November 22, 2000

On the Campus

Me and Mr. McPhee
Academic celebrities are people too

I am embarrassed to say I took John McPhee '53's class freshman year to satisfy my writing requirement. I didn't really know who he was. I certainly didn't know he is one of the most famous writers in New Yorker history. I didn't know that he has his own entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I didn't know that many people preface his name with "Ohmigod."

On the other hand, Maurice Sendak, creator of Where the Wild Things Are and the Britannica entry after Sendai, Japan, has been a lifelong hero of mine. So when he came to campus I got to McCosh 50 half an hour early and waited anxiously for his arrival, imagining him in a wolf suit or at least wearing some crazy tie. Instead, he discreetly filed in with the rest of the crowd, proving his later point: "I'm never recognizable anywhere. I look like everyone looks in Brooklyn." Then he shook hands with Toni Morrison.

Dropping names has never been a strong suit of mine. But my point here is not that Princeton attracts impressive people, but that these people are normal, albeit talented, men and women. They come to Princeton to teach and share ideas just like everyone else does, not to inflate their generally modest egos. I have an advantage in having academic parents, so I already knew that professors, even the big shots, are human. I knew that professors get stomachaches and drive the soccer carpool and grocery shop. I'm sure even Alan Blinder, former vice chair of the Federal Reserve and my Econ 101 professor, has to take out the trash.

Professor Jason Morgan, a brilliant geophysicist who helped revolutionize plate tectonic theory in the 1960s, has a name that dropped jaws when I mentioned him in the St. Andrews geology department where I studied last year. He is a Princeton veteran. He is a field trip addict who accompanied my geology class to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He likes Jimmy Buffett. He drives the student van. He worked on a crossword puzzle with me on the airplane home, and three days later came up to me in the hall asking, "Have you got number 3 down yet?"

In my time at Princeton, I've attended in person the speeches of George Will *68 (who won my undying affection with a 1970s column on Simon and Garfunkel that I found on my parents' bookshelf), Martin Scorsese, and Ralph Nader '55. They were all as gracious and chatty as the numerous excellent speakers whose names I can't remember. I have also taken classes with less famous but equally fabulous professors, like Mike Lemonick, science writer at Time magazine, Tom Dannecker, architecture grad student and demiurge, and Deborah Nord, an English professor who spent patient hours helping me turn a love of novels and my pages of slush into a (sort of) readable essay.

Professor McPhee's course has been the highlight of my time at Princeton. Not only is he an inimitable and darn fine writer, he is one of the nicest and most gallant literary figures of our age. My mom is a big fan of John McPhee, and last year asked if she could meet him. With his singular grace, Professor McPhee said of course and welcomed us to his East Pyne office in early December. My mother, overly polite and very pink in the cheeks, asked him to sign The Survival of the Birchbark Canoe for her canoe-loving parents in Minnesota. Then this veteran crocheter of Christmas wreath ornaments for 17 years of schoolteachers handed him a tiny wrapped package. He opened it, smiled, and said honestly, "It's beautiful. It will be the first one on my tree."

Emily Johnson used to read the New Yorker just for the cartoons. Illustrator Henry Martin '48, a New Yorker legend in his own right, thinks that's just fine.

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