Any fan of the long-running BBC television show Dr. Who knows the desire to be a Time Lord. Few get to have a taste of what it would be like to really be one. I have twice had that taste and it is very heady indeed. I didn’t have the Tardis, the Doctor’s time machine and spacecraft, but I had the next best thing: the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton University. Like the Tardis, it looks small and unassuming from the outside but once through the doors, the universe that is Princeton expands exponentially. Everything that is or ever was “Princeton” seems to be enclosed within its walls in every shape and size, physical and digital.
My personal time travel adventure began in the summer of 2015 with an e-mail from Landon Jones, Princeton Class of 1966. He was looking for research assistance in the preparation of his class’s 50th reunion book and video. In addition to mementos and reminiscences from class members, the officers wanted to see what hidden gems might be found in the university archives and department records.
I had lived in Princeton nearly 20 years by then and had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the Orange and Black way of life by my significant other, Class of 1969. Having a master’s in history helped whet my appetite to find out what was really happening on campus back in the days at the heart of the cultural revolution that was the mid-1960s and the Vietnam era. The adventure that the Class of 1966 provided was repeated the next year when the Class of 1967 called for help for its 50th reunion.
Both classes wanted material from the years they were on campus. That meant I had almost the entire decade of the 1960s to play in. So I slipped back in time. And now, on the eve of the 50th reunion of the Class of 1967, June 1-4, I can offer a brief travelogue.
Our journey begins at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, a division of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Dr. Mudd, a cardiologist who became a professor at Cal Tech early in the 20th century, was a prodigious philanthropist. One of 33 colleges and universities that are the recipients of his monumental largess, Princeton has a state-of-the-art repository. The website for the library states there are 30,000 linear feet of archival and manuscript material. In particular, the public policy papers include important collections of individuals and organizations in the areas of 20th-century American foreign policy, jurisprudence, journalism, public policy formation, and international development.
Of primary interest to me were the archives of Princeton University that preserve administrative, research, and student and staff activities on campus from its establishment as the College of New Jersey in 1746 to the present. The library’s collections include manuscript collections/archives, correspondence, publications, phonograph recordings, audio and video tapes, films, and photographs.
Everywhere I looked, history unfolded in the pictures and newspaper articles, copies of the Daily Princetonian, class books, and reunion souvenirs. This was the period when social upheaval was hitting on all cylinders. The Vietnam War was galvanizing youth on many campuses. The Summer of Love absorbed everyone’s attention in 1967 and Woodstock was on the horizon.
Women’s liberation was gaining momentum and that movement was getting a bit too close for comfort at Princeton, still an all-male bastion of higher education. The very years that the classes of 1966 and 1967 were on campus, 1962 through 1967, were the ones that saw the tide shift toward co-education. History professor and former dean Nancy Weiss Malkiel’s book “Keep the Damned Women Out,” published in 2016, surveys the first steps to women on campus during the presidency of Robert Goheen.
Though coeducation didn’t begin formally until fall, 1969, women were admitted in relatively small numbers to graduate programs starting in 1961. Then the federal Critical Languages Program allowed undergraduates to study for two years on campuses with courses in languages not offered at their home institutions. Some of these special undergraduates were women, or rather “critters” as the boys called them.
Now enter the gems of Mudd Library’s collection: The presidential papers of Robert F. Goheen, Princeton’s president from 1957 to 1972. Goheen’s views about coeducation may have evolved over the years but this did not stop him from giving some words to the wise in his address to the seniors in 1967:
“One word of caution — as one alumnus to another. You must exercise extreme cunning in introducing your wife to the mystique of Princeton alumni enthusiasm. The days of your life will be far happier if — early in your marriage — you perform an adequate ‘snow job’ for Princeton. If you don’t do this, you may even find yourself tramping about her campus, when you might be here.”
I am pleased to relate that 50 years on, at least one Princetonian every five years “tramps about” my alma mater, Mount Holyoke, as we share reunion weekends up there and down here.
In the same speech, Goheen presented the key to the university to the class with the guarantee that among other rights, the key gives each alumnus the privilege to let his daughter visit Princeton on weekends, as long as she leaves by curfew. Thanks to the Mudd Library, I was able to read the actual text of the speech complete with marginalia and underlining in Goheen’s own hand.
The archives yield surprising tidbits of history. Who knew that a woman marched at commencement in 1967? The cover of the Princeton Alumni Weekly of July 4, 1967, captured the reaction to her, exceeding its worth of a thousand words. I’ll never know if the poor soul staring at that lone female is repulsed, confused, or both, but it’s clear he has the look of a stunned mullet.
The commentary in the magazine about the cover photo said it best. In his commencement address, Goheen had said that Princeton had been founded to raise up “ornaments of the state as well as the church.” The editorial wags at PAW declared the woman, Christine Jones, Class of 1969 at Wellesley, “would be an ornament indeed to the Princeton alumni body.” She marched on a lark in place of her date’s ill roommate and PAW makes clear that she had the one prerequisite credential to pull it off. She was an alumni daughter.
For the Class of 1967, I went further back in time to 1917. That class was celebrating its 50th reunion the year 1967 graduated and the juxtaposition of two wartime classes could not have been more different. The class of the War to End All Wars was raring to go and fight. The articles in the student newspapers were jingoistic in their exhortations to students to enlist.
One extremely poignant reminder of the grim reality of that war was the special section in an early official reunion book for the Class of 1917 listing all the classmates who died in the war, how they died and where, and what medals or citations they had received. The overwhelming sense was of great pride in having been a part of history. It stands in blinding contrast to the reception veterans of the Vietnam War received. A letter from the President of Lehigh in the Daily Princetonian of October 10, 1917, extolled the “call to arms.” This contrasts with the April 13, 1967, issue of the Princetonian, which has a sea of ink on how wrong the Vietnam War was and how important the peace movement was.
Again, in the Who Knew department, there was a riot on campus in 1963 — a riot that resulted in widespread property destruction in town and, horrors, a panty raid on the women’s dorm at Westminster Choir College. Not only were 14 students arrested but the hedges at Miss Fine’s School were trampled. This riot was widely reported in the media but had nothing to do with race or the war.
Even the driest of documents housed at Mudd reveals much about the nature of the times. The 1962-’63 report to faculty on admissions is a seemingly interminable bundle of statistics and lists. But it contains on pages 17 and 18 a discussion on admitting “Negros.” The report recommended that Princeton increase admissions because it was vital to offer all students exposure to differing socio-economic backgrounds, values, views, and “at this point in history we need to upgrade the status of the Negro in a free society.” The difficulty, the report said was in finding qualified candidates.
The report pointed out that this was the same problem facing the admissions of working and lower class students and concluded that it was not a problem of race.
That said, desegregation was a long, slow process. The New York Times of April 10, 1964, reported on a group of Princeton students supporting segregation. The story described how they were duped into electing a black student as vice president after a group of integrationist students joined the organization. Their reaction? In May the Times reported that the original members started a new pro-segregation organization.
The admissions office report also had a section on legacy admissions, “Princeton Sons.” They usually comprised 17 to 22 percent of classes. The report warned that the long-standing policy of giving priority to legacy admissions could lead to overloading. It also stated that alumni sons did not compare favorably with other applicants and that 3 of the 12 students on the “danger list” with SAT verbals of under 500 were sons.
Politics and social movements were not the only traces of history to be uncovered from 50 years ago. The photo archives abound with pictures of the technology of the times. Students earnestly hunched over keypunch machines. Publicity shots of nattily clad young men striding purposefully across campus show plaid jackets with narrow lapels and skinny ties. Put a soul patch and a trilby on them and they would be hipper than hip today. There is nothing high-tech in any shot other than a slide rule.
By far the most engaging search tool was gaining access to original papers and documents. There is no end of the types of artifacts that alumni have donated to the archives. Dance programs, personal letters, photos, and memorabilia from every conceivable event associated with life at Princeton. The staff of Mudd is nothing short of magical in its ability to ferret out the right box that would have, for example, photos of the senior crew team of 1917. When the boxes arrive, there is strict protocol about how to open them, when to wear gloves to handle the papers that are in some cases crumbling before your eyes, and how to keep everything in correct order.
Each time I opened a document box to locate a particular item, I was seduced into leafing through the other folders just to see what was in there. Once I found myself holding a tattered piece of paper that was a transcription of a coded message to a Col. Cabot Ward aboard the USS George Washington on February 19, 1919:
“I understood Lloyd George to say there’d be no thought of military action there. What I said at the hurried meeting Friday afternoon was meant to convey the idea that I would not take any hasty separate action myself but would not be in favor of any course… (missing words)… may mean the earliest practicable withdrawal of military forces. It would be fatal to be lead further into the Russian chaos.”
This dispatch was clearly post- Russian Revolution. The message was from Woodrow Wilson, Princeton 1879, and what caught my eye was a reference to Wilson being surprised by Churchill’s “Russian suggestion.” The question of who decoded the message, why he kept a copy, and how it came to be in the box I was looking at are all unanswered. The same message is referenced in the collected papers of Wilson, a gargantuan set of volumes containing nearly everything Wilson put his hand to.
The piece of history I held in my hand was buried among memorabilia as trivial as football programs. Even the volumes of the collected papers of Wilson reproduce jotted notes. Being the president of the United States notwithstanding, it made me wonder at what point does someone realize that they are important enough to warrant their keeping receipts from CVS.
The vast array of material shows the heart of daily life at Princeton. The books that were given to entering freshmen listing the available courses contain such oddities as a class in Stereotomy (stone cutting) in 1917. And lest the bird and bees be neglected, the campus health department offered a class in Sex and Marriage, open to seniors in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The mind boggles at the thought of what insights were conveyed as to how to be happily married. Watching a few episodes of “Mad Men” gives you some idea.
Having McCarter Theater on campus provides another trove of material. One heady example is the photograph taken in 1964 of a rare constellation of artists who gathered when Bob Dylan performed. Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Barbara Rubin, and Dylan were photographed by Daniel Kramer backstage at McCarter in September. For any historian of the Beats or of Dylan, this gathering at McCarter is pure gold.
Working with the classes of 1966 and 1967 was more than just a delightful history lesson. While the storms of the 1960s engulfed even the privileged pillars of Princeton, I was a fairly sheltered high schooler in Maine, far from marches and riots. My time travel makes it clear that the students, rather than being above it all, were in the thick of it, but participating in their own inimitable way.
A Princeton alumnus recalled that when Lyndon Johnson attended the dedication of the Woodrow Wilson School on May 11, 1966, there were hundreds of students marching in protest of his appearance. The demonstrators had, in a purely Princetonian move, been instructed by the organizers to show up in jackets and ties to prove that opposition to the war was not the sole provenance of hippies and unwashed radicals.
Indeed, in November, 1965, 70 undergraduate and graduate students joined the “March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam,” carrying a 10-foot banner proclaiming “EVEN PRINCETON.” What is fascinating to contemplate is that many of the very architects of the war and the policies that precipitated it were fellow alumni.
Working with these two classes, I now have context for my own experiences of living within the orbit of the university. Prior to moving to town in 1995, my only exposure to Princetonians was in the fall of 1970. The Princeton marching band stopped at Mount Holyoke overnight on its way to a Dartmouth football game. Memory being selective, I do not recall where the band slept but I can only assume it was under the Argus gaze of a phalanx of housemothers. Most of us didn’t know they were there. However, Princeton erupted into my consciousness the next morning when the band thought it would be nice to repay our hospitality by marching around the center green at 5 a.m. before departing for Hanover, NH. No one on campus could have missed the departure, especially those of us whose dorm windows faced the green.
But some things never change, and today the band is still as antic as ever. Having the chance to attend reunions every year, I see the same intense passion for their alma mater among the graduating class as among the oldest alumni.
There are still alumni who would like to “keep the damn women out” and as a damn woman who is a staunch proponent of choice in education, I don’t think all-male institutions are inherently evil. However, one argument against a single sex Princeton, like other Ivy League schools, is its continuing profound success in engendering a singular population of graduates who are, and have been, dominant on the world stage. This legacy of thought leadership demands that talent of all stripes have access.
While one may overhear students complaining to each other over coffee about first world problems that should never rise to the level of problems at all, each class has built on a tradition of public service almost as old as time. Years ago, this may have stemmed from a sense of noblesse oblige but now you sense it is a personal imperative among the students.
The archives are full of documents tracing how graduating classes create programs to provide undergraduates with opportunities in an array of careers. The Class of 1955, at the urging of several classmates including Ralph Nader, formed Project ’55 to give students training in the public service sector. Now reaching across all classes and even integrating with other universities, Project ’55 is called Princeton Alumni Corps and embodies the admonition that “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
To be a Princeton graduate means having direct access to the highest and the best, the richest and the wisest, the leaders and the innovators with a few rogues thrown in for good measure. The hard part is to know what to do with that access. Dr. Who regenerates regularly with the passage of time. Classes at Princeton emerge each year reinvented. Both, however, depend on the past to shape their futures. The Tardis always has room for more.