Hall, Walter Phelps

Hall, Walter Phelps (1884-1962) was probably the most popular teacher of Princeton undergraduates in the first half of this century. He was a legend in his own lifetime, and, as Professor Joseph R. Strayer said, his death marked the end of an era on the Princeton Campus.

A graduate of Yale (1906) and Columbia (Ph.D. 1912), he came to Princeton as a history instructor in 1913, at the age of twenty-nine. Soon his name began to appear among the favorite teachers selected in the annual senior poll; when he retired thirty-nine years later as Dodge Professor of History, he had been first more often than any other member of the faculty in his time.

For most of his career he lectured to sophomores on modern European history. His course was a prerequisite for history majors, and it was the stimulus of his teaching that attracted many students into that department and made it one of the largest in the University. He was, in Professor Strayer's words, ``a powerful teacher,'' whose ``strength lay . . . in a rare ability to dramatize human events, however remote, and to kindle the imaginations of youthful minds.''

He was a favorite subject in the Seniors' Faculty Song; their changing verses about him provide a running account of his life and habits.

His bulldog, ``Eli,'' was a frequent guest in the preceptorials he conducted during his bachelor days in 363 Cuyler Hall. Sometimes, to make a new group of preceptees feel at home, he would grab a sword from the wall and fling it into the air, and Eli would catch it in his mouth. The students were properly impressed, but they couldn't resist the temptation to suggest in the Faculty Song, that ``if he had any dope at all,''

``He'd shoot that darned New Haven pup,
And bring a Princeton Tiger up.

Hall was married to Margaret Nixon by President Hibben in 1923. After their marriage, the Halls lived in the country for a while, and he was frequently seen driving to the Campus with a horse and carriage. ``Keeps his flivver in a stall,'' the seniors sang that year,

``Buzzes in from Kingston way
In a `car' that runs on hay.''

Another verse of the Faculty Song described Hall's annual lecture on his favorite historical character:

``On Garibaldi's life and death
He yells himself quite out of breath.''

A handsome, stockily built man, given to fancy vests, knickerbockers, and flowing ties, Hall usually carried a walking stick. Never without a pipe, he seemed to spend more time in preceptorials filling it than smoking it. Because he used a hearing aid, he was called ``Buzzer.''

Walter Hall was remarkable in that the influence he exerted on undergraduates when he was young continued undiminished as the gap in their ages widened, right up to his retirement. The basic reasons for this phenomenon have been well described by Professor Strayer, who was Buzzer's student, colleague, and, finally, his departmental chairman:

``All human activity, every person he met, engaged him. In spite of personal affliction and of increasing deafness, he never burdened others with his own troubles. He had the great gift of making other people's interests his own. He gave himself freely, and he received in return the affection of his colleagues and of generation after generation of undergraduates.''

His unorthodox methods of lecturing were legendary. He frequently sat on the desk and sometimes stood on it. Stories were handed down from class to class about celebrated examples of his uninhibited spontaneity. One recounted the time he lectured in his underwear. The explanation was simple enough. He had been drenched walking to McCosh in a driving rain; rather than call off the lecture or take the risk of catching cold, he peeled off all of his outer garments and held forth in his underwear. Another was about the dramatic way he roused a sleeping undergraduate in one of his 7:40 A.M. lectures. Suspecting that the student had been up all night in New York and had returned on the milk train, Hall quietly walked to the dozer's side, and with a broad grin shouted, as only Buzzer could shout, ``Princeton Junction, change for Princeton!''

So many students and faculty wanted to attend his last lecture the year he retired, 1952, that it had to be shifted from McCosh to Alexander Hall. In his concluding words he told his students to rise above their fears and anxieties and to ``keep a merry heart.'' A six-piece band led the audience in singing ``For He's a Jolly Good Fellow,'' and he was given a seven-foot scroll with the signatures of undergraduate contributors to a fund in his honor, later enlarged by alumni gifts. This fund was to be used for a senior thesis prize in European history and for an annual lecture to be given by Buzzer ``as long as he felt like it.'' He gave the lecture every year up to 1962 when he died, two days before his 78th birthday.

Recalling Buzzer's admonition to his students, Professor Strayer observed: ``No man ever took his own advice better. To the very end, and for the lasting good of all those who knew him, Walter Hall did keep a `merry heart.'''


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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