Inside Princeton Reunions

By Doug Wallack

Art by James McPhillips/JayMcPhillips.com

Sometime in April of each year—typically just in time for campus preview visits for accepted high school seniors—the cold, grey damp of winter at Princeton University gives way to a brilliant spring. Dogwood flowers and daffodils grace the grounds with flecks of gold, and white and pink. Saucer Magnolias bloom, lining the newly verdant up-campus lawns. Following their campus’s botanical lead, students emerge too, and all life at the university becomes more visible. Professors hold classes on the steps of the sundial in McCosh Courtyard, and students take their reading outside. The odd frisbee or slack line appears.

Then, after about a week of this idyllic existence, the tents and fences start to go up. Slowly but surely, they spread across the campus landscape, obscuring its architecture and truncating its pathways. But as unsightly as the temporary structures may be, there’s no stopping them: Reunions weekend is on the horizon.

Writing in a 1976 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly magazine, Anne Rivers Siddons described her experience of attending her husband’s 25th reunion:

“There were maybe 1,500 alumni on campus, all dressed in whatever their class had espoused for the weekend, and the result was absurdly like Disney World, moved lock, stock, and barrel into the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Perhaps even more absurdly, it didn’t look absurd. Princeton reunions, like The Turn of the Screw, have the ability to suspend one’s belief in an orderly rational universe.”

Anyone who has taken part in Princeton Reunions in any of its subsequent 40 iterations would probably agree that the event still hews very closely to her portrayal. It remains an absurd weekend: in equal measure a wild and beer-soaked carnival, a beloved pilgrimage, and—for the administration—a crucial annual (wild and beer-soaked) fundraising event. But one significant change since that time is a matter of scale. Last year, an estimated 26,000 alumni and guests participated in Reunions—nearly doubling the town’s population, booking local hotels to capacity months in advance, and flooding town and campus with orange and black. What does it take to put on this massive event?

To get a sense of the view from the top, I spoke with Mibs Southerland Mara, who is the senior associate director for classes and reunions. Mara works in the Office of Alumni Affairs, and for the last 12 years has been the administration’s go-to reunions coordinator. Stories on Princeton Reunions, and Princeton alumni, often cite the event as the single largest purchase of beer in the United States after the Indy 500. I’d never been sure whether to trust this as fact, but I figured Mara might be able to shed some light on the matter. Her take is that it’s essentially an unknown. Certainly, the lager flows freely during the long weekend, but because the various alumni classes and eating clubs put in their own orders to a variety of suppliers, there’s no single beer order to account for. I settle for on a “maybe” for this one.

Mara speaks more readily on the scope of her office. She works throughout the year to coordinate the Reunions efforts of many departments across the university. She’s in on discussions with Facilities to plan for alumni on-campus housing, the dozens of tents, and thousands of feet of fencing. She works with Campus Dining to make sure everyone is well-fed, and with Transportation and Parking Service to arrange for buses to and from nearby hotels. Mara’s office also has a hand in organizing the Alumni-Faculty Forums, a series of lectures and panels on a wide variety of topics that collectively represent an opportunity for alumni to engage with the academic component of their alma mater between the weekend’s many social events. This year, there will be 25 forums over two days, with subjects ranging from “China in the World Order,” to space exploration, to managing a work-life balance.

Mara’s office is also a resource for alumni volunteers. Alumni classes do much of the organization for their own reunions, and major class reunions (multiples of five, generally) tend to have punny, Princeton-related themes (“Tigeritaville,” “Orange and Black to the Future,” and “May The Fortieth Be With You” are all upcoming this year). Mara often meets with members of alumni classes two or three years in advance of a major reunion to discuss their theme, their reunion logo and clothing, their considerations for entertainment, etc.

Alumni also work with Mara to run the P-rade, which for many is the high point of each year’s Reunions. This procession takes place on the Saturday afternoon of Reunions and, except for the evening fireworks, it is the last major event of a given year’s celebrations. Grouped by their graduating class and festooned with orange everything, alumni parade down campus, accompanied by all manner of marching bands and Princeton-themed cars and floats. The 25th reunion class always leads the procession, followed by the oldest returning alumnus and the Old Guard (members of classes beyond their 65th reunion). The P-rade winds down Elm Drive—the main road cutting through campus—cheered by progressively younger classes, who fall into line once the procession passes them. Finally, the graduating senior class joins just before the end of the route, as the alumni spill out onto Poe Field. Each enactment of the P-rade is a sort of living, walking history of Princeton University, with representatives of its alumni community on full display, and it is also a rite of initiation, welcoming the graduating seniors into that very same community.

It is also a logistical bear. Charles J. Plohn, Jr. ’66, acted as grand marshal for the P-rade from 2008 to 2012. In that capacity, he was the primary alumnus working with Mara to organize it. “Planning basically starts a few days after Reunions,” he says. There was more than enough to think about. As grand marshal, Plohn had to recruit other P-rade marshals to help usher along the procession. He had to make decisions about where to place water stops and bathrooms along the route, how many medical personnel to hire, how many golf carts to keep on hand to drive older alumni who are unable to walk the entire mile-long route. There are considerations of pace, too. A procession shorter than three hours, Plohn has concluded, isn’t feasible with the huge number of alumni who have taken part in recent years, but it also shouldn’t extend beyond three hours and 20 minutes. The hot late-May or early-June sun can be punishing, and a sluggish P-rade could lead to exhaustion or heatstroke for some participants.

All of this careful orchestration has to be executed with a light touch, too. “We’re not trying to militarize the process,” Plohn says, “People are there to have fun.” For the marshals, then, it’s a busy afternoon of cajoling, gentle nudging, and firm but friendly shepherding.

On the other hand, for Carolyn Kelly, Class of 2018, who has worked as a student truck driver for Campus Dining during the past two Reunions, the P-rade provides a welcome respite in the midst of an otherwise taxing weekend of work. “We love the P-rade,” she says. No non-parade vehicles are allowed on the roads on campus during the event, so it’s a chance for Kelly and her fellow student truckers to “relax, have some coffee, take a quick nap.” For most of Friday and Saturday, from 6:00am to 11:00pm, Kelly and her crew are on the move, loading up box trucks with trays of food and beverage coolers, and shuttling them to reunions tents across campus. It’s exhausting work, but Kelly says that the student truckers are well taken care of, and she knows she’s playing a valuable role in making Reunions happen. Last year, Campus Dining served over 36,000 meals during Reunions weekend, and there’s a small army of students and staff workers behind all of it.

Then, almost as soon as it’s begun, Reunions is over. Sunday morning comes, alumni eat breakfast and then filter back out of town as commencement exercises begin for the senior class. Sunday afternoon’s non-denominational Baccalaureate service is followed by Monday’s Class Day ceremony and departmental receptions, before the seniors file out of FitzRandolph Gate on Tuesday morning to receive their diplomas. The moving trucks and family minivans come and go, and campus sinks into a drowsy New Jersey summertime. But even then, the wheels are already turning, preparing for the return of the orange hordes to Old Nassau.

This year’s Princeton University Reunions weekend is June 1-4.

“Nassau Hall to Hoagie Haven: Princeton Paintings by James McPhillips” at The Princeton Public Library 2nd Floor, on exhibit and available for purchase through July 31. All other McPhillips work available at jane (7 Spring St.) and JayMcPhillips.com. Saturday, June 3, 12 – 2pm artist Meet & Greet at jane.