First Person: December 25, 1996

The 250th convocation recalls other Princeton days with Dad


My six-year-old daughter has put her head on my lap, two programs for the Charter Day convocation serving as her pillow. The warm October sun and the rise and fall of voices from the podium 100 yards away, in front of Nassau Hall, have put her to sleep. My 10-year-old son amuses himself by crushing leaves.
Jay and Annie are not impressed with thoughts of Princeton in the next millennium. They are tolerating the constriction of the convocation because they've been promised great treats: free Cokes, a Sheryl Crow concert, fireworks. That's the Princeton they know. The fun Princeton. The place where they come to scream during football games, to play frisbee in Little Courtyard during Reunions, to visit the dinosaur in Guyot Hall after hamburgers and french fries at PJ's Pancake House. They're not interested in big numbers like 250, or that 90 years ago my grandfather, Class of 1910, first came to Princeton as a student, or that 80 years ago my father, Class of 1939, was born; or even that, 30 years after my graduation, my son might just be arriving here. They don't care that they are part of a continuum, not only the public continuum, but a family continuum as well.
But I care. I listen to the speakers recalling memories, colonial and current, and I ache for the memories that I don't have of Princeton. For, though my grandfather and father were here before me, they were both gone by the time I arrived in the fall of 1970. My grandfather had died when I was seven years old. I hadn't anticipated sharing Princeton with him, but I had anticipated sharing it with my father.
I remember seeing on my father's desk the envelope, stamped and ready for the mail, in which he had expressed his favor of coeducation. I remember sorting through the application forms with him. I remember his delight when I had been accepted. Materials started arriving at our house-the course catalogue, The Daily Princetonian, the calendar with the dates of football games, Parents' Weekend, Alumni Day. So many chances to be at Princeton together. Further down the years, we would celebrate major Reunions together, 1939 and 1974.
Two weeks after my high-school graduation, my father died of a heart attack.
In fact, my father and I were together on the campus only twice. The first time was for my older brother's graduation, in 1967. A family photograph shows us all lined up at the bottom of the Blair Arch steps. Standing wedged between my mother and my younger sister, I am wearing a boxy beige suit that my mother thought appropriate for a short, skinny 14yearold girl to wear to a college graduation. My bangs are in my eyes and, though I am smiling, I look a bit impatient. At the other end of the group, next to my brother in his cap and gown, stands my father, beaming.
The second time that my father and I were on campus was two years later-when he brought me for my interview. That, too, was an afternoon in October. The day was raw. A cold drizzle had been falling, and I felt damp and disoriented. My father wouldn't come into the admission office, but waited outside for me. He said it was important that I do this on my own. I sat trying not to gnaw at my thumbnail until a young man collected me and took me back to a cell furnished with a desk and two chairs. He looked down at my folder, looked up at me, and said with a barely concealed sneer, "So . . . I see you're a legacy." I felt on the defensive. Afterward, I told my father that the interview hadn't gone well and I wondered, "What's so bad about being a legacy?"
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. "It's good to be a legacy. The interviewer probably just had a rotten day, and he said the wrong thing."
We ruled out an Orange Key tour. The drizzle had turned to rain, and we had a long drive. Anyway, we would have plenty of time for him to show me around the campus if I got accepted.
We didn't have plenty of time. And so my lasting memory of my father at Princeton is like an old photograph. In that late afternoon permeated by shades of gray-the lowering clouds, the stone buildings, the gravel edging the walks around Cannon Green-in front of Clio, in his gray overcoat, my father stands under an orangeandblack umbrella. He smiles when he sees me come out of West College.
Now I brush a yellow leaf from my daughter's face as the gold autumn light brings out the amber of Nassau Hall on this day of celebrating a five-times golden anniversary, and I realize that my father has shared Princeton with me. His classmate Fred Fox, the late Keeper of Princetoniana, kept an eye on me during my four years as a student, inviting me for homecooked meals at his house on Vandeventer Street. As recently as a few years ago, his roommate Walter Lord wrote to me, enclosing a photograph of my father as a member of the 150pound football team. And during the Prade my heart pounds and my throat catches as the Class of 1939 goes by: these men knew my father, and something of my father's Princeton life still lives with them.
The interviewer 27 years ago did say the wrong thing, but not quite in the way my father had meant. I am not the legacy. Princeton is the legacy my father left to me.
I hear Reginald Gibbons '69 read the last lines of his poem commissioned for the 250th, ". . . my father's hand, / which had come from some remote labor to clasp my hand as I had said goodbye." I never got to clasp my father's hand to say goodbye, but I remember my father's hand on my shoulder on that other October afternoon.
Yes, it's good to be a legacy.
M. Kathryn Taylor '74, a writer and teacher, lives in Media, Pennsylvania.