Class Notes - September 9, 1998

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Class notes features

Poet William Meredith '40 *47 earns National Book Award

After a devastating stroke, Meredith relearns a few words each year

A few days after Commencement in 1940, Allen Tate, the poet and critic who had taught Princeton's first creative writing class that year (for freshmen only) sat down and wrote a letter to the Senior Class Poet, William Meredith '40 *47. His was the best Class Poem he'd ever heard, Tate said, and he was sure Meredith's other poems must be good, too.

Meredith, who went to work as a copy boy at The New York Times, stayed in touch with Tate, and two years later, in 1942, Tate recommended Meredith to the poet Archibald MacLeish, who had just started the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets.

In 1944 MacLeish published Meredith's Love Letters from an Impossible Land, a collection of poems, most of which had been written in the Aleutians, where he was on duty with the Navy.

Meredith, who had obviously found his life's work, published a dozen books of poetry. Teaching provided a living, he once said, but his poetry was his credential for teaching. Crowning his career are the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1988 for Partial Accounts and the National Book Award in 1997 for Effort at Speech (Northwestern University Press).

Effort at Speech is a particularly poignant title, for Meredith suffered a severe stroke in 1983, which left him unable to speak or move. Several years of intense therapy brought back movement and some speech, but a visitor senses the immense horde of memory and ideas that are locked inside Meredith. "I'm getting better," he says. "I learn more words each year." If he lives long enough, the visitor says, then he'll have it all back. "Yes, if I can have 150 years."

Since the stroke, he has written no new poetry. His latest book, Effort at Speech, contains both previously published poems and some never before published. For the never-before-published ones, Meredith and poet Richard Harteis, his companion of 27 years, took poems drafted before the stroke and reworked them.


After the war, Meredith did graduate work for a year at Princeton, where he met Charles Shain '36 *49. Shain was married and living in graduate student housing on Harrison Street; he recalls how bachelors who came to parties in the barracks brought desserts, usually purchased from a bakery. But Meredith always brought his special pan and made crepes on the spot.

Meredith assisted Richard Blackmur, who had replaced Allen Tate in the creative writing program, every other year for a while, alternating with the poet John Berryman. In 1955, he began teaching at Connecticut College and bought a place near Uncasville, on the Thames River above New London. That's been his home ever since, except for temporary teaching stints elsewhere, including Princeton and Hawaii and two years as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.

He loved teaching. His students at Princeton were, he says, B plus, "but an interesting group of people." At Connecticut College, he taught two young people who became published writers--Michael Collier, a poet who now directs the writers workshop at Bread Loaf in Middlebury, Vermont, and the late Gayl Jones, an author of several novels and three volumes of poems. They got A pluses.

He recommended Charles Shain, his pal from graduate school, to Connecticut College, where Shain eventually became president. Connecticut College purchased Meredith's papers (housed in the Shain Library) and will honor him January 19 on his 80th birthday with a celebration that will feature commissioned works of art and music.


While Meredith was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, he began a number of innovative programs, including readings by poets from Israel and Mexico. An attache at the Bulgarian embassy, Krassin Himirsky, suggested he arrange a reading for Bulgarian poets. When Meredith invited the Bulgarian government to send three poets, they sent five.

Meredith held the reading and then arranged a tour of this country for the five poets. Bulgaria was so grateful that the country has showered honors and rewards on Meredith: its Nicola Vaptsarov Prize (named for a poet and Resistance fighter shot by a German firing squad); publication of a book of Meredith's poems in Bulgarian; and the use of a house in Serafimavo any time he wants it.

He is the the third William Meredith to graduate from Princeton; his father was '07, and his grandfather 1877.

--Ann Waldron

Harry Weber '64 sculpts baseball players for St. Louis Cardinals

The Princeton baseball career of Harry Weber '64 came to an inglorious end early in his freshman season when a wildly swung bat clipped the aspiring catcher, breaking every finger on his right hand. Thirty-seven years later, gnarled knuckles and all, Weber has made it to the majors--or at least his artwork has. A self-taught sculptor who lives in northeast Missouri, Weber has been commissioned by the St. Louis Cardinals to create a series of half-life-size bronze statues honoring the team's greatest players, which will stand outside the main gates of Busch Stadium.

The first in the series, a three-foot-high figure of Red Bird Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson toppling from the mound in the midst of his trademark follow-through, was unveiled in April. Stan "The Man" Musial was set to be installed on September 5, with Lou Brock and Red Schoendienst on deck for 1999. (Limited-edition smaller versions of the statues will also be sold, with proceeds going to charity.)

"Each of these ballplayers created their own signatures in action," says Weber, who was born and raised in St. Louis and spent many afternoons watching the Cardinals at old Sportsman's Park. "I wanted to capture those instants, especially for people who never saw them play."

A grandnephew of Frederick and William Weber, noted American Impressionists, Weber grew up with a pencil and sketchbook in his hands. "I have the color sense of a cinder block," he says cheerfully. "Shape and movement are what I see. That's why all of my sculptures come from sketches. You canıt pose action." At Princeton, Weber majored in English and took just "one teeny art course," but he became art editor and lead cartoonist for The Tiger. After a postgraduate hitch in the Navy that included a tour of duty on a gunboat in Vietnam, Weber says he "did what anybody with no earthly idea of what he wanted to do would do--I went into advertising." Within seven years he had his own agency. (He still consults for a few longtime clients.) A lifelong riding enthusiast--he and a few friends kept a horse at Princeton--he also found time to compete in amateur steeplechases and fox hunts. His wife, Anne, whom he married in 1985, is a national-class equestrienne; together they raise thoroughbreds on their 130-acre farm an hour's drive north of St. Louis.

It was through his riding that Weber earned his first commission as a sculptor. "It's a prohibitively expensive hobby," he says. "But one day somebody said they would actually pay me for a bronze casting of a fox hound." Since then he has received a steady stream of commissions, including a large war memorial that stands outside the Pike County courthouse in Missouri.

For the Cardinals job Weber eschewed the monumental in favor of a more modest scale, in which the action would be immediately accessible. The craftsmanship involved was nonetheless daunting. The Gibson sculpture, for example, which was produced after frame-by-frame analysis of hours of videotape, was cast in 17 pieces, then welded together around a stainless steel support. "There's 500 pounds of bronze hanging out over his ankle at a 47-degree angle," says Weber, who is quick to praise the team of artists and casters with whom he collaborates to produce his final pieces.

Already at work on Brock and Schoendienst, Weber recently received commissions from another pro sports team and a college athletic department. "I pinch myself every morning," he says. "As an artist, to be working and producing is what counts. It's a thrill to know that your art is reaching people."

And that they're reaching it as well. Taking in a game at Busch recently, the erstwhile catcher checked in on his bronze pitcher. "I noticed that the toe on Gibson's foot has already turned gold from kids rubbing it," says Weber. "Thatıs my reward."

--Richard O'Brien

Senator Bill Frist '74 rushes to help shooting victims in Capitol

On July 24, Senator Bill Frist '74, a cardiothoracic surgeon, played a key medical role after a gunman shot and killed two U.S. Capitol police officers in the Capitol. The suspect, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., was also shot and seriously wounded during the incident. Frist--who had worked with Capitol officials to design a response system for emergency incidents in the Capitol complex--came to the aid of officer Jacob Chestnut, who later died of his wounds, as well as Weston, whose survival to face murder charges probably owes much to Frist's actions.

It is not the first time Frist has been pressed into emergency duty. In 1995 he encountered a visitor from Tennessee who was suffering from cardiac arrest; Frist administered CPR, inserted a tube into his lung to assist his breathing, and used a defibrillator to restart his heart. According to news reports, Frist has also helped a lobbyist who had a heart attack and fellow Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., when she suffered an asthma attack.

The Tennessee Republican, a Harvard-trained heart-transplant surgeon, comes from a celebrated family of doctors. He took leave from a teaching post at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center to serve his first term in the Senate, to which he was elected in 1994.

The following are edited excerpts from Frist's July 27 briefing to reporters on the Capitol grounds.

--Louis Jacobson '92

I had just finished on the Senate floor, talking about the "Patient's Bill of Rights" legislation. I was the last speaker of the day, and I read the closing remarks. I went the usual way underground back to my Senate office at the Dirksen Building. I walked into the office, and while I was there, the television was on and my assistant said that something was happening at the Capitol. The picture was of schoolchildren coming out of the building, but I didn't know what it was. The Capitol physician's office called me as I was going out of my office toward my car. They said two people were down, but they were not sure what the cause was.

I was escorted in by guards. It was very orderly. I was ushered to the first victim. I did not know who that was, but I later learned it was Mr. Chestnut. A physician had already inserted a breathing tube, and at that point I helped escort and carry the stretcher to the ambulance. While I was in the ambulance, I spent several minutes there because Mr. Chestnut had gone into full cardiopulmonary arrest. CPR with chest compressions was resumed. We had three medics on board, and the number one thing you can do in that situation is get to the hospital.

At that junction I was notified that two other individuals were still in the Capitol. One of those victims had a massive chest trauma, and as a thoracic surgeon, I was directed to that individual. That was Mr. Weston. At the time, I did not know he was the alleged gunman, and in truth, you as a physcian try to focus on resuscitation. People have said, "If you knew that, would things have changed?" And the answer is, "No." As a physician, you're trained to focus, and that's what you do year after year. You're not a judge; you're not a jury. You're a physician, and you're trained to take care of the airway and the heart and hemorrhages and do it expeditiously, within seconds.

I helped carry the stretcher to the ambulance. I was primarily responsible for maintaining the airways for him to continue to breathe. We took him to the hospital. There was a massive hemorrhage from his left lower extremity, the femoral arterial region. He also had massive trauma to his right upper extremity and to his chest, all of which required emergency treatment. Walking into the trauma unit, I made a one-minute report, and at that point I backed off and the doctors there took over his care.

Our interaction I am not at liberty to talk about because of the pending criminal case. Officer Chestnut, as has been reported, had a severe wound to the head. I can state that to the best of my clinical experience, there was very little chance of survival from that severe a head wound. He probably died a very painless death. With Mr. Weston, I talked to him, which is an important part of what we do. I said you will be OK, to be reassuring. I talked to him throughout.

The victims and their families are the object of our prayers. As a U.S. Senator, as one of the 535 people that these officers are on the line for every day, it gives me a special sense of loss. We all need to continue to express sympathy to those families and those children and spouses and extended families. It's an act that none of us can fully understand.

April Oliver '83 continues work on Operation Tailwind

Fired coproducer of CNN program asserts worth of her work

When April Oliver '83 was a senior casting about for a thesis topic, she became fascinated by the plight of refugees from the war in Afghanistan. Rather than hit the books, she persuaded the Wilson School to pay her way to the refugee camps just outside the war zone.

"That was an eye-opening experience that changed my world view," says Oliver, who would go on to a career in TV news that culminated this summer in her greatest achievement--an exclusive story alleging U.S. use of nerve gas in the Vietnam War--and her consequent dip in the acid bath of instant notoriety.

Of her experience in the Afghan refugee camps, she says, "I went in thinking that the Soviet Union was the evil empire, and I came out with questions about the U.S. role in this. That was my first exposure to this covert world of intrigue."

Oliver was hooked. She would go on to work for Hodding Carter '57's documentary series on the news media and for public TV's MacNeil-Lehrer Report, where she booked guests and produced segments on everything from the rise of China to the crisis in Somalia.

But after she had her first child, she was eager to travel less, make more money, and keep a decent distance from war zones. When CNN came calling, Oliver was ready to try her hand at commercial TV. She would end up at CNN's special assignment unit, the elite projects squad that did more ambitious work than the daily grind of fleshing out wire stories.

There, she launched work as coproducer on the story of a lifetime: the possibility that in a secret 1970 Vietnam War operation in Laos, the United States had used sarin gas--on its own defectors. "This was about breaking a major story that was going to change the way we viewed history," Oliver says.

But 14 months later, when the story, "Valley of Death," aired as part of the premiere of CNN's new prime-time offering, instead of changing history or generating buzz, the tale of Operation Tailwind became one more scandal in a season of media misdeeds.

The Pentagon, veterans groups, and intelligence experts denounced the story. CNN, which broadcast the story in collaboration with its corporate cousin, Time magazine, commissioned an outside investigation and concluded that the story "cannot be sustained." CNN and Time apologized for and retracted the piece. CNN founder Ted Turner called it the worst moment of his life and grandiosely offered to commit "mass suicide." Oliver and coproducer Jack Smith were fired; on-air reporter Peter Arnett was not.

Oliver and Smith fought back, writing their own report and appearing on every radio and TV show that would have them, accusing their bosses of caving in to military and political pressure.

"As a journalist, I felt an obligation to get the facts on the table," Oliver said in a pause between radio talk shows. Although she was nine months pregnant, she felt she had no choice but to defend her reputation and her reporting. "If somebody could show me one fact I got wrong, I would skulk away, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says, in a gaseous cloud of shame."

Oliver has been hailed in some corners as a brave sentinel of the truth, a scrappy reporter willing to connect the dots and face the uncomfortable possibility that the United States did exactly what it preaches no nation must ever do: use poison gas.

But the more overwhelming reaction to Oliver's work has been dismay and disbelief that one of the nation's largest media corporations would sponsor a report that appeared not to be nailed down, that may in fact not have been true. Critics said Oliver found some interesting facts--victims of some kind of gassing, veterans who saw something strange--but had jumped to a conclusion simply not supported by evidence.

If so, Oliver says, her editors should have flagged the flaws in the story. Instead, she says, they egged her on, loving the story for its juiciness and exclusivity.

She is painfully, visibly frustrated by the reaction and by accusations of liberal bias ("I worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980," she protests.) She's been breaking out in hives ever since the controversy broke.

Oliver believes she has been scapegoated. "After eight months of research, having had a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff carefully read the scripts before air and give it a complete go, having had two confidential sources give us a check-off, we get hit with this raising-of-the-bar syndrome: 'You should have had a document proving it.' We weren't writing a legal brief. This is journalism."

"It's a black operation," she adds, referring to Tailwind. "Different people were told different things."

Despite the slashing she's taken in the press, despite her disappointment with colleagues who have assumed her guilty of something, despite personal attacks, Oliver not only stands by her story, she's working to take it deeper. She has new sources, she says, and new leads. All she lacks is an employer. "Vindication may not be swift," she says, "but in a democracy, you can't keep a lid on this stuff forever."

--Marc Fisher '80
Marc Fisher is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

Service Points: Corporate kids

Four years ago, when Dale Caldwell '82, national director of recruiting at Deloitte & Touche in New Brunswick, New Jersey, noticed that very few underprivileged children saw the inside of corporate America, he founded Operation Education. The organization's chief endeavor is School-to-Work-Day, an expanded version of the national Take Your Daughters to Work Day. He convinced his company to invite dozens of underprivileged middle school kids from Newark and Jersey City for a day of interactive exposure to audit, tax, and management consulting.

Through Caldwell's efforts, and those of large corporate participants, the program has expanded to 90 cities in 10 countries. "Now there's a demand for accounting classes in inner-city schools near here," notes Caldwell.

Caldwell is also the treasurer of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Academy in Ewing, New Jersey, the first public, random-enrollment boarding school in the nation. Another of his projects is the Urban Boarding School Fund, which raises money for public boarding-schools. His latest effort is the Residential After School Program, which hopes to provide weekday housing and meals to students who need a safe environment in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

An economics major at Princeton, Caldwell grew up in Harlem. His father, a minister, worked for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Operation Education, Inc., P.O. Box 793, New Brunswick, NJ 08903, 732-296-6361.)

--Kazz Regelman '89