Reunions

Reunions of alumni classes began soon after the Civil War, and with them class gifts. At its tenth reunion the Class of 1859 endowed a senior prize in English, and at its tenth, the Class of 1860 founded a graduate fellowship in experimental science. When the Class of 1866 observed its decennial, it gave the College the clock in the cupola of Nassau Hall.

By the 1890s class reunions at Commencement time had become fairly numerous. They were modest affairs at first: meetings held in classrooms in old Dickinson Hall or Nassau Hall, followed by a dinner in University Hall or the old Princeton Inn. Stimulated by an alumni torchlight procession at the Sesquicentennial, which brought 2,000 alumni back to Princeton in 1896, attendance at reunions grew and programs became more elaborate, sometimes lasting two or three days. Houses were rented to accommodate class members, bands engaged for their entertainment (and to welcome classmates arriving by train), and various means of identification gradually adopted -- class banners, hatbands, blazers, and costumes. Later, beginning in the early 1950s, headquarters and sleeping quarters were provided on the Campus for most major reunions.

Very early it became the custom for each class to have a major reunion at five-year intervals following graduation. For these occasions alumni have made a determined effort to return to Princeton even from distant places. In between, at the ``off year'' reunions, a smaller number keep the pilot light burning.

The twenty-fifth reunion, when most alumni have reached the peak of their careers, has come to be regarded as the most important of all, and the twenty-fifth year Class has accordingly been given the place of honor at the head of the Alumni Parade. The Class of 1942 dramatically demonstrated the importance of a twenty-fifth reunion when, in 1967, it gave more than $300,000 to Annual Giving, the first Class to do so. It brought back to its reunion that year another gift, the Nassau Hall bell clapper it had stolen in what was a traditional freshman year prank, and, having had the clapper split in two, gave half to the golden anniversary Class of 1917 and half to the graduating Class of 1967.

The fiftieth has come to be another big reunion. There is usually a large turnout of septuagenarians who step out briskly when the Alumni Parade leaves the front of Nassau Hall. One alumnus, Dr. William H. Vail 1865, walked fifty miles to attend his fiftieth, reaching the campus just in time to join his classmates in the Parade to and around University Field -- ``the last mile.''

The Class of 1887's sixty-fifth reunion dinner at Merwick, Bishop Matthews's home on Bayard Lane, was attended by five of the seven living members of the class and several relatives. It started out rather sadly, when one man noted that classmates had begun to drop off soon after the fiftieth reunion and that by the time the sixtieth came two-thirds had gone. Bishop Matthews served some excellent Burgundy (the class historian recorded) and spirits gradually lifted. Banter and jokes followed, and one of the sons present was moved to compliment himself on having picked '87 for his father's class. Toward the end of the evening, following more stories and reminiscences, one man exclaimed that if President McCosh were present he would say that 1887 was the greatest class that ever graduated. Then after a few seconds' reflection, he wryly added, ``as he said of every Class.''

The sixty-fifth is usually the last major reunion, although there is on record at least one later one. In 1967, two members of the Class of 1897, Paul Bedford and Leander H. Shearer, sat down together in the lobby of the Princeton Inn and there received a formal visit from President Goheen on the occasion of their seventieth reunion.

While a member of the faculty and during his presidency of the University, Woodrow Wilson 1879 attended all of his class's reunions. In 1914 he came up from Washington for his thirty-fifth, but in 1919, because he was in Paris for the Peace Conference, he was obliged to send his regrets to his classmates when they gathered for their fortieth. ``I shall miss what would be the greatest possible refreshment to me in meeting the boys then,'' he cabled his friend and classmate Robert Bridges a few days before the reunion, ``and so I beg that you will give them the most affectionate messages from me and tell them how cheering it is to me always to think of their friendship and of the old days we spent together.''

Norman Thomas '05, clergyman and perennial Socialist candidate for president, rarely -- if ever -- missed a reunion of his class. ``Some things in life justify themselves emotionally, without necessity for analytic reasoning,'' he once said. ``On the whole, Princeton reunions fall in that category. In my moralizing moments, I may regret that reunions are too greatly inspired by the prayer: `Make me a sophomore again just for tonight,' which prayer, with the aid of a sometimes excessive consumption of the spirituous, rather than the spiritual, often seems to be granted.''

Sometimes reunion days are extended. In 1969 thirty classmates topped off the Class of 1939's thirtieth reunion by flying to Russia. There, according to the New York Times, they gave the first rendition of ``Old Nassau'' ever heard in Moscow University.

Even more distant duties than Wilson's in Paris have kept a class notable away. In 1973 astronaut Charles Conrad, Jr., sent word to his reunion chairman that he could not be present at 1953's twentieth because ``he was out of town on business.'' He sent his message from the country's first space station, Skylab I, to the Johnson Space Center at Houston, which relayed it to Princeton.

CLASS ATTENDANCE AWARDS

In 1912 the Class of 1901 gave a silver cup to be awarded annually to the class having the largest proportion of its living members present at a reunion. Attendance of winners has ranged from 52 percent (the Class of 1919 at its fiftieth) to 77.3 percent (the Class of 1898 at its twenty-fifth). The winner in 1916, the Class of 1866, had 18 of 27 classmates present at its fiftieth reunion; their attendance percentage was especially appropriate and pleasing to them: 66.66.

Other awards were begun in the 1930s: the 1921 plaque for the greatest number at a major reunion, the Class of 1894 bowl for the largest percentage at an off-year reunion, the Class of 1915 cup for the greatest number at an off-year reunion. Another one was begun in 1967: the Class of 1912 trophy for the largest percentage present at the reunion of a class graduated more than fifty years.


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

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