Princeton hardly noticed us at the time, and I don’t think we made it into any official histories. But in the late fall of sophomore year, thirty members of our class made a decision that was to change Princeton fundamentally: we declined to bicker and joined Wilson Lodge. The residential-college system and the diversification of Prospect Street followed slowly but directly from our action.
Not that we were activists. In fact, some of us were eventually scared out of the place by the installation of officers and other signs of advanced civilization. But our ragtag group - proto-hippies, grinds, mathematicians, solid citizens and a few actual intellectuals - did prove that upperclassmen could eat and breathe at Princeton without Prospect Street.
It was activism, I suppose, that started the whole thing. During freshman year, a handful of bicker rejects had to wait on the back porch of Ivy Club while the Inter-Club Council considered their fate. The scene drew the scrutiny of the Princetonian and the outside press; it was still part of the conversation the next fall when Paul Edwards, Eddie Weisband, Pete Bear, Doug Greer, Gil Rose, and a few others started exploring the idea that red-blooded boys might survive Princeton without the clubs.
I missed the earliest meetings. I wasn’t yet part of the lunatic fringe. In fact, I had hopes of sneaking into Cottage on the coattails of a good friend whose entry was assured. (He ended up joining me at the Lodge). When one of my roommates, Phil Ross, tried to get up a scouting party to attend an open-house at the Lodge, the rest of us laughed a lot. But we did stop in after dinner because the Lodge was right next to Commons, at the corner of Nassau Street and University Place.
The vaulted, Gothic dining room was dour; the lounge looked like some People’s republic’s idea of coziness. But the talk was enthralling. Within an hour, Wilson Lodge was a credible alternative to the clubs. Within a few days, I signed up and never looked back.
There were two great surprises that sold the place. First, the founders, far from being likely bicker rejects, were bright, attractive, articulate, witty guys. It was exciting and fun to be in a room with them. Princeton, of course, had plenty of other impressive people running around; but the second surprise was not so common, at least among the people I had known till then: these were guys to whom ideas were important. Oh, we had plenty of insane times, drunken times, self-destructive times. We also had more than our share of delinquent students; several of my best friends didn’t graduate But what made those early days great, I think, was the intellectual energy that suffused even the least intellectual discussions.
Ideas were more real to most of us than, say, future careers or what appeared in the newspapers. Our 1 was not about business or jobs or social contacts - even about politics. It was largely about life and how to live it. The talk was often melodramatic, sophomoric, arrogant and illogical; I’m sure some us talkers irritated the more studious and mature, especially those who arrived for early breakfast to find the tables strewn with saltine wrappers and coffee slop or - worse - strewn with us, still holding forth. But, while allowing for all the silliness of youth and the sentiment of retrospect, I think it was great talk. It was a serious, personal exploration of the ideas introduced in literature and history and philosophy.
But though we had an intellectual tilt, it would be completely wrong to suggest that we were of one type. A little taxonomy is in order:
Rejects: The casualties of the previous year’s bicker were there because they had no place else to go. Of course some turned out to be among the most interesting if not most graceful people at Princeton, a broadening discovery for the more provincial among us.
Proto-hippies: Too smart for the Beatniks but too beat for gainful study, this class included a few precocious drug-testers and a number of dedicated Chianti-drinkers who liked dropping off to the rare voice of Frank Janney and his folk blues guitar. They disdained all organization as the nemesis spiritual fulfillment.
The restless: There were some who, for personal rather than spiritual reasons couldn’t toe the line. They haunted the place all night and slept in the public rooms by day. Some specialized in enigmatic talk; some in billiards; some in high-stakes poker, after which the winners took the losers to a sunrise breakfast of grits and eggs at Mr. Griggs’ workmen’s restaurant (now a gas station).
Solid citizens: These were guys you could take any- where. They just couldn’t get up for bicker. Jack Daniels remembers talking to a friend from Tiger and concluding: “I didn’t like the whole thing; they put people out in the cold.” A fellow Chicagoan, Earl Shapiro, swears Jack joined so he could go visit his girlfriend (now wife) rather than hang around for bicker. Jack says he, Skip Kessler, Matt Wilcox and Eric Doten signed up simply because they didn’t want to bother with bicker. In any case, they were part of the solid center - cheerful, civilized, always able to add thought or humor to any discussion.
Non-groupable: There were also a few poets, fundamentalist Christians, African students, and scholars who were (they said) learning a language just to read a single author - say Kierkegaard or Dante. And some were organizers.
Since the organizers found themselves amid so much disorder, they discovered that they could easily work their will. Junior year, they pirated Bob Telander (the Tiger) from Quadrangle and installed him as “president.” To some of us, this was like bringing in the Chamber of Commerce to organize a hippie commune. Soon there were meetings, speeches, and regular sessions with the faculty. Soon, too, the original crowd began to disperse.
Some flunked out. Some quit school. Frank Janney, both a Proto-hippie and a solid citizen, decided that our revolution had become dull and joined Cottage. In senior year, Phil Ross, Zack Schaye, Dan Bryant and I stopped taking meals there. We thought there were too many normal people; we ate in town. But, we continued to use the people’s republican lounges when they were free of organized activities. Wilson Lodge had become a duller place, but the experiment had worked. A nonselective place to eat and socialize was staying in business. It had become, in effect, a club. The early fervor was gone, but we had demonstrated that selective and nonselective social worlds could co-exist without contention.
The following year, the University began construction of Wilson College. Twenty-two years later, my daughter was assigned there - routinely. A year after that, she joined a club.
-- Sam Segal, '61 --