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What Zoom Reunions can't replace: alumni reflect on the weekend that might have been

<h6>At the class of 1970’s 45th Reunions, Princeton’s eight first surviving female graduates returned to Princeton for the first time since graduation and marched in the P-Rade. Left to right: Mary Yee, Agneta Riber, Lynn Nagasako, Mae Wong Miller, Priscilla Read, Susan Craig Scott, and Judith-Ann Corrente.</h6>
<h6>Courtesy of Mae Miller ’70</h6>
At the class of 1970’s 45th Reunions, Princeton’s eight first surviving female graduates returned to Princeton for the first time since graduation and marched in the P-Rade. Left to right: Mary Yee, Agneta Riber, Lynn Nagasako, Mae Wong Miller, Priscilla Read, Susan Craig Scott, and Judith-Ann Corrente.
Courtesy of Mae Miller ’70

This weekend, for the first time since 1945, the University’s campus will sit untouched by an orange-tinted tornado of fireworks, speeding golf carts, chants, bands, and beers. 

Like hundreds of thousands of other events around the globe, the University’s annual Reunions was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent years, the four-day festival has drawn an annual average of 25,000 alumni and guests – an enormous population in which strollers feature as prominently as canes and in which passion for Princeton is on full display.

Reunions survived a three-year hiatus during the second World War; its overall longevity is not in question. But individual alumni have had to grapple with the fact that they will not be able to reunite with their former classmates this year, a prospect especially significant for the “major reunions.”

Reunions with a capital “R”

Most American colleges hold their own reunion ceremonies. It would be a mistake to equate them with Princeton’s yearly bash

Thousands of rah-ing Princetonians and their families return each year to flaunt their school spirit. At Reunions, says Ian Thomson ’09 (a subject of this paper’s ‘Once a Tiger’ series)  “there’s no shame for having Princeton pride. In the real world, so to speak, you learn you’ve gotta be careful about, let’s say, how you share that.”

All University alumni are welcomed back each year. Every fifth reunion is designated a ‘major reunion’; all other years are deemed ‘off-years.’ Major reunions each have their own tent and area on campus to celebrate. Within these areas, they develop their own unique celebrations, booking bands and organizing catering, themes, and zany outfits. Supported by a committee of classmates, class reunion chairs “really have total responsibility over the whole thing,” said Rick Corcoran Jr. ’95, reunion co-chair for the class of 1995. 

And yes, there is drinking. Popular Princeton lore holds that Reunions weekend is one of the nation’s largest per capita consumptions of beer.

But in the same way that it would be a mistake to equate other college reunions with Princeton’s Reunions, it would also be a mistake to equate Reunions’ raucousness with its essence.  

Alongside the revelry exists sentimentality, cultivated by classmates’ concurrent trudging through the decades and experiencing the highs and lows of life. Consequently, Reunions further out from graduation tend to hold greater heft. 

“There’s a sort of progression,” said Rick Hamlin ’73. 

“You get to these deeper levels”

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According to Corcoran Jr., the tenth reunion is “probably the first one that’s ‘real.’ It’s the first one where there’s a sizable number of kids,” he said. “It’s the first one where people have settled in to whatever they’re gonna be for their career … it’s kind of a weighty reunion.” 

Meaghan Byrne ’10, co-reunion chair for the class of 2010, agrees with this sentiment, with a caveat: “I think there’s never an off-year, every reunion is special,” she said with a laugh.

But at the same time, she said of the tenth reunion, “people are in more adult life phases.” 

Spontaneous get-togethers dwindle; people move away from the familiarity of the East Coast.

Structured events, Byrne said, such as “weddings, or baby showers, or Reunions, are kind of more ‘fun’ at this point because you get a little bit of that time back that you don’t usually have anymore.”

Subsequent reunions snowball in importance; milestones accumulate as the years cycle. Twenty-five years after graduating from Princeton, alumni are welcomed back to campus to replace their fledgling beer jackets with mature ones that will sustain them for life.

“I think people look forward to their 25th in a way that I can’t really imagine as somebody who’s only ten years out,” said Byrne.

The occasion’s significance is captured just by looking at University giving records. During the past ten years, class donations 25 years after graduation were higher than the previous 24 years combined, by amounts ranging from just over $5 million to over $11 million

The 25th, said Corcoran Jr., is “kind of like the other majors on steroids.”

The fifth may usually trump it in terms of attendance, he said — many alumni still live within the confines of Boston and Washington, D.C, during their first few years out of college — but the budget and spectacle of the 25th outweigh any other college reunion “not just in Princeton, but everywhere.” 

Put simply, according to Corcoran Jr., “The 25th is first among equals.”  

Between alumni and their guests, close to 2,000 people were set to attend this year’s 25th reunion, said Corcoran Jr., which would have set the record for total attendance at that specific milestone. 

Highlights of the 25th include receiving their aforementioned class jackets, a class dinner that puts others to shame, leading the revered P-rade (before a 2018 modification), and most crucially, the conversations that flow between classmates, which have gradually departed from career aspirations in favor of family matters. 

According to Hamlin, “by the time you get to your 25th, nobody talks about jobs as much anymore. It’s more like ‘God, how are your parents? Are they still alive?’ You get to these deeper levels.”

“It’s the last significant reunion that they will attend”

For Mae Miller ’70, her 25th was the first time she attended Reunions. 

Miller was part of the first Princeton undergraduate class to graduate women. One of nine, she and the other women came to the University during their junior year from other schools as Critical Language students — or “Critters,” as they were known. Though they were not undergraduates yet, the University announced during the spring of 1969 that it would accept applications from women for fall admission, and all of the women who applied were able to transfer and spend their senior year at Princeton as well. 

Miller and her fellow “Critters” entered a campus where many friendships and memories had already been formed, and where it was an “intriguing” time to be a woman on campus, she said.

“It was intimidating to go back to Reunions,” said Miller, “where it was mostly men.” 

With encouragement from her classmate Sue-Jean Lee Suettinger ’70, Miller returned for her 25th and enjoyed it enough to return for subsequent major years, building long-lasting friendships along the way.

“I’ve made more friends from Reunions than when I was a student at Princeton,” she said.

Susan Craig Scott ’70 also noted the greater trove of memories and connections that her male classmates had compared to the newly admitted women. But while at first there was a gendered gulf between their feelings towards Princeton, Scott said, time has converged the two.

“They [male classmates] have done such a great job of welcoming us as members of the Class of 1970,” she said.

The Class of 1970 was poised to celebrate their 50th reunion this year, a milestone whose gravitas is rivaled only by the 25th. 

The 75th reunion does not have the same level of attendance as its younger siblings — many alumni would be pushing 95 years old. The 50th serves as a sort of final hurrah for those who only return for the big events.   

“It’s the last significant [major] reunion that they will attend,” said Bruce Millman, reunion chair for the Class of 1970. “Given that, you certainly want to make it as memorable as possible.” 

Among other things, memorable plans included: a class dinner; a forum commemorating fifty years of undergraduate coeducation on campus, with all seven living women participating; a roughly 850-page reunion book, consisting of memoirs and essays written by an estimated 400 classmates; and large participation in the P-rade, celebrating class accomplishments like coeducation and the opening of Fitzrandolph Gate — all to honor one of Princeton’s most turbulent classes

And disregarding specific class idiosyncrasies, the 50th holds meaning intrinsically. After half a century together, said Class of 1970 President George Bustin, members have been drawn closer together through their hardships and life experiences. 

“It’s something that can’t be simulated, or faked. It is organic and it develops out of shared experience and empathy,” he said. “You can quote me on that.”

There is a sense of survivorship, according to Bustin, emanating from the struggles that inevitably crop up in almost every life — career troubles, health issues, family matters. Not to mention the over one hundred members they have lost throughout the years, he said. Millman agrees.

“One of the things that’s very meaningful when you get to our age, unfortunately, is our memorial service ... I think it’s a very important part of what we do when we have our reunions,” Millman said. 

Miller, who made a point to emphasize her high regard for the memorial services, referenced the fact that many people their age start to experience declines in health, which is of course exacerbated by the current pandemic. Coupled with the tendency that many alumni have to only attend Reunions every five years, this paints a grim implication.

In reference to the 50th, Corcoran Jr. was more blunt: “It’s pretty poignant. Those guys will probably say ‘look, this is probably the last time a lot of us were gonna see each other.’”

Logistics

Multiple class chairs lauded the University’s efforts to make cancellations run as smoothly as possible.

“The University has been very good to us, and they are trying really hard to make some good decisions in a tough environment,” said Corcoran Jr. Similarly, Byrne characterized the University’s response as “second to none.”

It is still undecided what, if anything, will be done to make up for the major reunions’ cancellations. Byrne already has something in mind for a 10th reunion delayed to next year, she said, “just because I’m a planner.”

But there is a tricky balance to maintain.

According to Byrne, “It depends on what the mood is for that. Do people want to celebrate?” The financial and emotional toll of the virus might understandably dampen people’s moods, she added. When is it even appropriate to ask people if they want a party next year? 

Her goal, she said, is ultimately to “try to give them [the Class of 2010] something positive and hopeful. Yes, it’s in the context of Reunions, which seems silly, but it is something people look forward to.”

And in a letter addressed to the Class of 1995, Corcoran Jr. and his co-chair Bryce Dakin ’95 expressed a desire to hold some sort of make-up 25th next year.

“We are in the preliminary phases of this planning, but our hope and anticipation is that our 25th Reunion will be postponed until May 2021 — stay tuned,” they say in the letter. 

The Alumni Association was interested in holding the 50th’s planned coeducation panel on Zoom this year, but the panel’s organizers decided against it. 

“I’m not enthusiastic about that,” Scott said. “I think face-to-face, even if it happens a year later, is much better than anything on Zoom.”

That panel, along with the 50th’s other planned events, is hoped to make an appearance next year. But the world operates with an inescapable uncertainty now. 

While Millman acknowledged the Alumni Engagement Office’s efforts to deliver for next year’s Reunions, he is also aware that many things sit out of his control. It is hard to say what will actually transpire.

“We have our hopes and dreams, and I don’t know that it goes much further than that,” he said.

Discounting prolonged virus fears, it is challenging for a postponed milestone reunion to live up to a regularly scheduled one. The logistics of Reunions are mind-bogglingly complex in a normal year; postponing its biggest celebrations would further complicate operations and strain resources.

Having two full 50th reunions, two full 25th reunions, and two full 10th reunions at next year’s event is a tall order, to say the least. But classes are still moving forward where possible.

The 25th is hoping to mail its jackets; the 50th will mail its reunion books; for the 10th, which would have hosted an Olympic-themed shindig, laurel wreaths sit piled up in Byrne’s car. 

Ultimately, many of the alumni said, one reunion being cancelled cannot compare to the Class of 2020’s loss of their planned commencement — much less to a deadly pandemic.

“I think it’s important to keep perspective,” said Millman. 

Byrne is confident that this setback does not preclude her from being able to make the next reunion special. After all, the 10th is just a big party — and she loves planning parties. In fact she’d “planned for any possible thing that could go wrong.” 

Everything, she said, except for maybe a “public health crisis that required everyone to stay home.”

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