By Pam Hersh
May 30, 2015, was the last time I ran into – or more accurately, looked way up to – Bill Bradley, Princeton University (PU) Class of ’65. The former U.S. senator and renowned Princeton basketball legend was on campus five years ago to celebrate his 50th PU reunion. The first time I met him was in 1964, when I was a 5’0” freshman at Douglass College and he was a 6’5” junior at Princeton. I was hoping for the opportunity to look up at him again, as he celebrated his 55th reunion this year. But that is not going to happen. Minuscule COVID-19 virus, packing a giant punch, has felled the 2020 Princeton University Reunions.
“While we will miss this opportunity to gather with generations of Princetonians and family members for our flagship alumni event, we have determined that convening 25,000 people on campus for a large-scale, celebratory event — particularly one that relies on the dedication of hundreds of student employees and countless alumni volunteers — is not possible or prudent at this time,” the university’s reserved announcement said.
As a non-alumna with no familial connection to Princeton University, I am perplexed why the news about Reunions cancellation felt like a punch in the gut to me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have attended every single Reunions celebration since 1980 – thus my 40th Princeton Reunion. My participation over the years has been as a reporter, editor, columnist, P-Rade (the Reunions Parade) marshal/usher, but most significantly as an observer who has succumbed to the unmitigated joy exhibited every year at this event. The Reunions experience unquestionably is a fountain of youth elixir for the spirit.
Twenty years ago, a member of the “Old Guard” alumni group (those alumni celebrating any reunion past their 65th) summed up the power of the emotional connection in the following way:
“I was in the hospital for several weeks, everyone had given up on me, I think I might have actually died for a few minutes, but then I remembered Reunions. I put on my class jacket, found my energy, and here I am.”
When I asked him the reason for the intense attachment to this event, he said, “It’s like trying to describe heaven – you can’t and there is nothing else like it in the world.”
I can’t verify the heaven portion, but it is a fairly well known fact that there is no other reunions experience in the world like Princeton’s. At these celebrations, I have been satisfied to play the outsider/observer role, reveling in the sights and sounds. I never participated in the drinking, networking, hugging/backslapping/fist-bumping, singing of Old Nassau, eating or partying. But I heard and felt the beat of the music infusing the air, the laughter and the incessant conversation. I noticed how sadness over deceased friends, divisive divorces and devastating world events played second fiddle to the celebration of life – an emotion we all so dearly are craving these days.
Princeton University last put Reunions on hold during World War II, from 1943 through 1945, when PU President Harold Dodds wrote that continuing the gatherings would be “contrary to the spirit in which the university is serving in these crucial days.” Before that, Reunions were canceled in 1917 and 1918 for World War I.
Since 1994, a particularly joyful addition to Reunions has been the Princeton University Orchestra lawn concert and spectacular fireworks display, open to all members of the public, no special wristband needed. Dorothy Bedford, PU Class of 1978, led the implementation of Princeton University’s 250th birthday celebration that included what was supposed to be a one-time concert and fireworks. One time, however, became all the time, and since 1994, the concert and fireworks have become an annual feature of Reunions weekend, with Dorothy continuing as executive producer of the event.
Prepared to just mope around and long for the 2021 Reunions, I was fortunate enough to run into (but six feet apart) Joanne Farrugia, much closer in size to me than Bill Bradley. Another passionate devotee of Reunions, Joanne, a longtime Princeton merchants advocate, talked about how the cancellation of Reunions meant a big economic hit, not only for her legendary toy store JaZams, but also for all of her Palmer Square and downtown Princeton merchant colleagues. But displaying the pick-yourself-up optimism characteristic of the Reunions, she found some inspiring news in the midst of the current tremendous health and economic anxiety. Even though JaZams is closed to in-person purchases, she is still filling online customer orders and sending out boxes of joy to kids throughout New Jersey.
The most unexpectedly joyful development in these past few weeks is the fact that she has gotten anonymous donations – thus far $1,875 – from people who want boxes of joy sent to needy children in Princeton. The store is donating 20 percent of the value of all donated gifts. Working with Princeton’s Johnson Park School Principal Robert Ginsberg, she is sending gift certificates for online purchases at JaZams to kids in the Princeton elementary schools’ free-lunch program.
The toys provide sustenance to the spirit – and they lifted my spirits just knowing that the recipients of these gift certificates were about to discover a joy equal to that of being able to march in a P-Rade.