Feature: November 27, 1996


Princeton pulls out all stops in celebrating Charter Day

By Kathryn F. Greenwood

Give Princeton credit-it knows how to throw a birthday party. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of its charter, the university showcased some of the best it has to offer, from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison to writer John A. McPhee '53 and guitarist Stanley Jordan '81, who with other Princetonians took part in the Charter Day festivities during the weekend of October 25-27. Some 15,000 alumni, faculty, students, staff, and townspeople gathered at Old Nassau to wish it well. Dorothy L. Bedford '78, executive director of the 250th, and Burton G. Malkiel *64, chairman of the 250th steering committee, did a yeoman's job of pulling together the three-day, three-years-in-the-planning celebration filled with lectures and symposia, musical and dramatic performances, movies, dancing, tours, art exhibits, and concerts.
Mother Nature cooperated throughout the weekend. At the convocation, held in front of Nassau Hall on Friday, October 25 (three days after the actual anniversary of the signing of the charter, which occurred on October 22, 1746), leaves fell gently throughout the ceremony while the sun streamed through trees resplendent in red and yellow foliage. Neil L. Rudenstine '56 and Richard C. Levin, the respective presidents of Harvard and Yale, were on hand to deliver salutations from their universities. Rudenstine, a former provost of Princeton, lauded his alma mater for its contribution to scholarship and teaching and its dedication to service-"accomplished," he noted, "against nearly insuperable odds," given that one of Princeton's founders was a graduate of Harvard and the other six had gone to Yale.
In his remarks, President Shapiro announced the unveiling of an engraved stone, at the intersection of the walkways in front of Nassau Hall, dedicated to alumni for their devotion to the university's mission of education, scholarship, and service. Bordering the plaque (photo, page 19) is the inscription, "In the Nation's Service, in the Service of All Nations." Another legacy of the 250th, Shapiro announced, is the creation of a Center for Community Service. The center, which will bring under one roof the university's various service organizations, will probably be located in the planned campus center.
Gracing the convocation were readings of the original work of three poets: "Desterrado, Late 1960s," by Reginald Gibbons '69; "Campus in Autumn," by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, a professor of English at Rutgers; and "Speakers," by James Richardson '71, a professor of English. The featured speaker was Toni Morrison, a professor in the humanities and the 1993 Nobel laureate in literature. Her address, titled "The Place of the Idea; the Idea of the Place," praised Princeton for respecting tradition while embracing change. (For the complete text of Morrison's address, see pages 14-16.)
The convocation was just the beginning of the weekend's activities. After the singing of "Old Nassau" ended the ceremonies, the crowd broke up and spread to various venues. On Cannon Green, celebrants filled up on orange and black popcorn while admiring a large ice sculpture of Nassau Hall. The 10-by-15-foot creation, by the Garden State Ice Carving Team, stood almost 13 feet high when constructed earlier that morning, but by late afternoon the warm fall sun had toppled its cupola. In the East Pyne courtyard, a Punch-and-Judy show dazzled kids. Elsewhere on the campus, strollers sampled a variety of musical genres: a Latin jazz band, a reggae band, and pop star Sheryl Crow, who attracted the largest and rowdiest crowd to her stage near Blair Arch.
As dusk settled on the campus, a crowd gathered around Nassau Hall for its illumination-a tradition dating from 1768 and the arrival of President John Witherspoon from Scotland. Clasping flashlights with fiberoptic attachments glowing orange and white, participants followed a fife-and-drum corps down to Poe and Pardee fields to ogle a massive birthday cake (made of wood, but with real brownies and cookies arranged on it for eating). Topping the evening was a spectacular light-and-sound show put on by Garden State Fireworks, the folks who wowed viewers with a similar display at Reunions last June.
Throughout the weekend, guests could choose from a variety of performances: a Glee Club Football Concert, the original silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, a concert by pianist Robert Taub '77, and The Tiger Roars, the Triangle Club's salute to the 250th, with President Shapiro chiming a triangle to start the show. Reprising Triangle classics, the review skewered various staples of campus life: exams, coeducation, dating, drinking, precepts, and the honor code. On Saturday night, the Tigertones celebrated their 50th anniversary by hosting "A Tribute to the Performing Arts" in a packed Alexander Hall. The evening featured Ruth Gerson '92, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who plays folk-acoustic rock; New Image, a New York City a cappella singing group, whose members include Gregory Burton '90, Kris Keys '89, and Michael McCoy '89; and guitarist Stanley Jordan.
Throughout the weekend, the Garden Theater on Nassau Street offered showings of Jimmy Stewart '32's Philadelphia Story, Anatomy of a Murder, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, as well as Princeton: Images of a University, a two-hour film directed by Gerardo Puglia and commissioned by the 250th Committee. At Firestone Library, an exhibit titled "Out of Tensions, Progress: Princeton as University" documented the many changes to Princeton over the last century, while "Commemorating Old Nassau: Princeton University Anniversary Celebrations, 1846-1996," an exhibit at the Princeton Historical Society, focused on previous anniversary galas (the exhibits run through mid-1997).
Symposia on campus dealt with issues ranging from student culture to astrophysics to teaching ethics. John McPhee, the Ferris Professor of Journalism, read vignettes from his works; "From Bears to Basketball: Glimpses of 'Six Princetons' " included deftly drawn sketches of Bill Bradley '65, Pete Carril, and Thomas Hoving '53 *60, among other Tiger notables. In the final academic event of the weekend, Cornel R. West *80, a professor at Harvard and a former director of the Afro-American studies program at Princeton, and Michael Walzer, a political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study, spoke at a symposium on "Prophesy and Social Criticism." West explored the social critic as prophet, examining intellectuals whose work focuses on the pervasive forms of evil in the hearts of each of us.
Although Charter Weekend marked the apex of the 18-month-long bicenquinquagenary celebration, there's more to come. Bedford and company have planned a full schedule of conferences, art exhibits, and other events for the balance of the academic year, culminating with Reunions and the 250th Commencement, on June 3, 1997.