Feature: May 7, 1997
Tune Ev'ry Heart
The Late Freddy Fox '39 Treasured Princeton's Past and Embraced Its Future
BY A. SCOTT BERG '71
My first exposure to Princeton came in 1965-in Mr. Drury's fifthperiod English class at Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades, California. Each of us 11th-graders had to write a 10page paper on an American author; and though I had never read a word he had written, I selected F. Scott Fitzgerald '17. Call me impressionable, but by the time I had finished the second chapter of This Side of Paradise-"Spires and Gargoyles," in which the hero, Amory Blaine, goes off to Princeton-I decided that I too would be "going back to Nassau Hall." Thank God I didn't select Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The "wealth of sunshine creeping across the long, green swards, dancing on the leaded window-panes, and swimming around the tops of spires and towers and battlemented walls"; the discussions of Shaw and Keats and Rupert Brooke and Yeats; the "riotous mystery" of putting a Triangle show together; the sallies to New York in quest of adventure; "dreamy evenings on the court of Cottage, talking of long subjects"; the "Big Game" weekends; the bursts of singing flooding up from Blair Arch: I dreamt of them all, sleeping with the book under my pillow.
My "fat envelope" from the admission office arrived in April 1967; and even after returning the acceptance card, I still had not set foot on the Princeton campus. I had also not stopped to consider that Princeton might have changed in the 50 years since Fitzgerald's day. About to leave on a summer trip, I slightly altered my itinerary to include a visit to my new campus. On May 30, 1967, my grandparents and I drove from their apartment in New Rochelle, New York, to Princeton.
It was a perfect spring day, and I gushed over every dogwood along the Hutchinson River Parkway. Shortly after crossing the Hudson into New Jersey, however, my heart sank. Worse than my first glimpse of Secaucus and Elizabeth was the smell. We rolled up our windows and drove the next half hour in silence.
Suddenly the landscape improved. We were passing woods and dairy land; and off in the distance, Ozlike, loomed the spires of Cleveland Tower. We turned right off Route 1 onto Washington Road, and I asked my grandfather to drive as slowly as possible. To this day, my heart still races every time I make that right-hand turn.
John T. Osander '57, the director of admission, escorted my grandparents and me from his office to Stanhope Hall, where he suggested we take the next Orange Key tour. Two elderly ladies from Rumson, New Jersey, who had come to visit Prospect Gardens, joined us as we met our guide, Charlie Wood '70.
Wending through the campus, Charlie enthralled us with his spiel-covering every topic about Princeton life, from hoagies to the Honor Code. Only a few students were still around, mostly seniors waiting for graduation-working on tans and tossing Frisbees while the quads were being transformed into reunion headquarters.
My grandparents and I were thanking Charlie, setting off for Nassau Street, when the quiet day was interrupted by the ringing of a bicycle bell and the cry: "Three cheers for Old Nassau!" What appeared to be a 50-year-old man wearing an orange-and-black cap and a white sports jacket with tigers crawling all over it whizzed by, a tiger tail flapping from the rear of his bike. He was pumping his right arm in a motion that looked as though he were hoisting an imaginary beer mug from his heart out to right field.
"What was that?" my grandmother asked, never having seen a grown man in full tiger regalia. "That's Freddy Fox, Class of '39," said Charlie, "recording secretary of the university." In trying to explain further, Charlie seemed for the first time that morning at a loss for words. His rambling description of the man made him sound like Princeton's official host, historian, chaplain, and cheerleader. Charlie seemed to be saying that an unusual spirit burned in the hearts of most Princetonians and that Frederic Fox was the keeper of those flames.
Over the next four years I saw more and more of the ubiquitous Freddy Fox. The first time was at a Princeton Today luncheon at which he said grace. It was the breeziest benediction I had ever heard, something about thanking God for making Princeton "the best darned place of all." A few months later, after I had joined the Orange Key, he bounded into one of our meetings in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall to teach us guides a song he had written with the names of the Princeton presidents in proper succession. A few years later, as parttime announcer for the band shows, I would march with the musicians after the games, only to find Freddy Fox always standing at the steps of 1879 Hall-even in the rain-cheering us back to the campus. I can hardly recall attending a single Princeton event-anywhere from Palmer Stadium to McCarter Theatre-at which I did not see him, beaming. His favorite occasions seemed to be under Blair Arch when one of the singing groups was performing. Like hundreds of Princetonians before and after me, I made friends with him.
Records show that Frederic Ewing Fox '39 majored in biology at Princeton, intending to become a doctor. But he told me that he "majored in Triangle Club," minoring in Theatre Intime, Glee Club, and the Marching Band, which he served as assistant manager. One football weekend he dressed up in a tiger costume and crashed the gates of Palmer Stadium so that he could frolic on the field with the band. A Princeton tradition was born.
Freddy Fox served as a soldier, White House staff assistant, Congregationalist minister, and teacher before Princeton hired him in 1963 as recording secretary. Technically his job was to receive alumni gifts, 20,000 each year. He promptly elevated the position into a pulpit from which he could preach Princetonism. As the official keeper of Princetoniana, Fred Fox became the link between Princeton alumni and students-"a symbol of oldfashioned rahrah enthusiasm," he described himself to each incoming class during freshman week, just before teaching them "Old Nassau."
Transition is often difficult to discern when one is in the middle of it: but to the Class of 1971, the times they were a-changin', and we all knew it. Between my class's entrance and graduation, the admission of public-school applicants noticeably rose to almost twice that of private-school applicants; we saw the disappearance of the onetoseven grading scale, the single-wing formation, parietals, and the Sundaydinner dress code in Commons. (Little did we know Commons itself was soon to disappear.) The draconian Bicker system gave way to a number of "viable alternatives," which included Stevenson Hall, Wilson College, and nonselective clubs; and the president moved off campus. In the spring of 1970 the politically sleepy student body leaped into action, voting at a town-hall meeting to strike. The university calendar changed, providing a break the week before Election Day so that students could work in campaigns. The announcement of coeducation at Princeton came in our sophomore year; by the time we graduated, women were no longer fringe but part of the Princeton fabric.
I often wondered how Freddy Fox '39-who, after all, had told me the Princeton lightbulbchanging joke: "One to change the bulb, and six to talk about how great the old one was"-felt about all that was then blowin' in the wind. I gradually learned not to be surprised by his responses.
Coeducation, for example, had no more ardent proponent. He invited me to Prospect House for lunch one day when an alumnus from the Class of Twentysomething buttonholed him and argued against the impending arrival of female students. Freddy explained that it was healthier both for the men and the university to have women on campus. He said that it was "just not right" to exclude half the people on earth from applying. The unimpressed alumnus yammered on about lowering our standards, until Fred played his trump card. "That's my concern too," he said, "because I was getting worried that we were losing the most qualified men to schools where they were already admitting women. Besides," he added with his ever-ready cackle, "many of them are smarter than the men! We shouldn't lower our standards just to keep women out." After the alumnus left our table, Freddy suggested that we man an information table at the Princeton Club in New York. Three afternoons in a row he and I sat in the foyer on 43rd Street, explaining the university's decision to those having difficulty with it.
In 1970, the morning after the university voted to go on strike, Freddy telephoned me in my dorm room. "Put on a tiger tie," he said. "We're going to New York again."
Nowhere were the changes at Princeton on more public display than in the Triangle shows. During my middle two years at Princeton, we challenged tradition not only by featuring women in the casts but also by replacing the orchestra in the pit with a rock band on stage, turning the oldfashioned book shows into topical revues, and abandoning most of the old puns and gags for punchier political satire. It is hard to believe that not 30 years ago many alumni actually walked out of the theater the moment Sue Jean Lee '70-Triangle's talented first woman-slinked on stage in A Different Kick and sang "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail." The following year, audience reaction got more intense. Some theater patrons in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, still grumble about the night Princeton's "guerrilla theater" invaded their town.
I remember Fred Fox came backstage after seeing that show, Call a Spade a Shovel, crowing that that was the best Triangle production in years, maybe even decades-that "not since the Golden Age of Jimmy, Josh, and Jose . . ." He embraced the way in which we had wed our new ideas with the old Triangle spirit. He liked best that we had maintained the trademark allmale kick line-which we reprised at the finale . . . only to have the number interrupted by six Triangle girls, who linked arms and high kicked along with the boys. For him, it was a jubilant symbol of integration, not just of Triangle but of Princeton.
Even though I had been elected vice-president of Triangle (as had Fred in 1938), in the fall of 1970 I dropped out of the club to concentrate on a senior thesis I had been thinking about since sophomore year. Under Carlos Baker's supervision, I wanted to attempt a biography of Maxwell Perkins-the great editor and "discoverer" of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe. Freddy Fox applauded my decision, and sent me bits of Fitzgeraldiana every few weeks to show his support.
While not wishing to distract me from my senior project, Freddy Fox nonetheless urged me to lobby for the post of Class Day chairman. He recognized that I subscribed to his theory that tradition is like a river-"although the course stays the same, the water is always new. If it isn't, it's stagnant, and then the tradition becomes a burden"; and he thought I could help resurrect many of the graduation-week customs that had been sacrificed the previous political spring. Often we met in his cluttered office, where I would find him behind a mountain of memorabilia, surrounded by tigers in all sizes and poses. With his counsel, the 1971 Class Day committee brought back most of the old graduation traditions; but, in the spirit of the times, we updated them, putting a socially relevant spin on everything-from stepsinging to smashing the clay pipes on Cannon Green.
Funny, I only recently recalled that Fitzgerald wrote that Amory Blaine attended Princeton during what he dubbed its "transition period," at which time "he saw it change and broaden and live up to its Gothic beauty." The truth of the matter, I now realize, is that Princeton is perpetually in such a period-that for all its embracing of the past, it is constantly reaching for the future. And the role of Freddy Fox, I now see, was not only to preserve tradition but also to promote transition.
On the friday before graduation in june 1971, I conducted my last Orange Key tour. It was a muggy day, and I had a large group to shepherd. At the end of the tour, as we disbanded at Stanhope Hall, one unusually unpleasant mother began ranting about why Princeton should admit her son (who was cringing before us). I explained that I had no pull with the admission office, and that set her off. "Well," she said, "what's so great about Princeton anyway? I mean, when you get right down to it, professors are professors, buildings are buildings, books are books. You all read the same things, and you all write the same papers. I mean, when you get right down to it, what the hell's the difference between Princeton and Harvard or Yale . . . or Podunk U.?"
I stammered a bit trying to find the words to explain all I felt about my four years at Princeton when suddenly-and I swear this is true!-I heard the ring of a bicycle bell. I turned around and saw this most familiar fellow wearing an orange-and-black cap and a white jacket with tigers crawling all over it. As his bike with the tiger tail whizzed by, I pointed and answered her in one word: "That."
A. Scott Berg '71, expanded his senior thesis into Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, which won the National Book Award. He is currently writing a biography of Charles Lindbergh. This article appeared in slightly different form in PAW's May 1996 Reunions Guide. The Princeton Band's annual Fred E. Fox '39 Memorial Concert will take place at 11 a.m. on the Saturday (May 31) of Reunions, on Cannon Green.