Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

December 14, 2005:

A multitasking Tiger
Asa S. Bushnell ’21 left his mark on Princeton and amateur athletics

As the young editor of a campus literary magazine, Asa S. Bushnell ’21 received a number of submissions from a recent alumnus, desperate to be published. Too racy, Bushnell decided, and he rejected them.

But turning down the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 was one of only a very few missteps in Bushnell’s long and memorable career. Fourth editor of PAW, first graduate manager of athletics (today’s athletic director), and founding director of what would become the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), Bushnell is enshrined in halls of fame, memorialized with numerous awards, and even has a building named after him. For that matter, he and Fitzgerald became good friends.

Born in 1900 to the son of the 40th governor of Ohio (also named Asa S. Bushnell), Bushnell thrived at Princeton. “Big shot and funnyman. Head of this and that. Member of the other. Editor of the Tiger. Done most for the class. Most original,” is the way a tribute in a 1937 PAW article described his undergraduate days. After graduation, he went home to Ohio, only to return to Princeton in 1925 when the Alumni Weekly needed a new editor. He brought with him his wife and young son, Asa Bushnell III, who 12 years later would be described by PAW as “the most upstanding roller-skater on Vandeventer Avenue,” and 22 years later would graduate from Princeton with the Class of 1947.

During his time at PAW, Bushnell “prettied up” the magazine and “made it more interesting,” according to the 1937 article, fulfilling his expressed hope that “in the thousands of widely scattered Princeton homes, the query, ‘Has the Weekly come yet?’ might be heard more regularly than, ‘What, is the Weekly here again?’ ”

After five years with the magazine, Bushnell moved full-time to the athletics department. He took on the job during a particularly tough time: the middle of the Depression. But the talented administrator not only managed to keep 42 Princeton teams afloat, he actually reduced the budget by $100,000 while improving many of the facilities. Palmer Stadium received a new fence, more box office windows, and a public address system.

One of the ongoing conflicts during his tenure at Princeton, however, was the alumni battle over football tickets. In the early 1930s, Princeton was a national power, and good tickets to the games were seen as something of a birthright by many alumni. Adapting the 1844 campaign slogan of James Polk, “54-40 or fight!” (referring to the disputed northwestern border with British Canada), alumni demanded “50-yard line or fight!” One cartoon of the day showed a Palmer Stadium with seats located only between the 40-yard lines. Indeed, the 1937 PAW reprinted a telegram to Bushnell reading: “WAS VERY DISAPPOINTED IN MY YALE TICKETS WHICH WERE IN THE FORTY-FOURTH ROW WORST SEATS EVER RECEIVED FOR YALE GAME HOPE THE DARTMOUTH TICKETS WILL BE BETTER.” It included a stadium map pointing to the offending seats – which, it should be noted, were in section 22, on the 50-yard line.

His son, Asa Bushnell III ’47, says that Bushnell II took the debate over tickets more or less in stride, but what did get him in a lather was the inevitable “loudmouth” fan at the games complaining about the officiating. According to his son, the elder Bushnell always carried a small rulebook with him for the express purpose of quieting the disgruntled.

In addition to keeping the peace in and around Palmer Stadium, one of Bushnell’s most significant accomplishments while at Princeton was the creation of the Princeton Invitational Track Meet. In the early 1930s, the country was wrapped up in the attempt at the four-minute mile, and one of the nation’s best runners was a Princeton undergraduate, Bill Bonthron ’34. At the close of Bonthron’s senior year, Bushnell staged the meet on the Saturday afternoon of Reunions, drawing 18,000 fans to watch Bonthron, Glenn Cunningham of Kansas, and Gene Venzke from Penn pound it out. Cunningham set a world record at 4:06.7. That fast start for the meet guaranteed its success, and in 1935 the meet pulled in more than $18,000 in pure profit – a number so impressive that Bushnell was charged with commercialism and had to drop the admission price from $1.10 to 15 cents in 1936, when the meet served as an Eastern regional trial for the 1936 Olympics. The invitational ran successfully until 1940, when war and declining interest caused it to fade away.

Though not an athlete himself, Bushnell had a passion for amateur athletics. Even while he was at Princeton he worked for other athletic organizations, including the U.S. Olympic Committee, with which he had a long association, serving on its board of directors from 1945 to 1970. It was early on, however, that he had one of his more memorable Olympic experiences: While on the ship that was carrying America’s team to the 1936 Berlin Games, Bushnell received the unenviable assignment of disciplining swimmer Eleanor Holm for drinking and breaking curfew.

The following year Bushnell received an offer he couldn’t refuse: the chance to head up a new athletic conference, a consortium of teams and leagues from up and down the East Coast. Originally called the Central Office of Eastern Intercollegiate Athletics, it would eventually become known as the Eastern College Athletic Conference. In his 32-year career at the ECAC, Bushnell would see it grow from a small affiliation of Eastern colleges to one of the dominant athletic associations in the country. Along the way, he served as lead negotiator for TV rights for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), paving the way for today’s megamillion-dollar deals (even in the 1960s, Notre Dame and Penn State wanted to be on every week), continued to work for the Olympics, and nurtured enough young talent that the ECAC named its most prestigious internships after him. The conference also named its Cape Cod headquarters in his honor. (There are many other Bushnell namesakes; the Ivy League’s best football player receives the annual Bushnell Cup, for example.)

When Bushnell died in 1975, it was the end of an incredibly productive life. Even in 1937, PAW called the “II” designation after his name apt: “The II. Two things at once. That’s his minimum when in action.” His children chose to remember him another way, though. When the opportunity came for them to buy a brick in Princeton’s Palmer Square in his honor, they engraved it with his name and two words: “Pure gentleman.”


Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu