Signing copies of his new book about the history of Princeton University, Richard D. Smith received the ultimate compliment.
"It was at a book-signing recently at the university store," Smith recalls. "An alumnus, who is on the Princetoniana Committee, which works to preserve Princeton University history, came up to me and said, `There are things in your book that even I didn't know.' And that, to me, was the highest praise, because while alumni of any university certainly love their schools, there is nothing in the world like the absolute devotion of Princeton graduates."
"Princeton University" (128 pages, $19.99) is part of a series of books on campus history by Arcadia Publishing, the same publishers whose "Images of America" series portray the histories of small towns throughout the country. Smith wrote the one on Princeton eight years ago.
While not an alumnus - he graduated from Emerson College in Boston - Smith grew up in Montgomery Township and lives in Rocky Hill. He works for Princeton University as program administrator in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology.
From his office in Guyot Hall, Smith is a keen observer of daily life on the historic, 500-acre campus. He conducted extensive research for the book, using the university's library and archives, and the Historical Society of Princeton as major sources.
Along the way, he made some unexpected discoveries.
"One of the things that has happily surprised me is that Princeton has been more multicultural throughout its history than the stereotypes would lead you to believe," he says. "There were Delaware Indians studying here in the late 1700s. African-Americans studied privately with John Witherspoon (the school's sixth president) and students came here from Mexico in the late 1800s, as well as from China and Japan.
"It certainly was predominantly a white, upper-middle-class school, but much more multicultural than people thought - and certainly now, there is a wonderful spectrum of students at the university."
Smith also was struck by Princeton's significance in collegiate sports.
"We don't usually think of this university as a big athletic power," he says, "but throughout its history it has been a leader and innovator in sports. It's well known that football started with a game between Rutgers and Princeton, developed here out of a rugby or soccerlike game. But also, there was a director of athletics here in the late 1870s, George Goldie, who put together athletic competitions, based on the model of the Caledonian games in Scotland, and they were the beginning of American track and field."
As detailed in the book, the first use of the curve ball in baseball was by a Princeton student and the first no-hitter game was pitched at Princeton against Yale in 1875.
There is an array of team photos - cricket players in 1864, dressed in white; the football team in 1879, wearing striped socks and matching beanies; tennis players in an undated photo, looking particularly effete - in the chapter on sports.
The section on traditions shows sophomores trying to prevent freshmen entry to Dickinson Hall, part of the hazing rites of 1911. Freshmen in the fall of 1916 laugh as they pose for the customary "flour photo," where upperclassmen dump the white stuff over their heads.
Another tradition, the Nude Olympics, is depicted with a fairly recent photo shot from the rear.
"The Nude Olympics was unquestionably Princeton's cheekiest tradition," Smith writes in the caption.
"This was one of Princeton's main traditions, but it was banned in 1999, not because of the nudity but because of the drinking," he says. "The publisher was reluctant to put the photo in, but saw that the picture was cute and not offensive.
"I think it's something in history and it needs to be there. Princeton is not a stuffy, elitist institution, but a really vibrant, fun place. Things like that photo are in the book to remind people of that."
In an effort to show how students lived, Smith sifted through piles of archival photos. Most were posed rather than candid, but they are effective nonetheless.
"Many of these are gag shots, where they're posing doing something funny," says Smith. "They're wonderful because they really give us a sense of what life was like for the students in those days. You can see that older students had it a lot better, with more spacious rooms, maid and laundry service, sit-down meals served by waiters, that kind of thing. In some respects, some students have it harder now."
As shown in the book, Princeton's Nassau Street of the 1920s looks surprisingly similar to the thoroughfare today. There are photos of the university's buildings under construction. One striking shot from the late 1860s shows a cow grazing near the athletic fields, with only a few buildings in place.
According to Smith, the development of the university campus has been carefully planned.
"Princeton has really been very thoughtful in the way the campus has been developed," he says. "One thing I didn't know was that Whig and Clio halls, which originally housed the debating societies, were actually rebuildings of earlier wood and stucco buildings that were firetraps. They were not only rebuilt, but also their foundations were moved inward, closer to each other, and that opened up the sightlines of the campus.
"They wanted people to be able to see the back of the campus from town. Many people don't know that. There are two walkways from Nassau Hall that don't really go anywhere, but they are there because they originally led to Whig and Clio."
Famous graduates are sprinkled throughout the book. A young Adlai Stevenson can be seen in a photo of the university council, circa 1920. Future senator Bill Bradley is shown on the basketball court, playing against Yale.
"I would have to wind up with a book as big as the Manhattan phone book if I had them all," Smith says. "But it's not just that Princeton has so many famous alumni. What's so interesting to me is the diversity of these people - in the arts, in sports, in politics and scholarship. Even the famous people reflect the overall diversity of Princeton University."