Grab the Tiger By the Tail

When I worked in school communications, I helped publicize the annual alumni reunion. With the tag line “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” the invitations promised returning alumni the chance to reconnect with old friends and to see how the campus had changed since their era. So, having rolled out the welcome wagon for several years, I thought I understood reunion psychology pretty well—until I attended my own college reunion for the first time recently. Walking in Princeton’s legendary P-rade, I found myself unprepared for the whiplash of emotions that simultaneously looking back and moving forward evoked.

The “One and Only P-rade,” in which all alumni present at reunions parade through campus, is the headline event. The 25th Reunion Class leads the procession, trailed by a fleet of golf carts carrying the Old Guard, a dwindling contingent of graduates marking their 65th Reunion and up. (The Old Guard is the one of last of vestiges of Princeton’s all-male history; the first female graduates won’t be eligible for the Old Guard until 2039.) The rest of the classes follow, in order of seniority, with some members carrying placards noting historical and cultural milestones from their era. With over 20,000 alumni (plus family and friends) participating in the P-rade, it takes an entire afternoon for nine decades of Princeton alumni to cover less than a mile.

1961 Jacket (Photo: Noemi Bonazzi w'81)

To the uninitiated, such a campus crawl might sound pretty tame, even dull, but the P-rade is not the stately march you might expect from a group of graying Ivy Leaguers. Rather, the P-rade constitutes what must surely be the world’s largest and most unabashed display of orange and back, tiger-themed fashion, the more outrageously accessorized the better. Waiting for my class’s turn to fall into line, standing next to girl wearing her late grandfather’s garishly patterned class “beer jacket,” it dawns on me that these outlandish jackets will outlast us all. A cacophony of sound complements the sartorial volume of the P-rade: brass bands, applause, “locomotive” cheers and the echoing chorus of the school song (“Goin’ Back to Old Nassau”). Orange is a high-octane hue; the P-rade wouldn’t pack the same punch if our school color was, say, crimson. The whole rowdy spectacle ends with a roar, as the graduating class sprints the last 100 yards.

For those of us celebrating double-digit reunions, the P-rade’s carnival atmosphere (and the cold beers some of the more exuberant spectators thrust at us) can’t disguise the sobering truth that, young as we may feel, the line of younger graduates is getting mighty long. Even if my neck weren’t already stiff from sleeping on a paper-thin dorm-issued pillow, I would have winced looking back. It doesn’t take a Princeton diploma to see where all this moving forward business is heading, even without the Class of 2006’s “Six Feet Under” skeleton costumes to drive the point home.

Leading the Old Guard, wearing his class jacket, bright orange trousers and a matching baseball cap, is Malcolm Warnock ’25, the oldest-ever returning alumnus for the past three years. When he graduated 86 years ago, 2011 must have seemed as remote as 2067 (still) seems to us, and as this frail centenarian-plus passes we raise our cellphones to photograph a gentleman who placed phone calls though a switchboard operator, no area code required. He and his classmates sent telegrams and had maid service in their dorm rooms; this year’s graduates got text messages from the campus laundry machines when their wash was done.

Malcolm Warnock '25 leads the 2011 P-rade (Photo: Trenton Times/, 5/29/11)

The remarkably long-lived Mr. Warnock was a high school junior when a recent grad named Scott Fitzgerald  (Class of ’17) created an enduring Princeton stereotype with his debut novel This Side of Paradise—given the book’s unflattering portrait of callow youth, it’s a wonder he didn’t go to Yale! It’s unsettling to think how much technology has changed the lives of the students who trace the same well-worn paths between dorms, classrooms and playing fields that Fitzgerald, Warnock and I did; our storied campus has grown physically but shrunk virtually. Like the line of classes behind us in the P-rade, the list of the conveniences we didn’t have just keeps getting longer. My friends and I wasted a lot of time simply trying to find each other on campus, but today’s students can use their smartphones to convene a flash mob. With all their labor-saving devices, these kids apparently can afford to waste time watching the big-screen TV in their plush new student center.

Still, I don’t envy this generation of millennials, the third such group in Princeton’s 265-year history. Leaving this cloistered paradise for a flat world shadowed by climate change, terrorism and AIDS must be pretty daunting. For all of us who have gone before them, being back on campus with our contemporaries brings back the rush of those heady days when everything seemed possible, when we had the tiger by the tail, as it were. Now, more than ever, it’s a jungle out there. My advice to future graduates: bring a pillow when you go back to Old Nassau.


Back home after Reunions, I revisit This Side of Paradise and find this evocative passage at the end:

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light–and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.

A patchwork sample of class jackets (Photo: Princeton Alumni Weekly, 5/13/11)


10 Responses to “Grab the Tiger By the Tail”

  1. 1 Lisa Johnson June 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    What’s the connection to “Nassau” , Jan?

    • 2 jandev June 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

      Nassau Hall is the oldest building (1754) on campus and Princeton’s main thoroughfare is named Nassau Street. For a few months in 1783 Nassau Hall was the home of the US Congress. What year was your father and what happened to his class jacket?

      Here’s the school song, “Old Nassau,” sung the female a cappella group the Tigerlilies:

  2. 3 Lorraine June 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

    This is wonderful. You captured the emotional temperatures and ironies. While reading it I kept saying yes, yes, yes to each insight.

  3. 5 Allene June 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    This is beautifully wrotten Jan! You give such clarity to an otherwise chaotic and confusing event. It always surprises me that the Prade really is so much fun. I particularly enjoyed seeing you! I will call the next time I’m in Beantown.


  4. 6 Allene June 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    WRITTEN!!……not “wrotten”. A Freudian slip??!!

  5. 8 landscapelover June 13, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Jan, As some one who graduated (albeit not from Princeton) almost 30 years ago, I found this post thought-provoking and moving – especially that image of looking back and seeing how long the line behind has grown.

  6. 9 Demaree Peck June 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Jan, This was wonderful to read. But rather than think of us all marching on in the P-rade inevitably towards the grave, I’d rather think that the P-rade lets us imaginatively cycle back to our eternal youths. After all, the P-rade processes in reverse chronological order, to take us back in time. To quote the end of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

    • 10 jandev June 15, 2011 at 5:34 am

      Thank you, Demaree, for a close reading. Yes, of course, going back for reunions is like time traveling. I saw Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” after I wrote this. Having lived in Paris, I get very nostalgic every time I visit. But, as the movie reiterates, “nostalgia is denial” and the present is where we will find our greatest joy, if we can stop looking back long enough to notice.

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