Feature - May 20, 1998
Time takes a holiday
at the annual Old Guard luncheon
By Caroline Moseley
It is 11:45 in the morning of May 31, 1997, Reunions Saturday. After a gray morning drizzle, the sun transmutes Nassau Green to a carpet of glinting emeralds. Alumni in orange-and-black regalia throng the front campus. Bagpipes and brasses compete as marching bands warm up for the P-rade, which begins at 2 o'clock.
Amid this bright bustle, Princeton's oldest alumni are moving toward the Chancellor Green Student Center for the annual Old Guard luncheon. Some are vigorous, striding up the ramp; others move with difficulty, on the arm of a younger relative or friend.
The Old Guard, which includes the 66th and subsequent reunion classes, meets for lunch every year, before forming for the P-rade. About 45 of the Old Guard are present today, but their number is swelled considerably by spouses, widows, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends. Many in the attendant train sport orange-and-black ribbons and other accessories, and clearly they take as much pleasure in the festivities as the alumni.
Inside, in the rotunda of Chancellor Green, a table decorated with orange marigolds is laid for each class. Through stained-glass windows, the sun scatters prismatic confetti. Despite the clatter of chairs and the chatter of people, this gathering has a dignity that only age can impart.
Once guests are settled at their tables, the conversation is of trips to Hong Kong and hearing aids, of cottages in Maine and artificial hips. Some guests relive college memories, like Dr. William B. Nevius and Orvel Sebring, both members of the Class of 1926. "My two roommates and I stole the [Nassau Hall] bell clapper," says Sebring. "I tell you, I was damn glad to get out of that tower."
He and Nevius discuss the changes on campus since they were undergraduates, and Nevius allows, "All these new buildings are not too bad." Campus architecture is a topic at many tables. Silvio H. Lopez '29*30, attending with his wife, Weston, is "flabbergasted by the extent of the campus. And it's all beautiful. But of course, I'm very prejudiced." Reaching into a U-Store bag, he says, "I just bought an orange-and-black umbrella." He taps the point firmly on the floor. "See? I can use it as a cane. Not that I need a cane, of course."
Lopez's comment exhibits what may be the Old Guard's most valuable quality: a sense of humor that thumbs its nose at passing time. Spencer S. Marsh, Jr. '29 displays a hearing aid with a microphone connection. He hands the mike end over to Mrs. Lopez and inquires, "Any words of wisdom from that side of the table?"
The Rev. R. Park Johnson '28*41, who's here with his wife, Alice, and son, Allen '55, is a class secretary. "Yes, I'm part of the propaganda machine, I admit it," he says with a smile.
AN EYE ON THE FUTURE
Perhaps looking to the future as well as to the past encourages longevity. At Reunions, says Johnson, "The point isn't just to see your old friends, if they're still here. I meet people I didn't know in college. When people tell me they don't want to come to Reunions because they don't know anyone, I say, 'You'll get to know a new set of friends.'"
Johnson and the other Old Guard alumni assembled today represent classes from 1917 to 1931. They are, of course, all men, and their ranks will continue to be so until at least 2036. In that year the Class of 1970, the first to include women, will celebrate its 66th reunion. Barring some fundamental change in the biology of human aging, alumnae will eventually predominate at the Old Guard luncheon -- a point made by Luther T. Munford '71, the chair of the Alumni Council, when he rises to address the gathering.
Reflecting on how an event like Reunions connects generations across time, Munford says to the Old Guard, "When you were seniors at Princeton, you must have met alumni from the classes of the 1800s, alumni of the College of New Jersey, before it changed its name to Princeton, in 1896. I'm struck also by the fact that the students who are here serving our meals and those who will sing for us at the end of our program will return for their 50th and 60th and 70th reunions in the next century. There's a span of Princeton history in this room that covers 150 years or more, and you are a vital link to that history."
Then President Shapiro presents the coveted Class of 1923 Cane, awarded to the oldest member of the oldest class present at Reunions -- in 1997, that man is Evan J. Miller '17. The cane, the handiwork of Adlai S. Hardin '23, was given to the Alumni Council by the Class of 1923 and was first awarded in 1951; the head of the ebony staff is a crouching silver tiger.
The 100-year-old Miller stands to accept the cane, asking, very reasonably, "What do I do with it now?" Shapiro explains that the honoree carries the cane in the P-rade and then returns it to the Alumni Council so that it may be awarded the following year.
Miller, a veteran of World War I, declares himself "happy to represent the Class of 1917. There were over 400 of us, and now only four remain, but the other three are physically not in good condition. Actually, I'm the baby of the group. After my 65th reunion I stopped coming. I had quite a few good friends, but they've all gone." He acknowledges, "I wasn't going to come today, but I'm glad I did."
Nanci A. Young, a former university archivist, isn't sure when the Old Guard luncheon came to be an official part of Reunions; nor is Dottie Ferrara, the Alumni Council staffer who organizes it. Daniel N. White '65, the director of the Alumni Council, believes it may have originated with the concept of the Old Guard itself in the early part of this century, when the P-rade became a regular feature of Reunions. The Old Guard immediately follows the 25th-reunion class, which leads the P-rade. "There used to be a rush for seats at the Princeton-Yale baseball game, which was played at Reunions, and the older alumni often couldn't get there in time," says White. "The P-rade became an orderly way of getting everyone to the game."
After the luncheon, those assembled listen to a musical program by the Nassoons, Princeton's oldest all-male singing group. The Nassoons will later double as chauffeurs, driving the Old Guard golf carts in the P-rade. Now, however, they sing every Princetonian's favorites: "Going Back to Nassau Hall"; "The Princeton Cannon Song" ("Crash through the line of blue/And send the backs on 'round the end!"); Horace's Latin ode, "Integer Vitae"; and more modern ditties, such as "East of the Sun" and "Tigertown Blues."
"TO MARCH IN HER LINE"
As the 20-year-old men serenade those 50, 60, 70, and 80 years their senior, the words of their "1905 Reunion Song" assume special meaning:
Drawn by allegiance the years cannot sever,
Then, all present stand to join in "Old Nassau," the anthem that concludes all gatherings of Princetonians. Slowly -- some with great difficulty, many supported on both sides by family members -- the Old Guard rises to offer, as in their youth and now in their sunset years, "Three cheers for Old Nassau."
They leave Chancellor Green -- the still vigorous and the increasingly frail, emerging into the dazzle and press of the front campus. Under class banners they gather, some in golf carts, some determined to traverse the entire P-rade route on foot, but all exemplifying the truth of the "1905 Reunions Song": for yet another year, Princeton "casts her spell upon our hearts and we are young again."
Caroline Moseley is a writer in the university's Office of Communications. This year's Old Guard luncheon will take place at 11:45 a.m., Saturday, May 30. Evan J. Miller '17, last year's oldest returning alumnus, died on November 20, 1997.