Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70
March 5, 2008:
Butch van Breda Kolff '45, right, with Art Hyland '63 (PAW: Jan.
the essence of Princeton
Lucky accidents, great discoveries, and
the VBK mind
By Gregg Lange ’70
Being of somewhat verbose tendency (you’ve
noticed, you say?), I try to better myself in idle moments by devising
succinct answers to complicated questions, like “What’s
the difference between dark matter and dark energy?” (Answer:
“You can’t trip over dark energy.”) But I must
admit, there’s one hypothetical query I’ve always found
troublesome: “What’s an event that shows the real Princeton?”
Like any vibrant educational enterprise, Princeton
is more of a buffet than an entrée. The many elements that
contribute range from the Nassoons to the WMAP satellite to Pulitzer
prizes to Dante, and it’s very tough to combine them in a
single occasion. Reunions are too frivolous, the 250th Convocation
too formal, the Princetonian too, uh, Prince-y.
I have progressed to the point, however, that I’m happy to
defend two events of my experience, in combination, as a fair representation
of Old Nassau.
The first is the magnificent closing pyrotechnic
lecture of Professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28. Known ex post facto
as “Dr. Boom” – I don’t recall anyone ever
using the term while he was still actively giving the lecture –
his hour of chemistry and sophistry was a primer in educational
theory, beauty, humor, doggerel, and constant bedazzlement at the
world around us, a paean to the joy of learning. His thesis was
there’s something new around every corner, that serendipity
is the great spice of life, and that you’d be well advised
to know it when you see it. Hence the title of the lecture-cum-floorshow:
“Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind.”
It is a great credit to the chemistry department that its faculty
still keeps elements of the lecture alive for Reunions; a few more
bad puns and dancing would help, but some of these are people on
a tenure track, so I guess we have to cut them a little slack.
The famous “Nassau Reaction” in which
Alyea’s humble lab beaker turned various colors on cue to
his warbling of “The Orange and the Black” actually
approaches a single answer to my imaginary challenge of embodying
Princeton, but in all good conscience I don’t think it can
be encapsulated in any lecture hall, regardless of the magic of
the teacher and eagerness of the pupils. So we need to turn to something
less curricular in a quest for a complete portrait, less planned
and more, well, serendipitous.
So I’m standing at the bar at Reunions, and
down the way in animated conversation are Butch van Breda Kolff
’45, Pete Carril and Chris Thomforde ’69. This has the
efficient advantage of being not only the setup for a joke (“A
Wookkiee, an Ewok, and a Klingon walk into a bar….”)
but the punchline as well. The idea that three such diverse folks
would ever get on the same page, much less travel a goodly distance
to get together at a social event, is outlandish. Thomforde, the
Nation’s Tallest College President and captain of the 1969
basketball team that was the first to go undefeated in the Ivy League,
is a straight shooter and ordained minister whose sweetness of personality
is as evident here as it was on his Sports Illustrated cover
photo in 1967. On this occasion this places him in the minority.
Carril, famously described as Don Quixote disguised as Sancho Panza,
is constantly making a serious point about something – maybe
Thomforde’s drink (milk?), maybe his own (not), maybe Dante,
maybe the Middle East – and is clearly agonized by it. And
VBK is roaring with laughter. Always. There have been looks of bemused
concern crossing van Breda Kolff’s face for eight or 10 seconds,
but rarely longer. He has his own personal listing in A Princeton
Companion under “ebullience.” These three disparates
currently have the appearance of having spent the last 40 years
In a way, they have. Van Breda Kolff, learning much
of his basketball from Cappy Cappon at Princeton, taught Carril
at Lafayette, and they both taught Thomforde at Princeton. That
was just for warmups. Carril also taught John Thompson III ’88,
Joe Scott ’87, Sydney Johnson ’97, and (in high school,
followed by VBK at Princeton) Gary Walters ’67, who taught
Bill Carmody, who was then Carril’s assistant for 14 years.
Princeton’s men’s basketball program has, quite literally,
now been in place for 70 years. Half of that, including 617 wins,
came under VBK and Carril.
After celebrating his 40th anniversary with the 1965
Final Four team three years back, van Breda Kolff died in 2007;
the men’s basketball team is rightfully wearing a “VBK”
patch this year for a man they barely knew, but could have led them
10 minutes after meeting them. His vibrance was such that it’s
hard, walking into Dillon Gym, not to imagine him roaring around
the next corner, just like going into Frick Lab and immediately
expecting to hear Alyea’s explosions and song in Kresge Auditorium.
So I guess the essence of Princeton is Hubert Alyea
doing the Nassau Reaction on the bar at Reunions with Thomforde
singing along, VBK raising his own beaker in a toast, and Carril
telling him how to position his feet properly the next time.
What was the question again?
Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the
Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee
volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.