Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70

March 5, 2008:


Butch van Breda Kolff '45, right, with Art Hyland '63 (PAW: Jan. 18, 1963)

Capturing the essence of Princeton
Lucky accidents, great discoveries, and the VBK mind

By Gregg Lange ’70

Being of somewhat verbose tendency (you’ve noticed, you say?), I try to better myself in idle moments by devising succinct answers to complicated questions, like “What’s the difference between dark matter and dark energy?” (Answer: “You can’t trip over dark energy.”) But I must admit, there’s one hypothetical query I’ve always found troublesome: “What’s an event that shows the real Princeton?”

Like any vibrant educational enterprise, Princeton is more of a buffet than an entrée. The many elements that contribute range from the Nassoons to the WMAP satellite to Pulitzer prizes to Dante, and it’s very tough to combine them in a single occasion. Reunions are too frivolous, the 250th Convocation too formal, the Princetonian too, uh, Prince-y. I have progressed to the point, however, that I’m happy to defend two events of my experience, in combination, as a fair representation of Old Nassau.

The first is the magnificent closing pyrotechnic lecture of Professor Hubert Alyea ’24 *28. Known ex post facto as “Dr. Boom” – I don’t recall anyone ever using the term while he was still actively giving the lecture – his hour of chemistry and sophistry was a primer in educational theory, beauty, humor, doggerel, and constant bedazzlement at the world around us, a paean to the joy of learning. His thesis was there’s something new around every corner, that serendipity is the great spice of life, and that you’d be well advised to know it when you see it. Hence the title of the lecture-cum-floorshow: “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind.” It is a great credit to the chemistry department that its faculty still keeps elements of the lecture alive for Reunions; a few more bad puns and dancing would help, but some of these are people on a tenure track, so I guess we have to cut them a little slack.

The famous “Nassau Reaction” in which Alyea’s humble lab beaker turned various colors on cue to his warbling of “The Orange and the Black” actually approaches a single answer to my imaginary challenge of embodying Princeton, but in all good conscience I don’t think it can be encapsulated in any lecture hall, regardless of the magic of the teacher and eagerness of the pupils. So we need to turn to something less curricular in a quest for a complete portrait, less planned and more, well, serendipitous.

So I’m standing at the bar at Reunions, and down the way in animated conversation are Butch van Breda Kolff ’45, Pete Carril and Chris Thomforde ’69. This has the efficient advantage of being not only the setup for a joke (“A Wookkiee, an Ewok, and a Klingon walk into a bar….”) but the punchline as well. The idea that three such diverse folks would ever get on the same page, much less travel a goodly distance to get together at a social event, is outlandish. Thomforde, the Nation’s Tallest College President and captain of the 1969 basketball team that was the first to go undefeated in the Ivy League, is a straight shooter and ordained minister whose sweetness of personality is as evident here as it was on his Sports Illustrated cover photo in 1967. On this occasion this places him in the minority. Carril, famously described as Don Quixote disguised as Sancho Panza, is constantly making a serious point about something – maybe Thomforde’s drink (milk?), maybe his own (not), maybe Dante, maybe the Middle East – and is clearly agonized by it. And VBK is roaring with laughter. Always. There have been looks of bemused concern crossing van Breda Kolff’s face for eight or 10 seconds, but rarely longer. He has his own personal listing in A Princeton Companion under “ebullience.” These three disparates currently have the appearance of having spent the last 40 years together, hugging.

In a way, they have. Van Breda Kolff, learning much of his basketball from Cappy Cappon at Princeton, taught Carril at Lafayette, and they both taught Thomforde at Princeton. That was just for warmups. Carril also taught John Thompson III ’88, Joe Scott ’87, Sydney Johnson ’97, and (in high school, followed by VBK at Princeton) Gary Walters ’67, who taught Bill Carmody, who was then Carril’s assistant for 14 years. Princeton’s men’s basketball program has, quite literally, now been in place for 70 years. Half of that, including 617 wins, came under VBK and Carril.

After celebrating his 40th anniversary with the 1965 Final Four team three years back, van Breda Kolff died in 2007; the men’s basketball team is rightfully wearing a “VBK” patch this year for a man they barely knew, but could have led them 10 minutes after meeting them. His vibrance was such that it’s hard, walking into Dillon Gym, not to imagine him roaring around the next corner, just like going into Frick Lab and immediately expecting to hear Alyea’s explosions and song in Kresge Auditorium.

So I guess the essence of Princeton is Hubert Alyea doing the Nassau Reaction on the bar at Reunions with Thomforde singing along, VBK raising his own beaker in a toast, and Carril telling him how to position his feet properly the next time.

What was the question again? P

Lange '70Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.