Some vignettes from a 45th college reunion at Princeton:
Friday morning, an alumni-faculty panel on “Living the Arts.” Commenting on the current undergraduate fascination with science, technology, engineering, and math courses, sculptor Harry Weber ’64 expressed the hope that people would remember that the arts — usually story telling in one form or another — had been going on since the days of the caveman.
As an aside, he added, to underscore the need to nurture the creative thinkers as well as those in those STEM fields, the good stories always seem to happen to people who are good story tellers. Nearly 50 years after beginning my professional career as a story teller, I nevertheless felt some anxiety. Would I stumble across any good stories this reunion weekend?
Friday dinner. Under a tent in the back yard of the Frist Campus Center (the visual representation of the Princeton-Plainsboro Medical Center in the television show “House”), I ran into Mike Fremuth, one of two classmates I met during freshman year who I was sure would excel at the highest levels in their chosen fields. The two could not have been more different.
I met Fremuth in the spring of freshman year, when I was covering the freshman baseball team for the student newspaper. Having spent the summer before covering a minor league team in Binghamton, New York, I thought I could tell the difference between a college fastball and a professional fastball. Six feet tall and 178 pounds, Fremuth was a professional prospect.
I wouldn’t forget Fremuth, but I was surprised to learn he still recalled my name. His father, Fremuth told me, had saved those Daily Princetonian articles I had written about him. And Fremuth continued in baseball after college, drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1969 and advancing to the Triple A level of baseball, one notch below the major leagues. When it was over he went to Stanford Law — not exactly washed up.
The Stossel Panel. After attending “Zero Gravitas,” the 2014 edition of the Triangle Show on Friday night (with its Star Wars-inspired all-male kickline), a 9 a.m. panel the next morning seemed like Mission Impossible. But I made it. The panel on “Views of Modern Conservatism and Libertarianism,” moderated by politics professor Robert George, included my classmate and Fox television’s John Stossel (U.S. 1, May 28), Detroit News cartoonist Henry Payne ’84, former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich ’79, and Andrew Malcolm ’09, PR director for Oregon congressman Greg Walden.
When a member of the audience asked the panelists for their opinion as to why the Republican message failed to resonate with the electorate the two journalists had the best responses. Payne reminded people that true conservatives wouldn’t rush recklessly into a foreign war, but the Republicans had done exactly that in Iraq. Stossel reminded everyone that he was not a Republican or a conservative but a libertarian and that moreover he didn’t know anything about politics. But he said Republicans argued on the one hand that big government is bad, but on the other hand they wanted us to accept the social mandates of big time religion. Who would believe that contradiction in values, he asked.
Milling around for a class photograph on the steps of Clio Hall, I ran into the other classmate I had picked as a freshman for stardom later in life. When I interviewed him in the spring of 1966 for the Daily Princetonian, Barry Miles Silverlight was a slightly built, soft-spoken freshman from North Plainfield, who arrived at Princeton with a most usual item on his resume — a record album. That was back in the day when record albums weren’t burned on a CD but pressed in vinyl by some big record company. Barry Miles was a child prodigy as a drummer and pianist, who played with bandleader Stan Rubin (Princeton Class of ’55) while in grammar school and later performed at Princeton Reunions when he was in junior high.
After college he continued his musical career, serving 15 years as musical director for Roberta Flack, among many other gigs. When I heard Barry say that he was heading over to the chapel to perform a short piano piece for a memorial service there, I thought I would drop in just long enough to hear his piece, and then get back to the serious business of Reunions.
About the University Chapel: Our class arrived on the campus in the fall of 1965, the year after the university eliminated the requirement that all freshmen attend Sunday services at the chapel. While I have attended memorial services there, as well as a few weddings, I doubt I ever went to a regular church service there.
So I was taken aback when I arrived and discovered the memorial service that I thought would be for all alumni in fact was a Class of 1969 event, conducted by our class. It was going to be hard to linger in the background and duck out after Silverlight played his piece.
So I took a seat in the back, on the aisle, poised for an exit at an opportune moment. The welcoming prayer was offered by Chris Thomforde, the captain of the basketball team our senior year who became a minister, eventually serving as president of St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Thomforde was refreshingly ecumenical, recognizing the diversity of religions in our midst as well as those who might have no beliefs or be “doubters.” I relaxed a little and settled into my pew, though a late-arriving classmate, Granville Burgess, asked me to slide over to make room for him. So much for my escape.
Thomforde was followed by a classmate’s wife, Yvonne Thornton McClelland. Before singing “I Believe in You and Me,” Thornton noted that she was now an obstetrician and gynecologist, and her husband, Shearwood McClelland, was now an orthopedic surgeon. But, she said, most of the classmates in the chapel might remember her as one of the Thornton Sisters, an R&B ensemble that performed regularly on campus during our undergraduate days. Thornton wrote an account of her life, “The Ditchdigger’s Daughters,” which became a made-for-television movie in 1997.
The sermon was delivered by Tom Hudnut, whose name was vaguely familiar to me from our undergraduate days. Like Thomforde, Hudnut was not heavy handed with his faith. He admitted that he — like many of us — picked up each copy of the alumni magazine, flipped to the 1969 entry in the class notes, and scanned to the end, hoping not to see the dreaded words: “A memorial appears in this issue.” He read the memorials with sorrow and hope — hope that the deceased had been able to live his life to the fullest, sorrow that his chances to do so had been exhausted, and the realization that the rest of us still had time to try.
Damn, I didn’t know Hudnut was a minister. I later discovered he isn’t — he is the retired CEO of the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles; his wife oversees admissions at the ultra-selective Center for Early Education, a progressive elementary school. The two have been cited as an LA “power couple.”
Then came the reading of the names, 85 of our classmates who have predeceased us — fully 10 percent of the class. At the end of the reading I pointed to the second name on the list, Peter Cahn, whom I had known as a colleague on the Daily Princetonian and who died in a fall from a dormitory roof during some post-football game revelry on November 5, 1966. “To me that was the most tragic loss of all,” I whispered to Burgess, still blocking my escape route.
“He was my roommate,” Burgess whispered back.
From the chapel I headed back to our reunion tent, off to the P-rade, and then back for more conviviality under the tents. Reunions at Princeton is largely about the tents: music, beer, and always some classmates you never knew — or never really knew — during your undergraduate days. For me at this 45th reunion, the chapel may have been the biggest tent of all.