Going Back!

Me and my sophomore roommates Bruce, Joel and Jon. Photo by Katharine Swibold

Booker T.: Reunion Time

During the first weekend in June, I celebrated my 35th Princeton Reunion.  It was, possibly, the best one I’ve been to, and not just because the weather was incredible,  with mostly cool, clear weather instead of the usual heat, rain and humidity that is common in central New Jersey during this time of year.  I know that many Princetonians believe that anything related to our alma mater is the best, but our reunions are special–I’ve never met anyone from another school who speaks as passionately about their reunion as we Tigers do about ours.

Toward the end of my freshman year at Princeton, an upperclassman in the marching band asked me if I wanted to stay for Reunions.  Not being a townie, or the child of an alum, or having access to the yet-to-be-invented YouTube, I had no idea what that meant.  I understood that colleges had reunions, but I had no clue what Princeton’s Reunions entailed.  It was quite an eye-opener.  And, I got to hear Jean Shepherd for the first time.

There are a few things that set Princeton Reunions apart from others. First, while most schools invite back alumni from 5 year anniversary classes, Princeton not only invites, but encourages, every alumnus to come back every year.  The “major” reunion classes act as hosts for two older and two younger “satellite” classes, who can attend the events for free (other than meals).  From our standpoint, this allows you to retain connections with friends who are older and younger than you, and not just limit your “reuning” to your classmates.  Also, Princeton encourages us to bring back our significant others and children for the revelry. This broad attendance at Reunions cements the relationship between the graduates and the University, presumably resulting in increased contributions.

Second, we all wear costumes, in various combinations of orange and black.  For each major reunion, your class chooses a theme, and everyone gets a costume.  My class has worn pith helmets, dressed like the Flintstones (with legendary “Butt Furr” shorts), and like federal agents (as a homage to classmate David Duchovny’s X Files).  At your 25th reunion, you get a blazer, and my class went over the top with a harlequin pattern, for a Mardi Gras theme, which you can see above.  After that, you still have a theme, but the swag is less.  Other classes have, over the years, worn lederhosen, pirate costumes, baseball and soccer uniforms, disco outfits, Star Trek and Star Wars outfits, chef’s garb, cowboy costumes, and many other strange themes.  My freshman year, the 25th reunion class of 1954 wore kimonos with large conical straw hats, which blew my 18 year old mind, and would probably not be considered appropriate today (there was a kerfuffle this year about the Star Wars themed class’ early concept of Imperial Stormtrooper outfits, which was dropped after protest).  In a piece I posted elsewhere a few years ago, I linked to pictures of Bill Bradley ’65, James Baker ’52, George Schultz ’42 and Brooke Shields ’87 in costume.  It may well be that the wearing of costumes helps to break down the usual social divisions, and probably inhibitions.

Third, most every courtyard on campus is blocked off with wooden fences (where do they store them?) to serve as headquarters.  On Friday and Saturday night (and sometimes Thursday), the major reunion classes provide entertainment, usually bands, sometimes DJs, for parties that run until the wee hours, and are open to everyone, so that often you are partying with seniors, recent graduates, and older alumni.  Most classes hire cover or party bands, but occasionally a class will raise additional money for a name band–this year, the 30th reunion class brought Duran Duran and the 25th reunion class had Naughty By Nature.  Other recent big names include Joan Jett, Jon Bon Jovi, Creedence, Kool & The Gang, and the touring version of the Beach Boys.  Ten years ago, my class brought in Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. Each party is fueled by large quantities of beer and other liquor, now monitored through a wristband system.  This year, our class opted for cover bands, and on Saturday, we had the Right On Band, an incredibly fun 70’s party band that has been a regular at Reunions, including our 30th.  Sitting in with them for much of their set was virtuoso guitarist Stanley Jordan ’81.  I was amused to see one of the greatest musicians I know playing the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” while at least one MacArthur “genius award” recipient boogied hard in orange and black.

Fourth, during the day, the campus is filled with meetings, speeches, performances, and presentations, and more than two dozen “Alumni Faculty Forums” on topics ranging from Astrophysics (featuring my classmate David Spergel), water use, books, career reinvention (with classmate Anatoly Belilovsky), technology (featuring classmate Julio Gomez),  privacy (featuring my classmate Bob Blakley), education, China (with my classmate Sara Judge), LGBTQ and gender issues (featuring classmate David Huebner), the business of sports, climate change (featuring classmate Steve Colwell), economics, and race (featuring classmate Sharon Fairley).  Not surprisingly, there was one about “fake news” in which my classmate Lisa Belkin confronted Andrew Napolitano ’72, who works for one of the most prominent fake news organizations (it was fun watching him try to weasel out of answering her questions), and a forum of reporters moderated by my former roommate Joel Achenbach, of the Washington Post, about other journalism issues.  And there was another about the state of politics, featuring classmate John Bellinger, a former Bush administration official, who detailed the many failings of the current president.  This allows you to rationalize the partying, because, you know, it is an educational weekend.

Finally (there are more, but I have other things I want to write about), there’s a long “P-Rade” in which each class marches, for the most part in reverse chronological order.  This year, the P-Rade featured a 102 year-old man walking the entire course, all sorts of bands, a guy on a unicycle, mummers, a human centipede, and Ted Cruz ’92 (supposedly voted by the graduating class as most hated Princeton alum), walking separately from the rest of his classmates.  The P-Rade is an incredible experience, as you start by watching your future, and end by reliving your past.  Critically, I usually am able to get a beer handed to me by a young alum somewhere after the 10th reunion class.

So, I attended three reunions as a student, one as a graduating senior, every major reunion since graduation and many off-year ones, at least in part, because I have always lived close enough to make it convenient (there was a stretch when my youth soccer obligations conflicted with a few off-year reunions, and I think we passed on a couple because of bad weather or other reasons).

As you can tell, I love Reunions.  And my experience has changed significantly over the years.  For a long time, I spent virtually all of my time hanging out with my college friends, catching up and watching our kids play together.  But as time went on, I found myself spending time with different people, often people that I barely knew, or didn’t know at all in college.  Part of that was simply practical–the number of classmates that show up for off-year reunions is relatively small, so often my closest friends weren’t there (and sometimes they didn’t make the major ones).  Then, Facebook entered the scene, and I found myself engaging with even more classmates, which led to face-to-face relationship on campus.

But much of my new found willingness to broaden my social circle at Reunions simply came from the fact that as we all got older, our similarities began to outweigh our differences.  In college, our social lives were often determined by the teams or organizations that we were members of, which, if any, eating club we joined and who our roommates were.  Much of that seems to have fallen away, as we have had to deal with careers, usually children, and more recently, our own aging issues and losing parents and siblings.  My kids, who have continued to attend the occasional reunion as their schedules permit, are amused by what they call “Reunions Dad,” a way more genial guy than regular dad.  Thanks to articles posted on Facebook, I’ve come to learn that I’m an introvert, but the kind of introvert that can, if necessary, turn on some social skills, although it isn’t easy.

As proud as I was to be a member of my class, at no time, until very recently, had I considered doing any volunteering for it, or Princeton.  My parents will admit that they didn’t really instill it in me, and it took a push from my wife before I agreed to do soccer volunteer work, which resulted in two decades of mostly fulfilling service to AYSO.  She, on the other hand, has always been an active volunteer for Smith College and her class.   A few years ago, though, I decided to volunteer to help with our 30th reunion, in part because it seemed like fun, and in part because it would guarantee on-campus housing (pluses–cheaper, and no driving after drinking, or waiting for shuttle buses in the early morning hours; minuses–dorm beds, and the risk of no air conditioning and shared bathrooms).  I got a small job, handled it, came to Reunions, stayed on campus, and had a great time.  At about the same time, I returned to doing alumni interviews of prospective students.

Brief digression–I am a bad dancer.  I don’t enjoy dancing, and I don’t look good doing it.  At the 30th, it was late, and I had been drinking at least the appropriate amount for the event.  My wife had tired and returned to the room, and my 22 year-old son and I were sipping beer and watching the Right On Band play to a packed dance floor of revelers ranging from teenagers to members of classes even older than us.  My classmate and neighbor Jenny grabbed my arm and pulled me onto the dance floor.  Her daughter, a senior the same age as my son, and some of her friends, pulled my son into the writhing crowd.  I danced, and since then, I have danced with my wife at Reunions, which I now feel is a safe place for me to look like an uncoordinated idiot, so thanks, Jenny, and beer.  It hasn’t translated into similar comfort at other events yet, and I still am very bad at it, but there is some personal growth there.  We will see how this plays out at my son’s wedding next year, the weekend after Reunions…..

Since the 30th, I began to make some solicitations for Annual Giving, initially due to a strange Foo Fighters-related deal I made with my friend Heather, who is one of our class AG leaders, but also because I believed in the cause.  As a result of this, and my tiny role on the 30th reunion team, I started getting invited to various leadership and volunteer events on campus, which gave me time to spend time with my class officers and other volunteers. My blogging activity led me to consider trying to become class secretary, which would give me yet another writing outlet–our class notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Ultimately, I agreed to take on the role of reunion treasurer, a job that isn’t really in my wheelhouse, but needed to be done.  For the first time, I started to see how the sausage is made, and learned the constraints we were under and all of the decisions that had to be made to balance wanting to have a great weekend with not wanting to price it out of the comfort zone of many of our classmates.  It also gave me more contact with my fellow committee members, a good number of whom I had zero relationship with.  During one of the committee conference calls, I offered to prepare an iPod playlist to be used as background music when we didn’t have live music playing.  Unlike when I was a WPRB DJ focusing on playing less mainstream music and not trying to appeal to the bulk of the student audience, I created a 1200 song list that included a fair number of requests from classmates and focused on music that most of us grew up on, with heavy representation of songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and I cut the playlist off around 1985.  I expected that it would be played in the background, and no one would notice.

Then, something really cool happened.  An African-American classmate, David Campt, was working on a presentation and asked about the playlist.  I sent him the list, with the clear caveat that it was put together by a “suburban white guy.”  David, who has made a career of fostering dialogues, praised the list, but suggested that it could use more, as he delicately put it, “non-rock” songs.  I agreed, and David put out a call on our class Facebook page for requests, many of which already were included.  As a result, the playlist was increased by about 130 additional soul, funk, disco and R&B songs.  This also led to my having a number of interactions, first online, and later in person at the reunion, with a bunch of African-American classmates who I had previously had little or no contact with.  It also highlighted the playlist to all of the classmates in the Facebook group, which got me all sorts of positive feedback.  Because it was a damn good playlist, and even better after being augmented.

As Reunions treasurer, I showed up early on Thursday, before virtually any of my classmates and friends arrived. After helping a little with setup (our Reunions chair and hard-working student crew had handled almost everything), and attending a class officer lunch, my wife and I spend most of the rest of the day hanging out in the headquarters, day drinking and schmoozing with the early arrivals.  Reunions Jordan was in full effect, and I had a number of interesting conversations with new and old friends.  By our slightly-fancier-than-other-meals class dinner on Friday night, though, enough classmates had arrived so that people started to fall back into their undergraduate friend groups–although my table included mostly my close college friends, it also included a classmate who I had never spoken with before that weekend.  And while I spent some time during the weekend addressing administrative issues–paying the bands and other vendors, helping resolve registration issues, dealing with port-a-potty problems–I just enjoyed myself talking, learning, dancing and drinking.

By brunch on Sunday, we were exhausted, but exhilarated.  We came home, passed out, and over the next few days, I spent hours on our class Facebook page, swapping likes and comments on pictures, discussing the fun, addressing a few complaints, and reliving the weekend.  This has continued, to a smaller degree, even though we are now more than three weekends later.  I’m still paying bills and sending in bank deposits, though.

The next 5 years should be fun.  I was chosen class secretary in an unopposed election, and I’ve started planning my first class notes column, while also editing the class website and taking a more active role as an administrator of the class Facebook page.  I have every intention of joining my friends in the class of 1983 for their 35th next year, although it is unlikely that the weather will be as good, but they have booked the Right On Band for one night, so there will be dancing.

Our featured song is “Reunion Time,” by the great Booker T., from his 2009 album, Potato Hole.  Booker T. is backed on this album by one of my favorite bands, Drive-By Truckers, and features Neil Young on guitar.  Beyond the appropriate title, I’ll make a stretch, and point out that, like my playlist, it is a fusion of classic rock and African-American music.


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4 Responses to Going Back!

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