Monday, October 1, 2007


Getting to physics in the morning hasn't gotten old yet. Walking to class is special when you're a freshman, special when it's Whitman you're passing through, the freshman of residential colleges, so distinguished by the accompaniment of heavy machinery, the anxious chatter of aching drills. Whitman's South Courtyard seems different every time I go through it, because there's always something new that's under construction there. What's more, the war zone is not fenced off like it is in New Butler, but direct, in your path, so that you walk among the clouds of stone-dust, ducking awkwardly around trucks and carts and people wielding clipboards.

(This picture is a little outdated.)

Today, I saw a bright blue crane, lifting construction workers up to the sky. A few mornings ago, it was huge tent poles for the barbecue; when I walked back in the afternoon, the gigantic sheets they were pulling over the framework was already shading the grass below. On the very first day, there was this guy crouched by the entrance to Hargadon Hall, engraving something in beautifully serifed letters. Idly, I wondered what words of wisdom were to be carved into that polished marble, what famous quote, what inspiring phrase.

It was done by the following day, and it said: Y E S !

"...Yes?" I asked myself. "Yes what? Yes, you have found Whitman college? Yes, we finally finished this damn building? Yes, I will go out with you?? Is it a new system of multiple choice testing - stand here if the answer is yes, sprint down to Jadwin if you think it's no?" Puzzled though I was, I walked over the word frequently in the next few days, feeling a slight rush of affirmation each time I went by. "YES!, your life is on the right track! YES!, after reading this message, you are infused with joy! YES!, there will be tacos today at lunch!"

I didn't feel that any of these was the answer, though there were indeed tacos at lunch, and it got to the point where I absolutely had to look it up. Google pulled through in the end, of course: Fred Hargadon, dean of admissions at Princeton for 15 years, retired in 2003.
Hargadon has long been a national leader in the field of college admissions. He is known for the personal attention he pays to each application and for his active engagement in the life of the campus, including frequent attendance at cultural and athletic events. He also is regarded as a gifted communicator and is legendary in the field of admissions for his acceptance letters that begin with the single word, "YES!"
Mystery solved. YES.

Just about every building at Princeton is named after someone, most of them dead. In the University Chapel, the pews have dedications on the back, In Memory of So-and-So. I wonder if these old names mean anything to anyone anymore. I wonder how many people know Dean Mathey's first name, or remember FitzRandolph's face. I wonder if anyone reads the names of labs and theaters and libraries and thinks, "That Harvey Firestone, what a guy!" or "Man, I sure miss that Tommy McCarter..."

Is there really any point to being remembered as some name, meaningless and dimensionless, if everything else about you will be forgotten? I think, rather than having some building named after me, some street, some gate - if there is a single memorable word I utter in my life, even just one, I'd like to be remembered for that.


Martha Vega said...

Yes, apparently the single word "YES!" defined the Princeton admission process for a whole slew of Princeton students. Sadly I am not among them, probably for the worse. Certainly, I suppose that it made Princeton more mundane from the beginning. How did my acceptance letter begin? I dunno...

As to naming buildings: I suppose it's something of an ego thing. You love Princeton, and you have more money than you know what to do with... Why not give it to Princeton? And, while you're at it, why don't you get a building named after you? It's one way of achieving immortality once you realize that being a CEO is chump change compared to being Emperor of the French. Until your building becomes obsolete of course. At that point a newer, younger alum with more money than s/he knows what to do with can come along and buy immortality at a price.

But that's the problem with wanting immortality and greatness in the first place. You never really know how you'll go down in the history books or who will come after you and black out your name, and if it's true that Fortune favors the bold, so does the chopper.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Dean Mathey's first name Dean?