When Paul Rochmis ’60 joined us for an oral history interview at Reunions last year, he spoke about some of his happiest memories of Princeton — meeting new friends, discovering unexpected interests. But he also recalled the disappointment he felt during his sophomore year when several of his peers were not extended bids from the eating clubs — an incident that became known as the dirty bicker of 1958.
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When Dr. Paul Rochmis ’60 joined us for an oral history interview at Reunions last year, he spoke about some of his happiest memories of Princeton — meeting new friends, discovering unexpected interests. But he also recalled the disappointment he felt during his sophomore year when several of his peers were not extended bids from the eating clubs — an incident that became known as the dirty bicker of 1958.
Rochmis: I didn’t have any understanding of what the bicker process was or that you needed to network with people. There was one other student from my high school. I was of an ethnic religious minority. I didn’t really feel horribly comfortable about the whole concept of it. It was just a personal feeling. It wasn’t really some sort of intellectual difficulty with it. I just didn’t like that way of being judged superficially.
But I went along with it and not terribly successfully. I ended up with a bid to what was thought to be one of the lesser clubs. I just didn’t feel I wanted to commit. The bicker process back in those days was famous – or notorious – for what was called the 100% bicker, because basically the University provided no eating facilities at all for anybody above the sophomore level. They relied on the club system as sort of an unwritten understanding, as I perceived it, that the people who ran bicker who were upperclassmen, and the club groups, would agree that everyone got a bid and therefore relieve the University of their responsibility along these lines. 100% bicker was a goal, a target, a lodestar so to speak.
Bicker would end at midnight on a certain date, and early in the evening, when a Chinese-American classmate of mine was not going to get a bid I basically said, “Take my bid. I’m out of here. I don’t want any part of this.” I don’t know where I got the courage to do that. I wasn’t a particularly brave person at that time. I sort of watched it, and I felt a burden had been taken off my shoulders. I sort of watched the situation as an observer. About 10 o’clock, 10:30 at night, the person running bicker, Steven Rockefeller, realized that there were about 23 or some number like that of classmates, 1960 classmates, who had not received bids, and he needed to forge this 100% bicker. He called for a meeting of the people that had not received bids, and I tagged along because I knew some of these people.
There was one club that was just off Prospect Street called Prospect Club. It was a cooperative club. In the ranking of clubs, where Ivy or Cottage was No. 1, Prospect felt rightfully or wrongfully to be the worst club and maybe not a real club because it wasn’t on Prospect Street – it was just off Prospect Street on Washington Street, or Washington Road – and it was a cooperative club. It basically had a very high percentage of the Jewish class in there. Steven Rockefeller forged a deal with the people that ran Prospect Club – talked them into or coerced them, I don’t really know what happened – that they turned around and they offered bids to all of the unbid students, at which point Steven Rockefeller declared a 100 percent bicker and success, at which point I walked out disgusted by the whole process.
The episode would place a lasting stain on the eating clubs. More than half of the 23 students who had not received bids were Jewish, and the indication of anti-Semitism drew attention on campus and beyond. Myron Margolin ’58, then president of Prospect Club, told The Daily Princetonian that the bicker system “tolerates and probably engenders dishonesty, disloyalty and discrimination.”
Rochmis, in the end, declined his bid and became a rare “independent” student.
Rochmis: I felt kind of proud and kind of scared at the same time. As it turned out, it was much better for me financially. I didn’t have very much money to spend. I would go down to an African-American luncheonette down Witherspoon Street called Griggs and have the world’s best hamburgers for 35 cents – goes to show you how long ago that was. Every weekend I would have an invitation by one of my friends to a club, so I didn’t really miss much in the way of social life. I was so busy carrying about 30 hours a week with engineering and running the engineering magazine that I really didn’t have a lot of time for social life. I didn’t play bridge and waste my time with things like that.
Rightfully or wrongfully, I like to think of myself now – maybe I’m flattering myself too much – as the person that broke bicker. Subsequently, the University realized that this was an untenable situation and developed the alternative that I’m sitting in right now, Wilson College. Except at that point Wilson College was a lunchroom and commons which would serve a number of people that dropped out of the club system after me, not immediately after me but subsequently during the year for various reasons. The University had professors come and eat dinner with the Wilson members. I was happy being an independent so I didn’t join Wilson. I guess I was just an ornery guy, probably still am. The whole experience was bittersweet, but in retrospect I realize that it helped me develop strengths which were very useful later in life and showed me that I probably had more courage than I gave myself credit for.
Our thanks to Paul Rochmis for sharing his story. Brett Tomlinson produced this episode, and the music is licensed from FirstCom Music.