Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

March 22, 2006:

Wearing many hats
B. Franklin Bunn 1907 was a Princeton fixture – on and off campus

He “probably knew, and was known by, more members of the University than any other Princetonian” in the 20th century, wrote Alexander Leitch in A Princeton Companion. “His popularity on the campus carried over into the community at large: In his time no citizen was better known than he.”

His name was Benjamin Franklin Bunn 1907, and his celebrity came from the many roles he played on campus, from manager and treasurer of student groups from Triangle to The Daily Princetonian to timer at athletic contests to manager of McCarter Theatre. 

His popularity, however, stemmed from his daytime job: As manager of the University Store, called the Univee in those days, it was Bunn’s pleasant duty to hand out the rebate checks to students once a year. The recipients praised him in one Faculty Song: “Oh Bacon Bunn, you crafty guy,/ Your finger is in every pie,/ But once a year you do relent,/ And give us back our 10 percent.” (A bacon bun was a favorite offering from a campus hangout, the Balt.)

Bunn was an untraditional Princeton student in the days before there was such a description. He was born in 1875 on a farm in Pennsylvania. After grammar school, he helped out on the farm, occasionally teaching some classes at a local school. As a young adult, he decided that he would like to become a teacher, and upon the advice of the principal of his school (a Harvard man) Bunn enrolled at Phillips Exeter. He was 25 years old.

By 1903 he was ready for college, and this time the advice from his Exeter principal was to head back south to Princeton, where “a coming young man” named Woodrow Wilson 1879 had just been named president. To cover his expenses, he landed a part-time position with the University Book Store, which at the time was run by undergraduates as a for-profit business.

When he graduated in 1907 at age 32, the store ­ a one-room operation in West College ­ had become a cooperative venture, and Bunn was offered a full-time position as a clerk. He took it, expecting to leave in a few years to pursue his teaching career. But just a year later, founding manager Robert C. McNamara 1903 left, and Bunn agreed to take his place, at the salary of $125 a month. He would run the store for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1947.

Through the years he earned many nicknames from the undergraduates he advised, including the aforementioned “Bacon Bunn,” as well as “Uncle Frank,” “Bunny,” and “Mr. Princeton.”  He managed the Triangle Club for 50 years, from 1908 to 1958, and subsequently ran McCarter Theatre. He kept the official time at football and basketball games and track and swim meets (one biography says that he personally restored the trophy cases in Dillon Gym after they were destroyed by fire in 1944). He advised The Daily Princetonian and the Tiger, and was active in the leadership of his own Princeton class. 

His energy on campus was matched by his activities in town. In his 1971 obituary, the Princeton Packet recorded, “From 1914, when he was appointed to the borough board of health, until 1966, when he retired from the township planning board, Mr. Bunn was almost continuously in public service.” He served as mayor in both Princeton borough (1927-1929) and Princeton township (1940-1950), the only person ever to have done so. He was a founding trustee of Westminster Choir College and a trustee of the First Presbyterian Church, Princeton Hospital, the YMCA, and the Community Fund.

Bunn was, appropriately, also the motivator behind the consummate symbol of town-gown relations. In 1956, at the prompting of Dean of the Faculty J. Douglas Brown ’19, Bunn proposed that the town present a gift to the University in recognition of the interdependence of the two. The town committee, which he led, commissioned a ceremonial mace, which was presented to the University in 1956 upon the bicentennial of Nassau Hall. It has been carried in every academic procession since. When not in use, it occupies a prominent trophy case in Nassau Hall.

Of all the awards Bunn received in his lifetime ­ many student organizations, including the men’s basketball team, have awards named in his memory ­ Bunn was most proud of the honorary degree Princeton bestowed upon him in 1947, the University’s bicentennial. No doubt he also would have been thrilled by the tributes paid to him upon his death in 1971 at the age of 96. Triangle members gave a special performance, called “One Hour More for Uncle Ben” ­ based on a wildly popular song from the 1921-1922 show ­ where members including Josh Logan ’31 and Jimmy Stewart ’32 sang songs and shared memories.

In a 1980 issue of the Recollector, an erstwhile local Princeton history monthly, one alumnus wrote this of Bunn: “Mr. Bunn tried to play the role of tough businessman when confronted by students, but he loved us all and had a heart of gold. … No one on campus, I suspect, was more deeply respected and more affectionately loved. I last saw Uncle Ben in the early ’70s. He no longer recognized anyone. I believe he died soon after. But I would be deeply grieved if I thought memory of him died then also.”

Special thanks to Jeanette Cafaro of the Princeton Historical Society for her help.

Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu