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

April 23, 2008:

1963: The year things changed
In reacting to a pair of student escapades, modern Princeton was born

By Gregg Lange '70

Princeton has just announced a proposal to encourage and support admitted students in a "bridge" year – time off before matriculating to take a moment and (let's be blunt) air out their neurons. I certainly hope they do it sunning on the beach in Sydney or playing tag with kids in Kenya, not at the Sorbonne.

The pressures on youngsters these days to excel and ticket-punch long before puberty to gain even a glimmer of a shot at a college like Princeton is beyond scary, it's inhuman. Every time I sit down on behalf of the wonderful Schools Committee with a gleaming straight-A student who – I know in my heart – has essentially no chance at admission, I grieve not so much for her or me, but for a process gone nuts through no fault of Princeton's, mine, or hers. The 1,200 kids who survive this each year to gain admission certainly deserve a shot at something real, joyful, and spontaneous. If they don't get it, the pressure seems to leak out on campus sooner rather than later, reflected perhaps in binge-drinking, vandalism, self-mutilation, or whatever, and the dean will have to try to clean up a lifetime of suppressed Darwinian drives, and some clever psychology grad student will have a can't-miss dissertation. And none of them are happy.

Time was, with Houseparties imminent and the forsythia in bloom, it would be time again for a release of similar pent-up student energy. (In a glaring understatement, I would note this was more intense prior to coeducation. Duh.) As such traditions do, however – note the Nude Olympics – subtle escalations tended to accrete, and at last there came a point when the gleeful crossed over into the egregious, and Things Changed.

The last naively joyous spring escapade, not to mention one of the more complex, was the Great Train Robbery on May 3, 1963. Lovingly recounted in the pages of PAW (April 7, 2004) by Selden Edwards '63 about his senior year, it involved the rental of four horses from a local stable (is there a local stable anywhere near Princeton anymore?) on the Friday of Houseparties, the masked holdup of the Dinky after blocking the track with a car, firing of real handguns, forcible abduction of incoming dates, escape on horseback, and a triumphant ride through the campus. In the post-9/11 world such a "prank" would involve hard time, if not waterboarding of the perps. In the event, despite being known to essentially the entire campus and most of Mercer County and N.J. Transit, nobody was ever charged with anything. It really was seen by the "community" as good, clean – and admittedly creative – fun.

In contrast, the most blatant (i.e., not contained to campus) and mindlessly destructive spring riot of the post-World War II era happened on a Monday after Houseparties among hundreds of bored, randy undergrads beginning Reading Period. Recounted in PAW by William McWhirter '63 (May 24, 1963), they tore up campus, Nassau Street – a VW was lifted onto the sidewalk, its panicked occupants still inside – and the Westminster Choir College, damaging Prospect Garden and tearing down some of its fence, with President Robert Goheen '40 *48 and his family watching. Major newspapers and Time magazine gleefully pointed up the hooliganism; as Goheen noted, it "lacked even the excuse of a substantive cause." This referred directly to egregious timing: It was four days after the infamous Bull Connor jailed a huge batch of civil rights marchers, including hundreds of peaceful high school kids, after having them beaten up in Birmingham for trying to shop together. The contrast was shameful. Forty-seven Princeton students were suspended, 11 of them tossed out for a year, 13 of them convicted in court of various disturbing-the-peace violations. Even in an interview 41 years later, Goheen still seethed at the pettiness of the Princeton riot in contrast to the concurrent struggles of African-Americans.

The truly bizarre part of the tale is that these contrasting, almost bipolar, responses to the bubbling urges of springtime, the Great Train Robbery and the Riot of 1963, happened just three days apart. The disparity of reaction proved significant in the most literal sense: It was a sign. Many of us automatically think of the approval of coeducation on April 19, 1969, as the birth of modern Princeton. I wonder if it didn't really happen on May 6, 1963, when the quaint old Princeton confirmed its obliviousness to the modern world, and the Responsible Adults decided this would no longer work.

Within six months, Goheen was conducting a global search for the person who turned out to be Carl Fields (see my column of June 6, 2007), and Princeton's viable minority community was under way. The Patterson Committee and its case for coeducation, the Kelley Committee and its overhaul of University governance, Stevenson Hall and the University's presence on Prospect Street – all were conceived, built, and in place within six years, an instant in the terms of collegial change.

Which is all to the good, believe me. We're now talking the best undergrad education on the globe here.

But still, 19 is a frivolous age, and there is no more clapper stealing, no more Nude Olympics, no legal booze. It's not clear to me that college students now laugh very much on the way to what's almost left of Wall Street. Outward Bound and the Pre-rade and Cane Spree are fun, and the nosey middle-aged folks who run them make sure that's all they are. The town harasses the clubs; the RCAs are asked to rat on their charges.

This time of year, six months bumming around on the beach in Sydney sounds pretty good. 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.