Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)


June 9, 2004:

Seniors: Getting ready for life
And looking at the past

On April 23, senior class president Eli Goldsmith sent out an e-mail announcing: “As graduation draws closer, the Class of 2004 government acknowledges that there are very few chances left to be exposed to Princeton’s distinguished faculty. Furthermore, we concede that as we all enter the real world, there are also certain functional skills that might have eluded us while living in the Princeton bubble. Thus, we present to you...the Class of 2004 Minicourse!”

The minicourses, 90-minute lectures conducted by Princeton luminaries, covered a wide range of topics. In addition to academic talks — genetic research by President Tilghman, ethical obligations by Peter Singer, the Scopes “Monkey” Trial by Robert George —there were more practical courses on beer and wine tasting, the secrets to apartment hunting in New York City, and tai chi.

For many seniors, the main attraction was Director of Dining Services Stu Orefice’s limited enrollment minicourse on food preparation. With all due respect to Mr. Orefice, the two years I spent in Butler College as an obligatory patron of Wu Dining Hall — and in one memorable instance, being warned by a dining services employee that not under any circumstances should I take the chicken filet—were enough to know that food preparation is an art I should learn elsewhere.

The big draw for me, and apparently for many other seniors, for this minicourse was limited enrollment and filled up immediately, was one on Princetoniana led by University Archivist Dan Linke. On May 6, Linke gave 20 seniors a hands-on look at documents and memorabilia from the collections of the Seely G. Mudd Manuscript Library. The minicourse was an opportunity to eavesdrop on history, the parchment-and-sepia-daguerreotype equivalent of the hidden gargoyles and forgotten quotations on the campus’s gothic buildings, the little details that make you feel as if you have discovered a Princeton all your own. There is magnificence in such things, the kind of voyeuristic allure that draws students to pore over private correspondence and old photographs and to imagine what university life was like for their Princeton classmates of yore.

At the Mudd, Linke ushered the seniors into a room occupied by a big table. In front of every chair was an intriguing box or leather tome containing materials from the archives or from public policy collections. Seniors jockeyed to determine the most promising artifacts and to take the chairs in front of them, but Linke assured us that once “senior show-and-tell” had ended, we would be allowed to rotate seats.

Yewlin Chee ’04 found herself in front of a cardboard box labeled “tobacco.” Inside was an engraved silver cigarette case that had belonged to Hobey Baker ’14, a letterman in three sports and World War I hero who died when his plane’s engine failed during his first postwar jaunt.

Christina Mester ’04 was the lucky one. She had chosen the chair in front of the most coveted item: John F. Kennedy’s file. Contained within was Kennedy’s Princeton application, a handwritten page on which he had noted, “To be a Princeton man is indeed an admirable distinction.” (Linke said that after pulling out for a year’s sick leave and applying to Harvard, Kennedy resubmitted the same essay, substituting “Harvard” for ‘Princeton.) On the application, a high school professor of Kennedy’s had written, “Ability, but immature and does not work hard.”

There were papers from John Foster Dulles ’08, who served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state. Included was a speech about the spread of communism that Dulles had sent to Eisenhower for proofreading, as well as Eisenhower’s gracious response that he had made only one or two minor corrections. Closer examination revealed that Dulles’s speech was blanketed in penciled addenda and suggestions.

“Do your papers look like that when you get them back from your professors?” Linke asked.

“Our professors don’t read our papers,” I said.

There was a scrapbook from 1871 that included a pair of cuffs that a wily student had used as cheat sheets for his junior year logic exam. The handwriting was so small and cramped that it was difficult to see how the cuffs had proved any value to him at all, other than as a souvenir of those heady pre-Honor Code days.

There was a yearbook with a picture of Donald Rumsfeld ’54. “Wow, he’s actually kind of attractive,” the girl examining it said.

There were two senior theses: George Pratt Shultz ’42’s “The Agricultural Program of the Tennessee Valley Authority,” and Brooke Christa Shields ’87’s “The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, “Pretty Baby” and “Lacombe Lucien.” Shield’s thesis, an opus of 106 pages, was signed on the last page — in green pen — in a big, loopy movie star style.

The seniors were mesmerized by the artifacts. Kennedy’s application and transcript got the most attention, but the letters Woodrow Wilson 1879 had written to his future wife, Ellen Axson, proved unexpectedly popular. Wilson was a prolific and earnest letter writer. In one epistle he expressed hope that Ellen would not be too surprised to find in her post a collection of “twenty closely-written pages,” an effort that had given poor Woodrow “throbbing orbs that refuse all use.” “I must indulge them with absolute rest for about twenty-four hours,” Wilson wrote plaintively. In perhaps what was the late 19th-century equivalent of audaciously placing a hand on a girl’s thigh, he told Ellen that in future correspondence, “I’d like you to use the name ‘Woodrow.’ ”


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu