you don’t believe in, so tell me what you do believe in.” Then I spouted off all this youthful idealism – “We’re going to make the world a better place. We’re going to bring an end to poverty, an end to war. The world is going to be a much better place through what we can do.” He finally said, “Well, the things you’re talking about, what you do believe in, are very similar to what Christians believe in. The only difference is, you’re looking to man to achieve those things, and Christians say ‘No, we need God, we need the spirit of God involved.’” That opened up my mind a little bit. I wasn’t ready to change my faith at that point but it got me thinking a little bit.

Gordon asked Potter if he’d read his memoir, Through the Valley of the Kwai.

Potter: I’d heard about this book – it came out in the early ’60s, probably freshman or sophomore year. It was about his experiences in World War II. He was a British officer. He came from Scotland and was captured after the fall of Singapore. He’d tried with several others to escape. They were in a sailing boat trying to get across the Indian Ocean to get to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. They didn’t make it. The Japanese tanker came upon them and captured them and took them back to POW camps, and then he spent the rest of the war in POW camp suffering terribly. The book describes the horrors of what was done to the prisoners and how many died along the way, and he nearly died.

I sat down to skim through it, and I ended up reading it cover to cover because it was just so fascinating and so moving. By the time I got to the end of the book, I just knew that Jesus Christ had a claim on my life and that I belong to him. Nobody told me how to become a Christian or anything. I just knew by the time I set the book down. Later on, of course, I went back to him and said, “The situation has changed.” [I’m] excited about the possibility of being married in church. Of course talked to Mary about it. On June 19th we were married in the Chapel by Ernest Gordon.

The story doesn’t end with the wedding ceremony: Inspired by his interactions with Gordon, Potter felt a call to ministry. He applied to the Princeton Theological Seminary and received a master of divinity degree. He worked outside the church — a “secular job,” in his words — at an insurance rating company, and eventually became a pastor at two small New Jersey churches. He kept in touch with Gordon, who continued to be a role model.

Last summer, John and Mary celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Our thanks to John Potter for sharing his story with PAW. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode. The music is licensed from FirstCom Music.