Our university has a strange habit of naming campus buildings and institutions after some pretty questionable people. For example, the university seems fond of slapping Woodrow Wilson’s name on anything it wants to show off, like the Woodrow Wilson School and Wilson College. Wilson, of course, was an innovative and acclaimed president of both Princeton and the United States; unfortunately, he wasn’t the greatest when it came to race relations. It’s more than a little awkward when your school of public policy has as its namesake the man who segregated much of the federal government and screened The Birth of a Nation at the White House.
Which brings us to the swath of campus known as Mathey College. Unlike Wilson or Whitman, it’s named after a relatively obscure figure: Dean Mathey. Somewhat surprisingly, Dean Mathey is not even well-known to the residents of the college that bears his name, as the college’s administration makes little effort to teach its residents about the namesake of the place where they live and take meals for two or four years. A sophomore Matheyite myself, I came across information about Dean Mathey just once in my first three semesters here. I found—tucked deep in the corner of the hallway outside the Mathey College Common Room—a photograph of Mathey, with a brief caption below confirming that he was a rich white guy who donated to the University.
But this spring, Mathey College started showing some interest in its heritage. The college celebrated Dean Mathey this past month, marking the 100th anniversary of his graduation from Princeton. Steven Lestition, the Dean of Mathey College, sent Mathey residents an e-mail about Mathey’s membership in Phi Beta Kappa, his national tennis titles, and his impressive stewardship of the University’s finances during the Great Depression. Lestition advised students to visit a small showcase in the Common Room, though it turned out to be more about Princeton in 1912 than it was about Mathey.
It’s fairly clear that the 100th anniversary celebration was less designed to tell the real story of Dean Mathey than to send out glossy e-mails celebrating a perfect person—and in the case of Princeton in 1912, a perfect campus—that never existed. The real Mathey, like the university he loved so dearly, was terribly flawed: a man whose obsession with his youth and Princeton seemed to overshadow everything else in his life. But there’s something in the Mathey story that speaks for our university’s troubled history, both its failings and the way it hides those failings today.
This is not to say that Mathey was not an extraordinary man. He was a true patriot, serving as a lieutenant in World War I and melting down his old tennis metals to be used as scrap in World War II. He was successful, rising as an investment banker at Dillon, Read & Company and “retiring” to a position as Chairman of the Board at Bank of New York. He was powerful, receiving New Year’s telegrams from Aristotle Onassis and counting LBJ as an acquaintance. And, he used his success and power for good—particularly in his hometown of Princeton, where he paid to build a YMCA and gave away the land that would become Princeton Day School, but mainly contributed his time and money to his alma mater.
And how he did. Mathey served as a university trustee for 45 years, from 1927 until his death in 1972. During his time as a trustee, he served on every single trustee subcommittee. His contributions to Princeton didn’t end there—the financial guru ran Princeton’s assets (doubling the investment pool) for 34 years, somehow taking that job before he was even a trustee. Mathey, who idealized Woodrow Wilson and took a Wilson class as an undergrad, headed the campaign to raise funds for the Wilson School—and in the 1950s, contributed $35,000 for yearly prizes to be given in Wilson’s honor. Mathey’s relationship with the university was hardly a one-way street; Princeton threw him a 75th birthday party and university president Robert Goheen spoke at Mathey’s funeral.
It’s around this part of the story that the extent of Mathey’s connection to Princeton seems to get a little weird. When Mathey moved from New York back to Princeton in 1927, he didn’t just move into any old house. Rather, he bought property previously owned by Moses Pyne (of Pyne and East Pyne fame). He spent his years in Princeton constantly giving up his home—offering meals and sometimes beds—to fellow trustees and visitors. Not only was Mathey on the Committee to Elect Presidents, but both President Goheen and his predecessor, Harold Dodds, were elected at meetings held at Mathey’s home. In his later years, Mathey spent his time conceiving various architectural improvements to the Princeton campus. The courtyard in the middle of East Pyne? That was a Dean Mathey creation.
Mathey’s unabashed love for Princeton—the type whose more restrained form you might find at every Reunions—seems to have grown out of the camaraderie he found, particularly as an athlete. In various speeches about his prep school days, the tennis star (he played Wimbledon at least once) reminisced passionately about the “spirit” he found on the athletic courts and fields; surely those played a factor in his even greater devotion to the spirit of Princeton.
Further, it seems as though Mathey believed that Princeton itself had bestowed such spirit upon him. Mathey was a charter member of the Princeton Crusaders Club, whose founding document reads like that of any normal Christian group, except when it gets to “We pray, O God, for Princeton, where our Brotherhood was born. Guard her….” Even for a young Mathey, the calculus was God, Princeton, and sports. Who knows in what order?
Mathey’s connection to Princeton only became deeper and stranger as time passed. In a personal note from about ten years after his graduation, he writes, “I may go to worship Princeton.” That worship later found a form in Men and Gothic Towers, a book that served as both a study and appreciation of Princeton’s architecture. And at his 50th reunion, Mathey notably said, “The great seats of learning… have withstood the ravages of time better than any other thing.” This was a man who counted on Princeton when—or perhaps because—he could count on nothing else.
And when his fellow alumni didn’t count on Princeton the way he did—or show the same faith in the university that he did—he couldn’t understand. It shows in an incredibly nasty letter that Mathey, an alumnus officer for the Class of 1912, sent to a classmate who hadn’t given to Princeton one year. Mathey accosts his former friend, stating his disappointment and creating the visual of a big blank spot next to the friend’s name where a donation should have been recorded. Meanwhile, Mathey’s papers reveal a 1940 letter sent to Mathey by another classmate, who was attacked by Mathey for not attending Reunions despite having missed it for only the second time in 28 years.
The friend’s explanation for his absence? “I value my wife and three young daughters” more than Princeton, he wrote. While it’s unfair to outright accuse Mathey of prioritizing his life the opposite way, one might wonder if that was the case. A 1948 letter to Mathey from then-president Dodds begins with a short paragraph each of concern for Mathey’s ill wife and son—she would die in 1949; he was suffering from mental illness and would never fully recover—followed by pages upon pages of detail about how to choose new trustees. Likewise, Goheen’s 1972 eulogy of Mathey focused on a life of “energetic accomplishment” and continued contribution to Princeton, rather than Mathey as family man. Simply the fact that we have to question Mathey’s devotion to his family as compared to his devotion to Princeton suggests that the latter was excessive.
Dean Mathey had his other faults—and plenty more successes, as well—but it seems fitting to judge him by his relationship with Princeton, that institution that he once claimed “so much of my life is wrapped around.” Mathey was undoubtedly an irreplaceable force in shaping the university we know today. Whether through Mathey College, the East Pyne Court, or Princeton’s massive endowment, we can see his positive impact almost everywhere we turn on campus.
But Mathey also leaves a legacy of complacence. Clearly mesmerized by his college years, he was content to never really let them go. And so came decades and decades of energy devoted to trustee committees and campus architecture—or, as the preface to Men and Gothic Towers suggests, an intense “love of unseen things that do not die.” Perennially stuck somewhere between Nassau Hall and Faculty Road, Mathey seems to have been overpowered by love for Princeton, blinded to other realities.
We see it, though, in his love for Princeton that was so great as to produce shock and dismay when a classmate missed two Reunions in 28 years. We see it in a love for Princeton that became as important to Mathey as his family. We see it in a rich, powerful man who would never turn down a role on a Princeton trustee committee but did just that when asked to join a group supporting civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s.
The way that Princeton—and in particular, Mathey College—handles Mathey’s legacy tells another story of complacence. Rather than deliver all the facts—even without coming to the conclusions that this article does—Mathey College presented its residents this spring with an abridged, sugarcoated tale of Dean Mathey. Seemingly, the goal of offering us a few glorifying tidbits about him is to make us think, Phi Beta Kappa? Tennis star? Saved the endowment? We’re so lucky to be in a college named after this guy! No mention of nasty letters to fellow alumni; no mention of just how involved Mathey was at Princeton, which would be likely to give a few students the chills.
The thing is, the university doesn’t act this way just with Mathey. It does with Woodrow Wilson, whom President Tilghman praises each September in her speech before that year’s class of incoming freshmen. She never seems to get around to his screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House. The university also acts this way with the eating clubs, about which a well-produced video can be found on the Princeton website. The students in the video chat cheerfully about the clubs as the social outlet they are; nobody mentions the clubs’ sordid history—“dirty bicker” or the fact that T.I. didn’t let women in until 21 years ago.
This pattern is repeated over and over again, with our often-troubled past glossed over for the sake of brochures and instilling the idea of the idyllic Princeton in our students’ minds. Speaking honestly about Dean Mathey would seem like a good starting point for speaking more honestly about Princeton’s past: what better case than a man blinded by his unfettered love for Princeton to make us realize that we shouldn’t fall into the same trap?