In Part I of this two-part series, I told the story of how Peter Putnam ’42 *50 lost his sight in a suicide attempt and fought for the right to return to Princeton University and finish his degree. In this second installment, I detail the life Putnam lived as a student, an employee, and an alum of Princeton University after his return.
Peter Putnam ’42 re-entered Princeton University over the initial objections of the administration, bringing along with him a new companion, Minnie, the first of many guide dogs. (Undergraduates quickly dubbed Minnie “the first co-ed in Princeton history.”) Though Putnam would be known as part of the Class of 1942 in perpetuity, he was a junior when he came back in his original graduation year.
Whether he set out to prove his detractors wrong or it simply happened, Putnam defied their low expectations at every turn. Putnam participated in campus life, with some limitations. He did not, for example, eat with his peers at Commons, his academic record notes tersely, “because of physical disability.” Based on his later writings about not being granted entry to many places in Princeton because of his need for a service dog, it’s possible he wasn’t permitted in the dining hall because Minnie was not allowed to go along. However, he threw himself into opportunities that were available, earning local celebrity for reasons far beyond his constant canine companion. As the Princeton Alumni Weekly put it in 1957, “he decided to conquer the place that had conquered him.”
Triangle Club elected Putnam its president in 1942. He supervised the last of Triangle’s productions during World War II, a show that might not have been possible without him. “Time and Again,” unlike most other Triangle Shows before it, had no Christmas tour, and was only performed locally. Triangle membership that year included students on accelerated programs who had little time for extracurriculars. Putnam ended up writing most of the script himself, playing the role of a World War I veteran in the first scene, and handling the administrative tasks for the show like managing the budget and securing permissions from various stakeholders to stage the production.
The song “Here I Sit with the Physically Unfit” from “Time and Again,” written by William K. Zinsser ’44, may give us insight into how ableism would have pervaded Putnam’s experiences at Princeton, even in spaces that seemed otherwise welcoming. In the lyrics, a woman seeking a man to love at a time when most were away at war complains about her options. After the woman notes “I’m left to be protected/By the rejected/But I’m feeling tepid/T’ward the decrepit,” she goes on to list a variety of disabilities that she finds unappealing, including blindness.
I’m left behind
With the lame and the halt and the blind back here
Ev’ryone who isn’t knock-kneed is flying a Lockheed
Ev’ryone without myopia is in Ethiopia
But I must be sweet
To the guys who have got flat feet back here. Continue reading