Goin’ Backstory

In this month’s look at Princeton history and recent PAW stories, we speak about the Lives Lived and Lost issue, make note of the University Press Club’s remarkable history, highlight the Service of Remembrance, look ahead to Alumni Day, and more.

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Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Gregg Lange: And I’m Gregg Lange of the Great Class of 1970, who should know better.

BT: And this is Goin’ Backstory, our monthly podcast about Princeton history, and before we get going I’m going to just make a quick apology for the rather abbreviated history segment at the end of the last show. We had some technical issues and lost a portion of the audio. But we are back for the February edition and we’ll be talking about a bunch of things.

Gregg, February to me means a lot of things at Princeton: It’s kind of the heart of the Ivy basketball season, a good one so far for the Princeton men and women; it’s Alumni Day, which we’ll take a look at later in this episode; and for PAW, at least for the last five years, it’s the month of our Lives Lived and Lost issue, which was out last week. I’ve had a chance to write appreciations for several of these issues — it’s been really interesting and you know quite moving in many cases to talk with people about these alumni who have passed away. I know that it’s an issue that you look forward to as well. What did you think of by the 2016 Lives package?

GL: Every bit as both impressive and evocative as any the magazine has ever done. And to some degree it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel for us historians in the degree of the facts of people’s lives in the way that they went through the emotional side of it is very very hard to resist. I recall talking to a classmate of Bob Tuggle from the class of ’54 for a number of years ago now about his work as the historian at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a literal one-of-a-kind job, and I remember thinking at that point that aside from being the archivist at Princeton that’s about as good as any position I can imagine on the planet. And reading this wonderful write-up on him again brings all of that back, and not to mention all of the wish things that you associate with that and all of the things that he worked on. You’ll see a column of mine later in the spring involving Debbie Jin from the class of ’90, a great brilliant physicist who died long before time at age 47 last year, whose ability to deal with many of the very subtle but also counterintuitive aspects of physics — she worked in superconductors — is just endlessly fascinating are not to mention, given that you know she graduated 27 years ago, as a  woman at the peak of her profession in the sciences she had to fight all sorts of things along the way, as has been the case with many of the other people we discussed here over  the years up to and including our good friend President Tilghman, who of course was on campus building the molecular biology department when Debbie Jin was a undergrad there.

The interesting thing this year too and I don’t want to forget to mention it is like coincidence somewhat, the magazine has a faces the music, bitten the bullet, and done all those other things, and had decided to publish a few pages of extra alumni memorials in this issue, which is certainly appropriate along with the theme of the piece, and I as a class memorialist, I had a memorial running this issue and just randomly took a look at others from various classes across the spectrum, and in just about any issue of the PAW you can read just an infinite number of fascinating and insightful pieces regarding Princeton alums in the memorials section, and if you if you want a regular reader of that or if you only read your class’s memorials, you might want to rethink that and visit a few from time to time because you see things about people and about the institution and about yourself that I think can stand you in good stead over the long haul.

BT: Gregg, thank you and your colleagues in the in the world of that class memorialists for all the work that you do, because a lot of people don’t realize that the classes write those memorials — those are not coming from the PAW staff. We edit and we try to get them in great shape and you know check the names and check the dates and all those important things, but it’s really up to the classes to make those memorials work. And you’re right, though — I am often in the situation where I am proofreading them and they are fascinating. Issue after issue you will find people who do amazing things in their lives and you know we wish there were unlimited space to give them unlimited words but you know the memorialists have to do the best they can with me the word limit that PAW provides, and they do a great job of a really kind of catching the essence of these alumni in the PAW memorials. A really important part of the magazine.

GL: There’s a huge difference between relating who people were as very much distinct from what they did. And I think if you can keep that in mind and communicate on that level, because you’re always dealing with some with surviving family members and that kind of thing, I think you can be a really good memorialist simply by keeping that in mind. You’re dealing and people you’re not even really dealing in history and I think people respond quite readily when you do with that way. And I think the vast majority of memorialist do a stunning job of conveying just that.

BT: Well said. A few other items from our February issue — pieces that are kind of the recent history of Princeton: Susan Teeter, the women’s swimming and diving coach, is retiring and she is an enormous part of the history of that program; also the University jazz program, which has extraordinary ensembles — if you’ve had a chance to hear them it’s pretty unforgettable — it’s a program that is not a huge program but it is it an immensely talented group of students and obviously there’s some important scholarship as well; and then there’s a story about the University Press Club. And Gregg, I know you kind of saw a common thread in these stories and others in the magazine.

GL: What what’s striking is especially when you think of either Anthony Branker ’80 or Susan Teeter, Anthony created from essentially nothing the jazz program and shepherded for 27 years of extraordinary creativity, which is of course the soul lifeblood of jazz — if it’s not being new and creative then it’s just not jazz.  And Susan Teeter, 33 years, eight generations, eight complete generations of swimmers is hard to even imagine with the kind of a creative effort and exertion that’s required to motivate swimmers and if you’ve ever been anywhere near the swimming team of you know that their physical abilities are just a very certain portion of certain limited portion of what they do, and beyond that their accomplishments both as individuals and a team are entirely dependent on their mental state, their mental preparation, and their ease with what’s by definition a foreign environment for human beings. Susan Teeter has done such a magnificent job with that, it’s very difficult to describe in suitably impactful words just because there’s such as subtle aspects of that. In the same with Anthony in terms of trying to convey to students are the balance of the terminal friction in jazz between a group dynamic and the individual creativity that has to be replayed and replayed and replayed almost every minute that our numbers being performed. To do that for decades upon decades is just an astonishing accomplishment and I think you certainly can’t take any of that for granted and you just have to marvel that people can do that and sustain that amount of energy over that period of time.

Now, that taken them to the group dynamic level on the extracurricular side of things leads you to the Press Club, and the one thing that fascinated me about the Press Club note — and of course there in the middle of a media revolution that’s affecting everybody and they’re trying to focus on the best and most effective way they can deal with that — is I doubt there’s anybody alive at this point who understands that the press club in fully functional form goes all the way back to 1892! This is a creature originally of the yellow journalism wars between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, I mean it just it goes it goes on and on and on. And the idea that that kind of important activity has been going for that period of time, all the different things that have taken place over then, the changes in the world at large, the changes in the undergraduate body, and how they relate to the world of large all of those things when you sit and cogitate on that for a few minutes it really does strange things to your mind. And then by complete coincidence here’s a picture at the end of the of the magazine of the suffragists marching through Princeton in 1913 after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, 104 years before Donald Trump, and they’re trying to deal with the undergrads and the Press Club is right there feeding up-to-the-minute stories of the of the confrontation across the country. When you when you think about those sorts of activities over that extended period of time and undergraduate organizations retaining their vibrance over that period of time, it really is quite a powerful idea.

BT: One very quick fact check on the suffragists: You said that they were on their way back; they were actually on their way down to a Washington.  Back then the inauguration was actually in March —

GL: March 4th, for you history freaks.

BT: Correct. All right.  Then the last thing I wanted to touch on and we mentioned it once is Alumni Day, Saturday February 25th. The award winners and speakers are Eric Schmidt ’76, the executive chairman of Alphabet, the Google parent company. so lots of interesting stuff there; and then Pedro Pablo Kuczynski *61, president of Peru, is the  grad honoree, and he’s been in the news a bit this week already after his call with President Trump. So you get these big names at Alumni Day, it’s always a fun event for the social aspect but it’s also very educational event you get to hear these prominent people speaking to an alumni audience, a very engaged audience, an audience that often asks really good and pointed questions — Q&As are generally very good at Alumni Day. Gregg, I’m curious of if in all the Alumni Days that you have attended, if you have any favorite memories you know maybe if you could pick one that that stands out.

GL: Well I’ll throw you a curve and say what stands out in my mind is going to actually happen this year. By coincidence of timing I had done a column a year ago on Alumni Day and focused a bit on the Service of Remembrance and what it means to everyone who goes, to everyone who’s gone before, and to all the people who are going to go in years to come, and by coincidence, my good friend Rich Weikel, a classmate from the class of 1970, who delivered our class’s homily at the memorial service in 1995 — it’s traditionally given by a minister from the 25th reunion class. Rich died last fall, and aside from all of his friends being very upset by all of that, he was a wonderful preacher down in North Carolina and deeply loved by his flock. His widow and relatives will be at the memorial service on this February along with along with the classmates and his friends, and we’ll be celebrating his life there much as he was kind enough to help us do in 1995. And subsequently that means an awful lot to us. He was a great friend of mine. That means a great great deal to me. And it really is one of the linchpins of not only Alumni Day but the entire concept of what Princeton is are in that involves some significant continuity between are not only the past the present and the future but also between the way things are in the way that we have to deal with them and the way things should be and I think on both levels that’s extremely important and it’s something that needs to be concretely a renewed in this case on an annual basis but continuously as we face all the crazy parts of this world. Brett as usual will be kind enough to put the link to my column from a year ago on that and you can read a little bit about the Service of Remembrance to and the rest of Alumni Day but that stands out for me. I’m sure, given our talk about the Press Club, given your coverage of the crazy stuff on various Alumni Days, I’m sure you’ve got a couple good ones for us.

BT: And before I move on to that I would mention that in our office we have several campus photos on the wall, taken mostly from the Final Scene photos that used to run in the old layout of the magazine, and one of my favorites is Ricardo Barros’ image of the Service of Remembrance with, you know, alumni carrying the wreath up to the front of the University Chapel. I pass that photo at least once or twice a day and it’s a meaningful part of the University.

The memory that stands out to me is from 2005 when Tom Kean ’57 was the undergraduate award-winner, the Woodrow Wilson Award winner, and he had of course been the governor of New Jersey but he had recently chaired the 9-11 Commission — the report of that group was released the prior year and in addition to just covering his speech we managed to arrange some time for Q&A. So kind of in the in the just logistics of things I got a chance to see him as I was waiting to do the interview. I got to see his interaction with the eldest son, who is a state senator I believe, who had come to the event, and saw how much it really meant to him to be honored by the University. His good friend and biographer as Al Felzenberg *78 was there. And it was just really neat to spend a little bit of extra time with him. You could tell that he wanted to be part of the whole Alumni Day experience. After the Q&A I actually drove them uphill so that he could make it in time for the Service of Remembrance, bringing it around again full circle. So that’s one of my favorites. I guess the other the favorite fun one was — I’m going to blank on the name, I think it was Connor Diemand-Yauman who was a Pyne Prize winner and he got down and did a push-up contest with the David Petraeus *85 *87 and Jim Leach ’64.  Alumni Day is a lot of fun; I know a lot of alumni don’t make it back for Alumni Day, they kind of stick to Reunions, but if you do get a chance to make it you won’t be sorry.

Gregg, I think that brings us to the end of this episode. We will talk to you again in March, and fingers crossed, will have some postseason basketball to talk about.

GL: That’s the spirit —always fall back on the old favorite topics.

BT: Goin’ Backstory is a podcast from the Princeton Alumni Weekly online.