While four-year residential colleges are now spoken of as a novel development, Wilson College did, in fact, come into existence when it evolved from a University-sponsored dining society into a four-year residential college. In the early 1970’s, Wilson College served as an alternative to the eating clubs for nonconformists and enjoyed enthusiastic participation in its activities by upperclassmen and underclassmen alike, providing a rare degree of social interaction between all classes.
College activities were proposed and planned by student committees, usually led by an upperclassman, but with participation from all four years. There was a weekly film program curated by one of the students in response to requests. Then there was a time that the CCCP (College Committee on Construction and Planning) materialized and, with fire escapes recently removed from Brown Hall, some pumpkins, a TV stand and a black drape constructed an altar for the initiation ceremony of Envy Club. (This being the 1970’s, the initiation included taking a toke from a joint, rather than chugging vodka or gin, as well as the singing of a club anthem, of course.) There were college-sponsored parties in Wilcox Hall most weekends and mid-week beer-keg study-breaks in individual suites many Wednesdays. (I still have a handsome Indiana Jones style hat that someone left in my suite at one of them.)
When one of the weekend dances featured a country music band, college master John Fleming, distinguished medieval scholar and good ol' boy from Arkansas, decided to call a square dance. The University Library's six million volumes were of no help, but he did find a book in the Princeton Public Library to get him started; it was a noble first effort. When a group of Wilson College residents went caroling one December, we all ended in the Fleming living room on University Place, gathered around Joan Fleming at her piano, sight-reading unfamiliar songs from the Oxford Book of Carols.
There was also a faculty fellows program in which faculty members were welcomed at lunch tables with the students and joined in at wine and cheese receptions. (This was at a time when the University served alcohol to underage students under the principle of “in loco parentis,” Latin for your parents must be crazy to trust you off on your own.) Leroy "Peewee" Bolden, who was custodian for 1938 Hall (and together with whom I performed as a singing waiter in a community production of "Mame" at McCarter Theater) taught an evening class in bar tending for Wilson residents.
The coffee house in the basement of Wilcox had its walls “artistically” painted by college members during a party dedicated to the occasion. A Robert Crumb knockoff of a character “truckin’” (also the name of an immensely popular Grateful Dead song of the time) on one wall gave it the name “Truck Stop Coffee House,” which it retained long after the walls were painted bare white the next year. A young playwright in residence named Jim Magnuson lived in one of the resident advisor suites in Wilson; some of his plays were produced on a stage in the Truck Stop under stage lights I constructed from soup cans.
The lounge area at the top of the stairs was originally furnished with comfortable vinyl-covered couches which suffered from heavy wear. The Wilson College administration, working with the University Physical Planning department led by John Hlafter, replaced them with rugged built-ins of contoured plywood covered in carpeting on which no one chose to sit. At the same time, a multi-surfaced, four-sided bulletin board was introduced into the upper entryway. It rapidly became covered and over-covered with posters; in a naming contest, it was dubbed "Chaosk the Kiosk." Inconsiderate individuals (of whom there were many) would often staple their organization's posters right over current posters of other groups. A fellow Wilsonite and I independently appointed ourselves keepers of the kiosk (his term was "resident anal retentive") and would vengefully discard these postings along with stale posters and duplicate postings that hogged precious space on the kiosk.
Because operating the smaller dining room in Wilcox Hall was less efficient than for the massed dining halls of Commons, the University initially charged a higher board rate for college residents. This did come with better service, however. Trays were not used at dinner – each table was set by student workers with a paper placemat, flatware and a heavy glass goblet. During homecoming weekend, the atmosphere was enhanced by candlelight and steak. After a few years, this approach was abandoned and college residents were charged the same board rate as up-campus students. (Each table also had its own milk carton. Unfortunately, some of the student staff would consolidate their contents when cleaning up, thus carrying older spoiling milk over into the fresher milk. The introduction of a more institutional milk dispenser outside the kitchen was a merciful change.) In addition to the recycling of milk, sometimes unclaimed deserts got kept on for too many days. On one occasion, I playfully used my knife to tap my fork into a slice of hardened layer cake as Alex Randall '73 snapped photos of the event. He then placed the result of my effort on a spare pedestal in the upper lobby and labeled it as a work of modern sculpture executed by me under the patronage of Dormitory and Food Services.
Julian Street library mostly served as a quiet study refuge and reference library, but also had books that could be borrowed. It was staffed part-time by students, thus its desk had a sign that cautioned "Notice: A librarian must be present to check out books," which had been amended to add "however, books need not be present to check out librarian."
Once the University built kitchenettes in the up-campus dorms and allowed upperclassmen to go independent – no meal contract or eating club – upperclass interest in Wilson waned and it became increasingly populated by underclassmen who were less dedicated to contributing to its programs than to scoping out a future club. When a formal residential college program was established for all underclassmen, Wilson College became one of its two-year colleges with a more structured role in counseling and academics.
I’ve provided a few photos of Wilson College in its all-classes prime, taken my freshman year. Some were printed in the Wilson College darkroom in the basement of Wilcox Hall.
-- Daniel E. Ungar, Class of 1974, 2010 May 26 --