Feature: November 19, 1997
Organizer Dorothy Bedford '78 reflects on Princeton's birthday bash
by William McCleery
Faster, it seems, than you can say "bicenquinquagenary," Princeton's 250th anniversary has come and gone. Under the direction of Dorothy Bedford '78, it was quite a birthday, celebrated over an 18-month period with lectures, conferences, recitals, several books and videos, one full-length film, a Commencement address by President Clinton, and a Charter Day convocation and picnic attended by 15,000 and climaxed by spectacular fireworks.
Paw and other publications fully reported on these events, but this reporter was left with two questions: Why, back in 1993, did Bedford, who has an M.B.A. from Harvard, leave a fast-track vice-presidency with a commercial bank in New York City to take a university job with a sunset clause? And now that the job has ended (she went off the payroll in July), what's next for her?
The day I took these questions to Bedford she was at her Princeton home on Prospect Avenue, a mile or so from the campus, looking after three-year-old Heidi, the youngest of her three daughters. Natalie, 10, and Roberta, eight, were off somewhere. Heidi and her pet mouse, Punkin' Pie, joined us for a modest lunch, after which we repaired to the living room for our conversation.
As to why she had quit her banking job to run the 250th, Bedford cited her lifelong closeness to Princeton. Her father, Nathaniel "Buz" Bedford, is a member of the Class of 1939, and her brother, Robert, graduated in 1964. In a sense, she said, it was like returning to the fold: "It's characteristic of Princeton to make anyone who's gone here feel like a member of the family."
She had been active since graduation as an alumna volunteer, and in 1991 she had assumed the chair of the Alumni Council (the first, and so far the only, woman to hold that position). She was still in that volunteer post a year later when she noticed the following placement ad in PAW: "Executive Director. Responsible for coordinating commemoration of University's 250th anniversary. Requires demonstrated administrative, organizational and communication skills. . . . Must be familiar with history, culture and milieu of University."
By then, said Bedford, she was restless in her banking job, which involved overseeing Latin American loans, and was considering a change, so the advertisement piqued her interest. Her husband, Rush Taggart (a 1976 graduate of Antioch College), was supportive. The job would require their relocating to Princeton, a town they both liked, and his commute to New York (where he works as a banker) would not be too much longer than from their home in Pelham, New York.
A PHILOSOPHY OF INCLUSION
Most important, bedford thought the job would give her a chance to make Princeton a more inclusive place. In her volunteer work with the Alumni Council she had noticed that it was becoming harder for traditional alumni organizations to meet the expectations of an increasingly diverse alumni body. "Many alumni were coming to feel a primary allegiance to some special cultural or ethnic group; for example, to the Association of Black Princeton Alumni, rather than to their Princeton class or to the university itself," she said. "Do you realize there are now some 2,000 black Princeton alumni? There were also sizable-and growing-numbers of Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to whom no particular attention was being paid."
In addition to engaging Tigers of all stripes in the 250th, she wanted to get more students involved in alumni activities and to make the university's staff-from groundskeepers to coaches to members of the president's cabinet-"feel more actively included in the family, their work appreciated, their roles validated. I wanted to strengthen the roots of the connections among and between them. I felt that the university had not come to terms with the demographic and sociological changes that had occurred since its bicentennial, 50 years ago, and especially since the 1960s. The sheer growth in size of Princeton had not been adequately recognized-nor had the growth in vocational variety among alumni: the extent to which alumni were contributing not only to 'the Nation's Service,' to business and science, but also to the creative and performing arts.
"Many alumni enjoy Reunions, but others-blacks, Asians, even women-felt left out, partly because of the emphasis on drinking, which runs counter to their cultural values." Before she had even interviewed for the job, Bedford was visualizing one big event that would draw in the entire university community-alumni, students, members of the faculty and staff, and townspeople. "A picnic, maybe!" Her vision was modeled on the Hudson River Revival Festival, an event near Pelham held to benefit a local cause.
Meanwhile, the two university officials primarily responsible for filling the job-Professor of Economics Burton Malkiel *64, who chaired the 250th Anniversary Steering Committee, and Robert Durkee '69, the vice-president for public affairs-had singled her out as their number-one candidate. "We were impressed by her business experience and by what we knew of her personally from the Alumni Council," said Durkee. Bedford was soon hired, and in March 1993 she settled into her new position. Throughout her four years and three months on the job she made do with a small staff (she had one full-time assistant, Gail Munro, and hired temporary help as needed), working first in Nassau Hall and then from an office on Nassau Street.
From the start, said Bedford, "I didn't want to rewrite Princeton tradition, or bury it, but to update it." Malkiel shared this aim, and pushed for a Center for Community Service that would reflect and expand on Princeton's centuries-old commitment to serving the nation-an ideal that President Shapiro and the trustees took a step further with the commissioning of a plaque honoring alumni and inscribed with the motto "Princeton in the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations." The plaque, which is located at the intersection of walks in front of Nassau Hall, was unveiled on Charter Day, October 25, 1996, almost 250 years to the day in 1746 when King George II signed the charter establishing the College of New Jersey.
Charter Day, which was blessed with perfect Indian-summer weather, crowned the year-and-a-half celebration, and in its scope and character embodied all Bedford hoped the 250th would represent. "We wanted this to be an event that everyone who had anything to do with Princeton could look back on with pleasure and pride," she said. "There is a snob factor in many Princeton celebrations but there was none in this one. It differed from Reunions in being institutionally organized, and including everyone from students to janitors. Reunions, by contrast, are planned and organized by and for alumni classes, although faculty and staff are permitted to buy passes."
In addition to inviting everyone associated with the university-students, faculty, staff, and alumni-the 250th Committee made tickets available to the greater Princeton community, and the event was advertised throughout central New Jersey. For the picnic that immediately followed the front-campus convocation, said Bedford, "The food was festive, but portable and easy to eat-no table required-so people could take their dinners where they chose." Many wound up at one of the four bandstands, where they could listen to music as varied as the assemblage from folk-rocker Sheryl Crow, a Dixieland band, a Latin Calypso band, a reggae band, and the University Jazz Ensemble.
Bedford saw the 250th as an opportunity to engage staff, faculty, and alumni in a range of projects. "The classical music and dance concerts brought to campus nationally recognized artists, many of whom, though former students, had not yet been invited back as performers," she said. Gary Walters '67, the director of athletics, organized two conferences on intercollegiate athletics with faculty director Marvin Bressler, an emeritus professor of sociology. A conference on "The Healing Arts," put together by Pamela Bowen, the director of health services, and Ronald Comer of the psychology department drew medical professionals whose attention had previously been invested mainly in their professional schools. "We wanted them to feel they were appreciated by Princeton and to recognize how a continuing association with Princeton may be useful and interesting to them in their practices."
Addressing a concern she'd had since her stint as vice-chair of the Alumni Council, Bedford and the 250th committee made a point of including gay and lesbian students and alumni in the celebration. A day-long event marking the 25th anniversary of the recognition of gays at Princeton was organized by the Office of the Dean of Student Life and included panel discussions and a banquet.
At one point, Bedford worried about the need for a program that would especially appeal to junior faculty and graduate students-people whose support will be needed by organizers of Princeton's 300th anniversary, in 2046. (She has written a long memo to the director of the 300th and deposited it, sealed, in the University Archives.) A discussion with Amy Guttman, then dean of the faculty, about recognizing Princeton's younger scholars led to a series of colloquia hosted by the residential colleges, featuring faculty members noted for their success in balancing teaching and research.
Booking President Clinton to speak at the 1996 Commencement proved controversial, not only because Prince-ton has a few Republicans in its family (Bedford is one), but because it was a Presidential election year and Commencement fell on the day of the New Jersey Democratic Primary. But Bedford could point out that President Truman spoke at the 200th anniversary and that President Cleveland, another Democrat, addressed the 150th. "The Democrats seem to have good timing when it comes to Princeton anniversaries," she said. "The 250th Steering Committee had wanted the President all along." Mike McCurry '76, Clinton's press secretary, was instrumental in arranging the visit.
Many observers have noted Bedford's ability to orchestrate an extraordinary range of events without breaking a sweat. Paw's editor, J. I. Merritt '66, recalls strolling down to Poe Field on the Saturday of his 30th reunion to attend a 250th band concert and fireworks. "I was telling a classmate what a terrific job I thought she was doing, especially with such a limited staff. I'd no sooner said this than, as if on cue, Dorothy appeared, handing out programs. A half hour later she was up on the bandstand before several thousand people, introducing the evening's events."
LEGACIES OF THE 250TH
Bedford contrasted this charter day with the university's 200th anniversary, in 1946. That event was an opportunity not only to celebrate Princeton's birthday but the dawning of the postwar era, in which higher education would play a significant role. President Dodds wanted to involve as many universities as possible, and more than 600 wound up sending representatives. By contrast, because the 250th's Charter Day was perceived as a family affair, the outside guest list was relatively small: Bedford estimates that 35 to 40 schools sent representatives, out of 120 invited.
Did she think this "family affair" had changed Princeton in any significant way?
After demurring a moment, she answered "Definitely."
"I think the 250th managed to instill a stronger sense of inclusion among graduate students, junior faculty, staff, and employees in general that will contribute to Princeton's long-standing institutional development," she said.
Among other legacies of the celebration, she cited President Shapiro's 250th Anniversary Teaching Initiatives, which encourage faculty members to exploit new information and communication technologies in the design of new courses or the redesign of existing ones, and which also bring to Princeton guest professors known for their devotion to teaching. Another legacy of the 250th will be a Teaching and Learning Center, to be located in the new Campus Center.
"The contributions of Princeton's creative-arts programs-dance, literature, and music-added a special dimension," she said. "And the recognition given the performing-arts community, if not overdue, was certainly timely, and I'm sure will have a lasting effect.
"Alumni relations were probably altered subtly but permanently by the Alumni Council's creation of Tigernet, which facilitates alumni communication via e-mail and the World Wide Web. It offers alumni new ways to participate in university affairs and draws the attention of alumni who had been ignoring Alumni Council programs.
"The 250th allowed virtually all of Princeton's newer constituencies to stake their claim in Princeton history by jointly celebrating their own anniversaries, such as the 25th for undergraduate coeducation and the 50th for the arrival of Princeton's first black undergraduates. I'm thinking, too, of projects such as Looking Back: Reflections of Black Princeton Alumni, a video by Melvin McCray ['74] and Calvin Norman ['77].
"I also like to believe the 250th helped some alumni to accept recent demographic and sociological changes as part of a tradition of change at Princeton-as a stage in the university's continuing evolution and not as some kind of aberration. And by extension, perhaps the 250th made it easier for them to accept the people brought to the campus by these changes."
What of plans for her own future? I suggested that her passion for uniting, or "including," people, plus her demonstrated administrative skills, might suggest a career in politics.
She shook her head. "The stress level of the last year, the strain of working so many weekends and into the wee hours, was such that I'm glad to have some quiet time to recover, both for me personally and for my family."
Bedford noted that, as her children get older, "the child-care issues get subtler. Helping a math-anxious child with her math homework, for example, takes enormous patience. Generally, older children need more attention of a more sophisticated sort, much of it value-oriented, which can't be delegated."
At this point in the interview, three-year-old Heidi wandered in from her nap, gleefully disrobed, climbed up on the piano stool, and began playing what she at least considered music. As we walked to the door, Bedford mentioned that her youngest daughter's newly diagnosed moderate hearing loss would mean many speech-therapy sessions in the months ahead. "I'm relieved not to have to juggle this latest family concern with a new job, for now."
But as we said goodbye she admitted she would consider entering New Jersey politics, possibly as soon as 1999: "It's the only career step I can think of which might offer the excitement, variety, and intellectual stimulation to compare with the 250th. And, being a Woodrow Wilson School alumna, I think it's time to see about putting that public-affairs training into action."
William McCleery, who for many years taught playwriting at Princeton, was the subject of an article in the May 7 PAW on his book, Wit & Eloquence of Woodrow Wilson, Teacher.