Web Exclusives: PawPlus

September 14, 2005:

Returning to the Fold

By Stewart A. Levin ’75

May 26, 2005, was the first Princeton reunion I have ever attended. Per my strongly worded request 30 years ago, I had been coded “No Contact” by the University until a few months ago. Having completed my A.B. in mathematics requirements, I left campus several days before graduation, swearing never to look back. And never to send Princeton any money, either. So what changed my mind?

The short answer: “Deceased,” more than 40 times over. However, as Reunions are an ideal time to reflect, let me travel back in time …

Incredibly, in 1971 I was accepted to Princeton, the first person from my quiet suburban school district in over 20 years to attend a top-ranked Ivy League school. But there was no financial aid at all from Princeton: I assume I must have been a big gamble, with that district not having a track record at Princeton. Thanks to an IBM-funded National Merit finalist scholarship and a sizable chunk of my father’s employee stock accumulation at that company, my parents, raised in the Jewish tradition that education is all-important, decided they could afford to send me.

So off to college I went, moving into Holder Hall with three other roommates who, despite my smoking habit, made me welcome. Both of my parents were heavy smokers; how my roommates put up with me, over two packs a day, I’ll never know. My bicycle was stolen within the first two weeks, my wallet, with all of two bucks in it, less than a month later. I hoofed it the rest of the four years, saving my small allowance for ciggies, late-night purchases from the roving Bagel Man, hoagies, and, more rarely, Iron City beer, André Cold Duck or Mateus Rose from a liquor store on Nassau Street.

Like nearly everybody who attends Princeton, I was initially staggered by how much more capable some of my classmates were than I, however easily math and science came to me in high school. My first freshman honors mathematics course consisted primarily of a private conversation between the instructor from the Institute for Advanced Study and a couple of Bronx High School of Science geniuses in a higher math lingo foreign to the rest of us. Fortunately, I got determined, not depressed, and assiduously studied the textbook the week before midterms. I earned an A in that class and most others I took for grades, and settled into a regimen of challenging and rewarding coursework, able and willing to spend 10 hours at a time solving just one problem in my math homework. I once turned in an 80-page attempt to calculate a result for a sophomore physics problem, albeit having made a key mistake on page 15. Afflicted with typical math/science nerd diffidence and limited social graces, I never did get particularly close to my classmates, though I did have generally cordial relations with my immediate circle of friends and was always willing to lend a hand with tough homework problems.

To this day I treasure the rare privilege I had in my Princeton education, with enthusiastic world-class research professors genuinely interested in teaching. I also recall the simple pleasures such as caroling around campus in December (singing several in Latin, no less) and ice skating all over the campus during a rare winter-break ice storm. And the unforgettable Nude Olympics (though I was far too shy to participate) and the huge discarded furniture bonfires in Holder Hall courtyard, not to mention the coed bathroom in the basement!

Junior year was, as for most of us, time to buckle down and pursue a major. I opted for math rather than physics, deciding, rightly, that taking physics in the math department was going to be less onerous than taking math in the physics department. I moved down to the New New Quad to be as close to Fine and Jadwin halls as possible, where nearly all my courses were held. It was a productive and quiet year, discounting the psych major on our floor who spent much of the time talking loudly to himself.

Senior year was not quiet and I found it difficult to be productive: a very noisy and ungentlemanly junior across the hall; waking up one night in a bed of broken glass, my window having been smashed with a cue ball; theft of my stereo; a week in the infirmary with mono-like symptoms; my Dad getting a stroke and dying at the age of 54 – due, in my mind, to his failure to seek surgical treatment of a long-standing circulatory condition in order to save money for his kids’ education; and no one in the Princeton support staff raising a finger to help, assist, or comfort me.

My senior-year experiences were much more than enough to sour me on Princeton. I finished my A.B. requirements and left campus as soon as the paperwork was complete. No P-rade, no graduation ceremony, no tearful last good-byes. I just hopped the bus home, headed out to Stanford that fall and didn’t look back. The only Princetonian I have had repeated contact with over all the intervening years is the guy across the hall who left after the first semester of our freshman year. Both he and I ended up in the field of exploration geophysics.

So, enough emotional baggage. Back to the original theme: Why did I relent on my no-contact position and recently get involved with the Princeton alumni groups?

The Internet provided the first link in the chain of changing circumstances. My Stanford training and professional career included early, practical use of networking, email, and, later, the fledgling Internet. Using that connectivity, I discovered in the mid-90s that Princeton provided all alumni a free lifetime email account – no membership dues or other strings attached. Needing, already, an email account free from spammers, I signed up on TigerNet, still suppressing all directory listing of contact info, and used that alumni account for close friends and family only. Princeton, too, did its part by strictly adhering to my privacy requests and not bombarding me with “important announcements” and Annual Giving solicitations.

My son’s entering his junior year in high school was the next link. All too soon we were faced with the PSAT/SAT, college rankings and choices, campus visits, and selection criteria. I found that the process was eerily similar to what I went through, but the competition was even tougher. This process prodded me to reflect on my own experiences, both good and bad, in my attempt to balance my personal views against what might well be best for my son. It also prodded me to look up the local Rocky Mountain Princeton Club, where I attended a lecture by a Woody Woo emeritus professor on “what we should look for in a president.” Later that summer, I joined the recently-revived traditional hike to the 14,197-foot summit of Mt. Princeton near Buena Vista, Colo., and my son acquired the first-to-the-top orange and black T-shirt.

Sept. 11, 2001, forged the final link in the chain. Its aftermath was a time for introspective reflection by so many Americans, and I was no exception. What legacy would I be leaving for my family, friends, and colleagues if I were suddenly gone? What would I remember most if one of them went? What did I remember most about those who had gone? Life went on, but my own age and mortality were no longer abstract concepts.

Brooding on this shortly before the second anniversary of 9/11, I pulled up the TigerNet list of ’75 classmates to see what names I might still remember. A small number did ring a bell; most did not. But one in particular did strike me: Jane Palmer, Deceased. She, as many of her fellow classmates will attest, was indeed one of those very special people who made life a better experience for almost everyone around her. Then, visiting the ’75 class pages in the online Princeton Alumni Weekly, I found more “Deceased.” Dozens of them (44 as of this year’s class reunion memorial service) – none of whom, like my father, I would ever see again. That was when I came to the belated realization that it was the talented, smart, and warm people I knew who were fundamentally important, and not any University staff actions or inactions. Furthermore, I simultaneously discovered, I couldn’t remember the name of even one of the people at Princeton who had caused me grief, even with a class roster in front of me.

With that final self-discovery, I made a first-ever donation to Princeton, in Jane’s memory. My son, without any prodding on my part, applied to Princeton that fall, though, sadly, he didn’t get accepted (this year he is entering his junior year at Northwestern). But there are very few Princeton alumni, Class of ’75 excepted of course, who can truly say with confidence that they would be accepted if they were applying today. I took the disappointment philosophically, writing to PAW in response to a debate on legacy admissions: “What saddens me most is that he may never experience the same rigor and depth of learning that I had at Princeton. That, looking back some 25-plus years, is what I value most about my Princeton experience and something I dearly wish I could have shared with my son. It is truly something that only a legacy parent could really appreciate…”

I’ve always taken to heart the venerable maxim that you only get out as much as you put in, so, in the summer of 2004, I stepped into the void created when our previous Mt. Princeton hike leaders relocated to the West Coast, and organized and led the – I trust – now-annual event. I’m now treasurer of the Rocky Mountain Princeton Club; I’m still learning the ropes, but enjoying the experience.

This year I also signed up for the alumni education offering, “Let’s Eat: Food in Contemporary American Culture” – a fascinating subject, with readings covering topics as far back as Victorian Era anorexia, an active email discussion group with widely varying viewpoints and backgrounds, and the freedom to participate as much or as little as one likes without the pressure of grades. I seem to have attained at least 10 seconds of fame by transcribing a 1905 Little Cook Book for a Little Girl my wife has in her collection into electronic format for the enjoyment of the class. (It has been submitted to Project Gutenberg on the Internet, in case anyone else wants a copy.)

Coming full circle, I arrived at this year’s 30th reunion, my first-ever. To help get into the swing of things, I pitched in, preparing fun “diplomas” of recognition for the many volunteers who worked behind the scenes to make it all happen, put together a busy spreadsheet of events to attend during the reunion and, with two exceptions, made it to all of them and more – especially the moving memorial service. I was quite overwhelmed by the reception and acceptance this “prodigal son” received at the reunion, quite often by classmates I had never known as an undergraduate. I’ll be back.

One striking statistic I learned at Reunions was that nearly three-quarters of my former classmates are inactive in the Princeton alumni community. As the gentle reader who has stuck with me to the end will appreciate, I deeply respect the numerous reasons for this, but I would urge all of them – correction, all of us – to take a few moments to reflect back on the great education they got at Princeton, the incredible people they knew there, and the compelling opportunities for friendship, learning and growth that are available through the various Princeton alumni organizations and activities. Life is all too short.

Please, don’t wait 30 years. Enjoy!

Stewart A. Levin ’75 lives in Centennial, Colo.