March 27, 2002: On the Campus


A memorial brings history home, for a moment

By Abhi Raghunathan ’02

Photo: The commemorative book, designed in 1946 by architecture professor Jean Labatut, is held together by bolts surmounted with battlefield crosses.

The past is generally ignored within the Frist Campus Center, a building that honors technology and consumerism with its wide-screen TV, computer terminals, convenience store, movie theater, coffee shops, and U-Store outlet. But this shrine to the way we live these days — watching TV, checking e-mail, ingesting large amounts of caffeine — now also hosts a poignant monument to the past: a memorial book inscribed with the names of the hundreds of Princetonians who fought and died during World War II. Each page is inscribed with the name of a soldier. One page will be turned every day this year, the 60th anniversary of America’s first full year of fighting. On the day I looked at it, the page was turned to Howard Voyer Wade ’42, who died October 31, 1941, on the USS Reuben James, off Iceland.

The book sits in a wood and glass case on the same floor of Frist as the big-screen television and the coffee shop. In fact, it is midway between them. The placement of the book doesn’t give viewers much of a chance to ponder silently. The TV intrudes. Conversations bubble in the background. A steady murmur rises from the people eating in the cafeteria below. As a result, and in keeping with the normal pace of student lives — fast — most students pass by the display without looking closely at it.

Years before, just after the war ended, the book was briefly displayed in the foyer of Nassau Hall, resting beneath the inscribed names of the dead from other wars. I imagine that location offered everything Frist lacks: history, quiet, solitude.

But memorials are meant to be stumbled over, I think, rather than stowed away. I knew very little about Princeton before applying but I did know that it had a good amount of history, one thing that Tucker, Georgia, where I mostly grew up, lacked. Stores and people disappeared with regularity back home, the way they do in much of cluttered suburbia these days. Neighbors moved in and out. Retailers went bankrupt and others took their place. Apartments and homes went up. Roads kept getting paved over and expanded. The past existed only in the names of streets — and those names consisted of pretty shoddy and unexplained history. (I never did find out why a local road was named for Osceola, a Seminole chief whose tribe lived in Florida.)

I arrived here only to find that even on Princeton’s campus these days, the environment is in flux. Construction is everywhere. Dorms are being gutted, labs and classrooms erected, and a sixth residential college soon will be built. Walkways everywhere are in shambles. In my Cuyler dorm, I frequently wake up to the grind of machines and shouts of construction workers as they repair the paths below my window.

There’s something disturbing about waking up to the noise of change, even if the work is renovation. It makes you feel as the world you live in is collapsing every morning — the sounds of construction are indistinguishable from those of destruction.

And so I find it comforting to come across something as simple and thorough as a listing of names in Frist in this time of rebuilding. As a freshman, I remember being moved by the individual memorials to soldiers in the dorm rooms. The memorial book display in Frist seems to offer the same type of elegant linking of the past and the present. It is good to know these days that hundreds of students once rushed off to fight for their country simply because they believed in it. Tributes to the past are hard to come by when the world around you is being renovated.

Abhi Raghunathan (abhishek@princeton. edu) is a senior English major.

Liriel Higa ’02 on looking for a job in a soft market, now in On the Campus Online.

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