An American University: An Audio Portrait of Princeton in 1946

By: Abbie Minard ’20

Abbie Minard ’20 is a history concentrator with a primary interest in early American history. On campus, she is a research associate at the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, music director and a DJ at WPRB, artistic director of the TapCats (tap dancing group), and a member of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra. She is also a poet with a love for dada and experimental performance.

As a part the exhibition, Learning to Fight and Fighting to Learn: Education in Times of War, we digitized a half hour BBC radio broadcast from 1946 that featured Princeton University for an audio portrait of university life in the United States.  The program, titled “An American University,” was one half of a radio exchange program with Oxford on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

The audio included in the segment was recorded in November and December as Princeton celebrated its bicentennial anniversary.  It features a wide array of Princeton voices, covering university history, academics, residential, and social life, with spotlights on the football team and the glee club, whose musical interludes are interspersed throughout the program.

We selected photographs from our collections to accompany the audio for this video.

The following is a description of some of the highlights of the broadcast should you wish to navigate directly to portions.

At 0:57, as the glee club hums “Going Back to Nassau Hall,” WOR announcer Phil Tonken sets the scene:

“With its wide, shaded streets, it’s lovely white colonial-type houses, its ivy-covered buildings, Princeton is a charming, pleasant town of about 10,000 people that still has its definite overtones of America’s colonial days.”

The first interviewee is Dr. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, a leading scholar of American history at the time and adored professor at Princeton from 1910-1947, who also spent some time teaching at Oxford.  At 3:25 he describes the founding of the college and the influence of European dissenting academies of the mid-17th century on Princeton’s own methods of instruction.

At 7:50, John Wingate of WOR introduces a conversation with three young people, 21-year-old war veteran Philip W. Bell ’46 with his wife Katherine, and freshman Barent “Barry” Vroman ’50.  They are speaking together in Bell’s two-room dormitory at 8 Upper Pyne Hall, one of a few sites on campus temporarily modified by the university for the family life of its 77 married veterans.  Bell indicates that post-war enrollment was nearly 1,000 students higher than normal, making housing especially tight.

Barent “Barry” Vroman ‘50.

Phillip W. Bell ’46

Bell entered the Air Force in November of 1942 and was discharged in 1945, the same year he and Katherine were married.  He received his undergraduate degree in economics and returned to Princeton for a PhD in international economics, earned in 1954.  He became a well-regarded professor and also did some consulting work for the United States government. At the time of the broadcast he received $90 a month through the GI Bill, but made additional money writing for the New York Times with a small, selective group of student journalists called the Press Club, which still exists on campus.  Katherine too worked to support her husband’s education, with a job doing research in the economics department.

Vroman, a history major who would go on to become president of Maine First National Bank, tells at 10:17 a little about Princeton’s student-run radio station WPRU (now WPRB), where he is an engineer.  An impressed-sounding Wingate is surprised to learn that the station operates “on the same basis as we at WOR,” with neither faculty control nor funds from the University. WPRB still operates in this manner, offering challenging, creative freeform programing to a devoted base of listeners.

The two students agree that attitudes toward student employment have changed in recent years.  Now that a majority of students work, Bell explains, “we have a tendency to sort of wonder about a guy that does nothing.”  He estimates that about 75% of the students are veterans, saying that this too makes for “much less snobbery.” Students could take advantage of the university’s employment service and take jobs like waiting tables in the dining hall, but others found their own ways of making money, selling laundry and pressing services, sandwiches, candy, and the like.  Bell, for example, sold copies of a university map for extra cash.

A brief overview of social life on Princeton’s campus comes at 13:03.  Bell and Vroman mention football games, trips to New York and Philadelphia, as well as a few of the eating clubs.

Cheers from the November 23rd Princeton-Dartmouth game rise at 20:35, after an overview of college athletics and a discussion with football coach Charlie Caldwell, himself an alum of Princeton in the class of 1925.  Caldwell outlines the team’s typical regimen for a week of practice and discusses the value of individualized training and competition. “I’ve talked with scores of officers and men, and I’m sure the reason our American boys could adapt themselves so quickly to war conditions is because of our competitive sports system,” he says.

Caldwell gained this insight coaching football to the army overseas in 1945.  He coached college football from 1925 until 1956, 16 years at Williams College and 13 at Princeton, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1961.  After his interview, the British audience is given a taste of American football’s atmosphere with a lively play-by-play of some action at Palmer Stadium.

The final conversation occurs at 22:24 with English-born Dean of the Graduate School Dr. Hugh Taylor, who answers questions about academics and the future of the university.  Taylor served as chairman of the chemistry department from 1926 until 1951, and was known widely for his contributions to the field, including some work during wartime related to heavy water and the atomic bomb.  He was knighted by both the Queen and the Pope in 1953.

In response to Tonkin’s questioning, Taylor emphasizes that the university’s present priority is not expanding physically, but enhancing the students’ academic experience.  

“We want to get a better paid faculty, we will encourage more original scholarship, and we hope to do a better job of producing scholars.  We would like to point out that getting a degree from a graduate school is either the beginning or the end of the scholarly career, and for our Princeton graduates, we hope it will always be the beginning.”

The broadcast ends after this sentiment, fading into a final reprise of “Going Back to Nassau Hall.”

We’ve prepared a PDF listing all the specific images in the video and their sources for your convenience.

Collections used:

Bicentennial Celebration Records (AC148)

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107) (AC107)

Papers of Princeton

Undergraduate Alumni Records 1920-2015 (AC199)

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