Goin’ Backstory

In the November episode, we talk with Melanie Kirkpatrick ’73, author of Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience, about the holiday’s history, including a few Princeton connections (interview begins at 13:00). Also, Gregg Lange ’70 recalls the contributions of William Bowen *58, the former Princeton president, provost, and professor, who died last month.

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

GL: And I am Gregg Lange, the digital representative of the Great Class of 1970, who should know better.

BT: And welcome to Going Backstory, a monthly podcast about Princeton history. Later in this November edition, I’ll talk with Melanie Kirkpatrick ’73 about the history of Thanksgiving, with a few interesting Princeton connections. But first, we wish a happy 125th birthday to the Princeton Triangle Club. Which celebrates with what else? A new musical comedy show opening this Friday. David Walter’s cover story for the November 9 issue of PAW highlights both the history of Triangle, and some of the conversations current members are having about the future of one of its cherished traditions, the all-male drag kickline. It’s an interesting read, and we’d love to hear what alumni think about this. Gregg’s recent Rally ’Round the Cannon column is about Triangle as well. It’s about the club’s history of producing, yes, stars in show business, but also some serious thinkers. And as always, I invite you to check that out at paw.princeton.edu. And another story of note on campus, since our last episode, was the death of William Bowen *58, Princeton’s president from 1972 to 1988. He had a remarkable influence on the university in that span, and Gregg, as you mentioned to me earlier, Bowen also helped to shape Princeton’s history as the provost, working with President Goheen, and also of course, he was a professor, even before that. Which would be when he first came in contact with Bob Goheen. And I believe you have a story about that?

GL: Well, technically he came in touch with Bob Goheen before that, because Bob Goheen personally, for all intents and purposes, admitted Bill Bowen to Princeton, to the graduate college, and the graduate school in 1955, when Bill graduated from Dennison with all kinds of academic honors and hoop-de-doop-de-doo. And as well as the tennis champion of the Ohio Conference, and he beat apparently a lot of Big 10 singles players back in his college days and stuff, he was a real hotshot tennis star. And got progressively better over it. He’d come from a very small high school in Ohio, over the years, as an undergraduate. And Bob Goheen was directing at that point, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program half-time, and teaching half-time at Princeton. This was in 1954, before he was even president. As a matter of fact, Goheen at that point was what, 34 years old. So at any rate, he admitted Bill Bowen sight unseen, and apparently picture unseen, because the legend is that during his first week on campus, Bowen was walking by the university tennis courts, which at that point, where Wilson College is currently, were in the center of campus. And the two of them ended up passing by each other, apparently between sets, when Goheen was playing, and Bob — and this is absolutely true, was very, very proud of his tennis game. He had been a soccer star at Princeton, and actually coached the freshman soccer team, believe it or not, at one point. And somehow, Goheen and Bowen ended up playing singles, and Goheen really had no idea who this was. But they were just playing a pickup game on the tennis courts, and apparently Bill Bowen just beat the holy you know what out of Goheen, who had no idea what was happening to him at the time, and was apparently quite upset. And the apocryphal legend, coming across all of this, is that the two of them never played against each other on a tennis court again in another 35 years of knowing each other on campus, they never played against each other again, but often played as a doubles combo.

So, that showed quite a bit, I think, about both of them. They got along extremely, extremely closely for many, many years. Bowen never left campus, he went directly to being a professor, from getting his Ph.D. at the age of 25 in 1958, taught Econ 101 continuously until the day he retired as president, and on various semesters when he was back on campus, even after that. And after Doug Brown, one of the legendary twentieth century Princeton administrators, initiated the provost’s office on — at the request of the trustees in 1965, before he retired in 1967, and as a result, put an extremely impressive stamp on the office of high approval. At that point then, Bill Bowen was brought in, in 1967, to succeed Doug. And was active for five years as the first really full bore provost at Princeton. And most important was part of the team, including Professor Harold Kuhn, who I’ve written a column on. Who created really the council of the Princeton University community, and most especially the priorities committee, which sets budget priorities for the university that they recommend to the trustees. This all came about in the late ’60s, Bowen was an absolutely critical part of that whole structure. Being in the economics department, he was hugely helpful in setting up the detail of it as well. He chaired the priorities committee, was the first chair of that. And then, when he took over the presidency from Bob Goheen in 1972, which they were both ecstatic about, even at that point, Bill Bowen was 39 years old. And one thing I’m always sort of fond of pointing out to people is that Bob Goheen, the day he retired from the presidency of Princeton, was younger than Chris Eisgruber ’83 was the day he was inaugurated.

So, you can see how things have changed over the years. You can also see what a bunch of young Turks, really, was creating this change at Princeton from the ’60s, really through the ’80s, through all of Bowen’s administration. He’s well known for creating colleges as a way to more individually address undergraduate students after the student body expanded. For making many, many huge steps forward in terms of diversity, and equal treatment of women as well. And absolutely making critical moves on the intellectual part of the university, possibly the standout example of which is the molecular biology department, which was created on his watch, which brought in people of the quality of Shirley Tilghman, and also pointed the way towards some of the great work that Princeton has done in the sciences subsequently to that in neuroscience, in genomics, as well as the great new work being done there in chemistry. All of that is very much part of Bill, and now, interestingly, we have Chris Eisgruber after nine years as provost at Princeton, succeeding the president there. That’s the first time that’s happened since Bill Bowen became president in 1972. Another thing to note, extremely after nine years as provost at Princeton, succeeding the president there. That’s the first time that’s happened since Bill Bowen became president in 1972. Another thing to note, extremely prominently, is that six Princeton provosts in this relatively short 50-year period that there’s even been one, have gone on to be presidents of major US research universities, Sheldon Hackney, and Amy Gutmann at Penn, Neil Rudenstein at that little place up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hugo Sonnenschein, who was extremely influential as president of the University of Chicago, and then of course, Bill Bowen and Chris Eisgruber at Princeton. It’s very much on the basis of Bowen’s extremely successful tenure as provost at Princeton that those have taken place, and in fact the provost job at Princeton is one of the prime hunting grounds for college presidents, at this point, I think, anywhere in North America.

The other thing I should always point out, because I tend to forget sometimes, is that the wonderful set of oral history interviews the university archivist, Dan Linke, did with Bill Bowen, about seven years ago now. There are five lengthy interviews involved in that. The transcripts are available online from the Princeton archives. At Mudd Library, go online, find their index, and you can view some really fascinating history about 20th century American education right there from your lovely desk chair.

BT: Also worth mentioning is the post-presidency side of Bowen’s career, nearly all of the obituaries and tributes published in the days following his death lifted up the fact that he remained a major player in higher education in the 28 years after leaving Nassau Hall, in a way that very few presidents are able to kind of sustain their influence after leaving a prominent post. Truly, a remarkable life. And PAW will be publishing alumni recollections of President Bowen in print, and online. If you have a story to share, please visit the website, or send an email to PAW, that’s P-A-W, at Princeton.edu. Gregg, as always, thanks for your insights, and anecdotes.

GL: Thank you very much, looking forward to the next go ’round. Basketball season is starting, go Tiger.

BT: And on the other side of this very short break, I’ll be speaking with Melanie Kirkpatrick.

Melanie Kirkpatrick ’73
Courtesy Encounter Books

BT: My guest this month is Melanie Kirkpatrick, class of ’73, author of the new book, Thanksgiving, the Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. Melanie, welcome to the podcast.

MK: It’s good to be with you, Brett.

BT: And Melanie’s story about Princeton’s role in the birth of Thanksgiving football is online at paw.princeton.edu, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment. But first, I’d like to ask about another Princeton connection to the Thanksgiving story, in September of 1789, Elias Boudinot, New Jersey Congressman and a longtime trustee of what was then the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, introduced a resolution recommending a day of public Thanksgiving and prayer. And seemingly innocuous, but in this case, it sparked a pretty intense debate. So what were the arguments in oppositions to a Thanksgiving holiday at that time?

MK: This was one of the most interesting things I discovered as I researched the history of Thanksgiving. Who knew that Thanksgiving could have been politically controversial? But in 1789, as you said, it was. When Boudinot rose to introduce the resolution, several members of Congress objected. And there were two objections. First of all, let me set the scene. This was during the first Congress of the United States, which was a meeting in New York City, in Federal Hall in downtown Manhattan. And they had been meeting since March, and they were getting ready to take a break. Their first break, in September of 1789, when Boudinot suggested that they ask the president to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. So, the debate began. And there were two objections. The first was that the president didn’t have the executive authority to issue a proclamation of Thanksgiving. That this authority rightly belonged to the governors of the states, not to the President of the United States. So it was an issue of executive power and federalism. Issues that, of course, we’re still debating today. The second objection was, had to do with religious freedom. And the Congress had just debated the First Amendment. So the issues of separation of church and state were fresh in their minds. And some felt that Thanksgiving, having a religious component, being a religious event, was outside the purview of the president. So in the end, they voted to ask the president to do this. It was the — and Washington agreed. It was the first presidential proclamation. Proclamation number one. And it was for a national Thanksgiving. As we know, the president’s proclamation called for Americans to give thanks to God for the blessings of liberty that they had, and the Constitution was implicit in that message. And, but then Washington did something really wise. He was wise in so many matters, and this was one of them. He sent the proclamation with a cover note to the governors of the 13 states. And he requested them, he didn’t order them, he requested them, to celebrate, to mark the Thanksgiving in each state. And they did. The proclamation was widely circulated in newspapers of the day, and the entire country celebrated. The history then is that Washington issued another proclamation the — I can’t remember the exact year, but during his presidency, but individual governors continued to have Thanksgiving ceremonies, Thanksgiving proclamations, and it wasn’t until 1863, when Lincoln was president, that a president called again for a national Thanksgiving for general blessings.

BT: You also mentioned, well of course, it speaks well for the holiday that it got its official start with Washington, but you also write about Sarah Hale, who is called Thanksgiving’s godmother, and what role did she play in sort of establishing the kind of Thanksgiving that we recognize today?

MK: Well Sarah Josepha Hale is probably the most unheralded — one of the most unheralded Americans in our history. She was one of the great editors of the nineteenth century, and one of the great feminists of the nineteenth century. And also, an ardent abolitionist. She was born in New Hampshire, and in the late eighteenth century, grew up loving Thanksgiving, and associating it with the Fourth of July and Washington’s birthday, two other homegrown American holidays. And she was editor of a magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, which was headquartered in Philadelphia, but was a national magazine, and the first, the most widely circulated national magazine in the era leading up to the Civil War. And she used her position as editor of the magazine, a very powerful position with a big megaphone, she used it to campaign for a national Thanksgiving. She would write articles keeping — telling her readers what states or territories were celebrating Thanksgiving, and when. And then she would editorialize, calling for a national Thanksgiving. And these editorials became more and more impassioned as the Civil War approached. She saw a national Thanksgiving as a way to unify the country. She also did something very clever. She started publishing recipes for foods that [20:00] could be enjoyed at Thanksgiving, and she published fiction that was set around kind of classic New England Thanksgiving dinners, or Thanksgiving day celebrations. So, she was creating a kind of positive ambiance, you know, a positive image of Thanksgiving. And then finally, separate to her articles in Godey's Lady's Book, she conducted a letter writing campaign, and she wrote personal letters to hundreds of public figures, including every president of the United States since the late 1840s, until Lincoln, urging them to campaign for a national Thanksgiving. So, in 1863, when she wrote to Lincoln, he paid attention. And that might have in part been because his Secretary of State, William Seward, had been governor of New York state, and had known Sarah Josepha Hale, and had corresponded with her. He had issued Thanksgiving proclamations when he was governor of New York. So, Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving proclamation, the first one in our modern series of national Thanksgivings. Every president since Lincoln has issued a national Thanksgiving proclamation.

BT: And so, when we have it, but also some of how we celebrate it. So the recipes, the turkeys, and the pumpkin pie, we owe it to her —

MK: Yes, we do. You know, she was picking up on traditions that had already been established in New England. But, and New Englanders traveled. You know, they emigrated to new territories as they opened up, or new states. And they took the holiday with them. And the food traditions with them as well. But she didn’t completely limit herself to New England, because she published some Southern recipes, too. About a third of her readership was in the South, and I found that very interesting. It was hard to track just how much influence that had in Southern states celebration of the holiday in years that followed. But, I know it had some. The governors of Virginia in the 1850s were adamant that they were not going to celebrate this holiday, even though they received these letters from Sarah Josepha Hale. They called it a, you know, a damn Yankee holiday. And did not want to be associated with it.

BT: Well, somewhere between the turkey and the pumpkin pie, and all that, many Americans will be watching football on Thanksgiving Day, which is, as you wrote, has a Princeton connection.

MK: Yes!

BT: So it sounds as though Thanksgiving football, you know, from the time that it was introduced in the next decade or so after that, it really took off almost instantly. What was the story about why that became so popular so quickly?

MK: Well, I think as every Princetonian knows, the first football game took place between Rutgers and Princeton, the College of New Jersey, in 1869. So, just a few years after Lincoln issued the first in the modern series of national Thanksgiving proclamations. A few years later, in the mid-1870s, there was a game between Yale and Princeton that took place in Hoboken on Thanksgiving Day. The game was a success, and around 1880, the organizers decided to move the game to New York City, where it just took off like wildflower. There was a Thanksgiving mania throughout the city. New Yorkers would, you know, decorate store windows with Princeton orange and black, or Yale blue. And on Thanksgiving morning, people would parade up and down Fifth Avenue wearing the school colors of the team they supported. Lots of — I mean only a few people, relatively, could go to the game itself. But everybody had a favorite team. So, this Princeton Yale game that took place in the 1880s was very popular, and it created — New York’s always a trendsetting kind of place, and it set a trend for the rest of the country to start having Thanksgiving Day football games. And by the early 1990s, there were thousands of places around the country that had Thanksgiving Day football games. These were colleges, they were high schools, and also some community athletic associations. But Princeton started it all.

BT: And even though the tradition continues, Princeton kind of got out of the Thanksgiving Day —

MK: Well yeah, there’s an interesting story there, too. And it’s hard to believe in these days of faculty and administration mollifying students who object to something, but what happened in the early ‘90s was the faculty of Princeton and the faculty of Yale decided that it wasn’t good, it wasn’t good for the moral education of their students to participate in such a rowdy activity in New York City. Well as you might imagine, there was a lot of celebrating after the game was over, and every year some students would end up drunk and in jail. And the faculty thought that also didn’t speak well of the university. So starting in — I’ve forgotten what year it was, but a year in the 1890s, they decided to hold the Thanksgiving Day game either in New Haven, or in Princeton.

BT: Bringing it up to the current day, the introduction to your book recounts a memorable experience that you had at Newcomers High School in Queens, New York, and I was wondering if you could share a bit of that story, and what role it played in your approach to writing this book.

MK: Newcomers High School is a public high school in Queens for immigrant children. And these are kids who have just come to America, and they get intensive education in English, as well as the regular high school curriculum. And once their English is good enough, they can either graduate from Newcomers, or move to another high school. Well a few days before Thanksgiving a few years ago, I was invited to come to the school and speak to kids in a few classes, to lead a discussion about Thanksgiving. Most of these kids were going to be celebrating their first Thanksgiving, some had celebrated the previous year, too. But it was a very moving experience for me, Brett, because these kids had a profoundly personal understanding of what Thanksgiving meant to them. You know, the Pilgrims were divided into two groups of people. The people who came here looking for religious freedom, and those who came here looking for a better life for themselves and their families. And so too, these students I met, fell into those two categories. Some kids talked about how they were thankful that their families came here to, you know, their father or their mother had a better job, and the family could live better, and there were opportunities for them that didn’t exist at home. And that was moving. But even more moving were the kids who talked about religious freedom, and there was one boy I recall who said he was from Tibet. Now Tibet is a country that hasn’t existed formally since 1950, when China invaded and swallowed it up. And yet, he said to me that he was like the Pilgrims. He came here so that he could practice his religion, the religion of the Dalai Lama, which is difficult and in some cases impossible to practice in China. And then there was a girl who spoke up and said yes, yes, her family had left Egypt because they were Cops, Christians, and they felt that they could not practice their religion safely in Egypt. I came away thinking that these students, who had really thought about the holiday and the meaning of it, had a lot to teach native born Americans about why we have this holiday.

BT: That’s really important. And I gather that this is a book that aims to kind of give a broader perspective to people who may not know all the history and also kind of the current context of the holiday.

MK: Yeah, I hope so. I have chapters on dinner, too, and it talks about four centuries of food tradition. But I also have chapters on such things as that there’s a wonderful chapter, I think, it was wonderful to research, in any case, on generosity. And the tradition that has grown up around Thanksgiving to not only give thanks for our own personal blessings, or for our blessings as a nation, but also to think of the less fortunate among us. Americans are the most generous people in the world, and you see that generosity in force on Thanksgiving Day, and around the holiday, when there’s a long tradition of helping the poor, or the imprisoned, or people who otherwise have fallen on hard times.

BT: Touching on the one thing that kind of ties all of our podcasts together, the Princeton experience, most folks don’t have a chance to spend Thanksgiving at Princeton, it’s more of a memory of leaving school to go home for the holiday. Do you have any memories that stand out in your mind of going home?

MK: Well, you know, I have one memory, I’m originally from Buffalo. And believe me, there were a number of Thanksgivings in Buffalo where there was heavy snow, and I caught a ride this year, I think it must have been the Thanksgiving of 1972, but maybe 1973. I caught a ride with a classmate from Buffalo, and he had a little Karmann Ghia, and at least in my memory, there was zero heat, and we were traveling down the New York State Throughway in this massive wind, with huge amounts of snow and blizzard, it’s probably a bigger storm in memory than it was in reality. But I just recall the relief with which I finally got home, and the warmth of family and the literal warmth of the family home was a relief to me.

BT: I’m sure it was a relief. Melanie, thanks so much for joining us. And happy Thanksgiving.

MK: Same to you, happy Thanksgiving.

BT: And happy Thanksgiving to all of our listeners. Going Back Story is a podcast from the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Our theme music, “Time Lines,” is licensed from FirstCom Music.