George Immerwahr’s Memoirs


My parents were very devoted to me.  Dad worked long hours, having started in business for himself, with a partner, a business called Import Paper Co., but he spent whatever free hours he had helping Mother take care of me.  My brother Ray was born on Mother's day in May 1913 when I was not quite four, and from about that time Mother had household help. My parents were living at 6228 S. Greenwood, near the U. of Chicago, when Ray and I were born, but in 1916 we moved to 1521 W. Fargo on the north side. Because I had learned to read well before going to school, I was started in second rather than first grade, and during later years I skipped another grade, not that I wanted to, so that I was in school with children mostly two years older than I.  By that time we had moved to Winnetka, IL, at 458 Willow Road.  I was in New Trier High School in Winnetka at age 12

Raymond was my only sibling, and even though he was dear to me, I know that at times I bullied him unmercifully, and despite that he was always forgiving.  I have included a chapter on Raymond at the end of this account. 

In the summer of 1920 all four in our family went to Europe. Dad's mother, my grandmother, had returned to Germany when my grandfather died, and later Dad's two sisters had gone to Germany and one had married there.  Dad couldn't keep in touch with his mother or sisters during World War I, so as soon as the war ended he tried to get German visas, but he couldn't get them until the spring of 1920, and meanwhile his mother had died.  We went anyhow, as Dad wanted to make connections with German paper mills, and also because one of his sisters was getting married.  On the way to Germany we stopped to see Mother's brother and his family in London. All in all, the trip was very interesting to me.  We were in Berlin for at least two months, and when I was next there in 1994 on a visit with Jean's brother Ed, I was interested to look for old landmarks.

I started taking piano lessons at about age 10, and we had a piano and I had a fine teacher.  I greatly regret that I insisted on stopping lessons after only two years, and I consider this one of the major mistakes of my life.  I really enjoyed music, and my parents were brokenhearted when I quit, as I was good.  Raymond also took piano lessons but he too quit after only about two years.

Because I was two years ahead of my age in school, and because I was very small and unathletic for my age, Mother was very concerned that I had no relationship with other children and very little to do but study.  So the spring I was 14 or 15, she contacted the high school bandmaster, and asked him to start me on an instrument so that I could join the band. It worked, and I am eternally grateful for her doing this.  The bandmaster loaned me a trombone and told me how to learn it over the summer.  As I recall, I virtually mastered it in one or two weeks, and Dad loved the pieces I taught myself to play, such as "the Evening Star" from his favorite opera, Tannhaeuser. A few years later, Raymond also learned a band instrument, in his case the clarinet.

I wish I had been much more loving to my brother and parents, and especially to Dad. He certainly tried to be close to me, even though his work was such that he had much less time for us children than he would have wanted.  During the two years 1937-39 when I was living with my parents and working in Dad's company, Import Paper Co., our relationship was often strained.  Dad had become extremely disturbed over the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, and I foolishly argued with him over the issue, so much so that he and I almost came to blows.

I stayed an extra year at New Trier after making all the credits needed for graduation, and I was admitted to Princeton, together with my classmates Bob English and Frank Stover.  My close friend and neighbor John Roos had told me all about Princeton and I was glad to be admitted.  He had also interested me in attending Culver Summer School, where I won a band scholarship.  John was three years my senior and a Christian Scientist and was a year ahead of me at Princeton.


I didn't come to Princeton University until 1926, but I call this piece Princeton of the 1920s because I doubt that Princeton changed much between 1920 and late 1929.  The big change that happened in late 1929 was the stock market crash, and since the bear market that followed the crash continued well into the 1930s, we can possibly consider late 1929 as part of the 1930s.

What was Princeton like in the 1920s?  Its faculty was of course all male, and there was virtually none of the more informal  relationship between faculty and students that came in later decades.  The seniors did make some light fun of faculty members in their spring singing on the steps of Nassau Hall, but that's as far as any relationship other than stiff formality.  Each freshman was assigned to a faculty advisor, but so far as I know, even the freshman's relationship with his faculty advisor was quite formal.  In some courses, mostly upperclass rather than freshman, there were preceptors - a preceptor meeting with a dozen or so students taking a particular course and answering student questions about the course - but I cannot recall having a casual relationship with any preceptor, and I imagine this held true for most of my classmates

And of course the student body was all male, all white male in fact, and one might say largely upper class white male.  Women were not admitted as undergraduates until the 1970s.  Black students weren't admitted at all until the 1940s. Very few students were admitted who hadn't gone to an eastern "prep school" such as Gilman or Lawrenceville whose principal function was to prepare boys for Ivy League colleges.  When Bob English and Frank Stover and I were admitted in 1926 from New Trier High School, we were among the very small group of students who had come straight out of high school.

A fair proportion of Princeton students - probably 25 percent or so - were sons of Princeton alumni.  The alumni themselves were mostly businessmen, full-time investors, attorneys, philanthrophists or even missionaries.  A large number of the alumni who were just before us worked for investment houses.  In recent decades and today, many Princeton graduates have entered the professions, research centers and universities, or have gone to graduate school in preparations for the professions, but that was much less the case in the 1920s.  One reason of course is that there were fewer research centers and universities in the 1920s than there are today.  Several of my classmates went after graduation to medical or law school, but only a very few went on to other graduate schools.

Besides there being no black students in the Princeton of the 1920s, there were very few Jewish students. I remember my Dad going through my Freshman Herald and by looking at names and faces, tried to count how many freshmen might be Jews..  I doubt that he came up with as many as 20 out of a class of 650, and I imagine that not all of these were Jewish.  Only two had names which were obviously Jewish (Levine and Goldenson).  My own name Immerwahr was so uncommon  that the Admissions Office probably passed over it in its attempt to limit the number of Jews.  While there was a campus organization to welcome Catholic students, there was no corresponding organization for Jewish students.  The few Jewish members of the class seemed to mingle freely with other classmates rather than forming a Jewish clique.  However, when "bicker" time came, few if any Jewish classmates became members of eating clubs.  Even Levine who was an outstanding football player (and who was nicknamed Bruise because of this rugged toughness) was not invited to join a club.  Years later as alumni, however, the class elected him to be class president.

There were also very few Jewish professors.  In fact, the only one I knew or knew of during my Princeton days was Solomon Lefschetz, a former research physicist  who had lost both hands in a laboratory accident and then turned to the field of mathematics, where he became outstanding as a researcher and teacher.

All freshman and sophomores took their meals in "commons," there being separate commons rooms for freshmen and sophomores.  During spring of sophomore year, about three-fourths of the sophomore class joined the upper-class eating clubs and therefore ate there during junior and senior years, and the remaining juniors and seniors ate in "upperclass commons." But our eating during freshman year in freshman commons, where there were no assigned tables but students filled the dining tables as they entered, meant that almost all of us freshmen ate with different persons every meal;  the result was that by the end of freshman year, we got to know practically all our 650 classmates.   There was therefore a very strong class unity, a unity which gradually weakened after sophomore year, when most classmates were in eating clubs..

The fact that we knew each other so well facilitated the election of class officers.  Our class elected as its president Ben Hedges, the son of a nationally prominent physician.  It turned out that Ben became a medalist as a high jumper in the 1928 Olympics, but it was his warm friendship felt by all his classmates which led to his election as class president.  I always felt that I knew no classmate friendlier than Ben. It so happened that his middle name was Van Doren, so that he was often referred to as BVD, which was also the name of a popular men's underwear at that time, and some of us repeated the advertising slogan, "Next to myself I like BVD best."  Ben served as class president all four years.

Freshman courses were difficult for many freshmen, and freshman year was the year in which students were most likely to "flunk out."  I would estimate, in fact, that as many as 40 or 50 freshmen flunked out. John Gale Hun (who may himself have been a Princeton alumnus) owned not only a prep school in the town of Princeton (to prepare for Princeton, Yale, etc.) but also a tutoring school for Princeton students where many freshmen were helped.  I myself helped a freshman friend named Ray Hardenberg who had lived in Winnetka (but who had attended a  private school rather than New Trier High) in both math and chemistry and who also was getting tutoring from John Hun.  In tutoring Ray, I found Hun's notes to be very helpful, emphasizing points which were skipped over by our own professors, and while I profited from them, I was not too successful in helping Ray.  Still, Ray seemed to manage to pass most of his courses the first freshman semester, and I had hopes that he would finally pull through.  But when we both went to take our second semester chemistry exam, Ray - sitting almost next to me - jumped up and walked off saying that the exam was too much for him.  I remember yelling at him to come back and take the exam, but to no avail.  Failing to even take the exam was the last straw;  Ray was gone and I don't remember ever seeing him again.

But even though I did well at math and chemistry, and probably at my other courses (one of which was German), I had a tough time with Prof. Joe Green's "Introduction to History, Politics and Economics." In the first semester midterm I got a mediocre grade, and as "report cards" were sent home to our parents, Dad got in touch with my faculty advisor, Prof. Luther Eisenhart, who was my faculty advisor and also my math prof.  I remember that he called me into his office and asked a couple of questions which I didn't even understand, and I then went my way. I did better for the rest of the year.  As a matter of fact, even though Prof. Green expected us to learn a lot of detailed stuff - what are the latitude and longitude of Valdivia, Chile? - I found the course both interesting and valuable.  In those days, there was no undergraduate department of anthropology, but in the course we covered a lot of both geographic and anthropological facts (the latter probably not entirely correct in terms of what is known today) but still of real value.  During the course, each of us had to learn the rudiments of some primitive language.  I learned about an American Indian language in a book by Franz Boaz and found that the main words related to the human body parts and their functions and that the sentence structures were entirely different from those of any other language I had known about.

The other freshman course that I remember taking was one in German, and here my instructor was himself a graduate student named Ken Appel.  I suppose he was a fair instructor, but Ken was also famous as the tennis doubles partner of another recent Princeton grad named John Van Ryn.  Ken didn't go down in tennis history but his partner John did.  I liked German and had taken it in high school and it was a language in which Dad and Mother sometimes conversed (Mother's German was really Yiddish).  I didn't take German again until either junior or senior year, when I took a year's course in Goethe's writings, the course being conducted in English by Prof. George Madison Priest, a very dear and popular prof.

There were many other things about freshman year I remember beside the courses.  Freshman in those days were treated as subhuman citizens.  We had to step off the sidewalk when anyone else passed by.  We were never allowed to go to Renwick's (a popular upper class eating place), and as another form of humiliation we had to wear a small black cap known as a "dinky," and also there came a day when we had to bite off with our teeth the little button on the crown of the dinky.  There were also special athletic contests between freshmen and sophomores, such as the "cane spree" in which several pairs of freshmen vs. sophomores competed to seize a cane from one's partner.

There was also compulsory physical ed.  I did very poorly in the test we all had to take, swimming 100 yards, scaling a 9-foot wall (which required first jumping to reach the top of the wall and them pulling oneself over it), and pitching a baseball accurately to come within the strike zone.  As I failed at least these three tests, I had to take physical ed the rest of freshman year, whereas others could play team sports.  In sophomore and junior years I did nothing in athletics, but in senior year I joined the cross-country squad and did what for me was tolerably well, in addition to making close friendships with the squad members.

But best of all was playing trombone in the Tiger Band.  I think I did as well in this as in chemistry and math, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We accompanied the football team on all the "away" games as well as playing at the home games, and what I remember most was the trip to the Harvard game.  The band, like many of the students, boarded an overnight boat from New York to Providence, RI, and then went the rest of the way by train.  The boat ride stands out in my memory, for it was the occasion in which I could see the rowdiest of my schoolmates at their rowdiest. Some of the goings-on that evening I won't describe, but one event that shocked me was that of pushing the piano overboard, and threatening to dump the ship's pianist with it.

That Harvard game was very famous, not because Princeton won, but because of a fight between Princeton and Harvard people after the game.  This fight was a caused by the fact that many Princeton students and alumni were angered by claims in the Harvard student magazine, the Lampoon, that Princeton was just a country club and its students moronic country-clubbers.  The offshoot of all this was that in the following week, Princeton broke off athletic arrangements with Harvard, and there were no Princeton-Harvard team competitions for several years after that.  As most of us Princetonians looked back at it later, it was a very silly decision on our part.

There was one other pleasant event that I recall very well, playing trombone in the Triangle Club orchestra.  The Triangle Club was, and still is, a group that writes, composes and performs a musical comedy ever year.  It takes a trip at Christmas time performing in several cities where there are many alumni, and its members are royally feted and have a grand time.  But it also gives a number of performances at the time of alumni reunions just before Commencement.  In my freshman year, the original trombonist, probably a sophomore, flunked out at midyear exams, so I replaced him for the spring performances.  The musical play, called Samarkand, was delightful, and I believed all the music was composed by a senior named Herb Sanford, who was also the conductor, and I have loved what I remember of it for years afterward. In fact, when JR was a little boy, I used to sing some of the Triangle songs to him, and he would sing them back to me with his own variations.  One line in one of the songs was that sung by the Caliph, who sang "Spooks in black behind my back control my destiny," and JR's rendition of it included the words "dust controls my knee."  I remember too when we saw some Catholic nuns on the street in the very austere habit worn in those days, that JR asked me, "Are they the spooks in black?"

My sophomore year I had to compete with my good friend John Mulock for the Triangle trombone post, and John won.  It wasn't a case of sour grapes, but I was really glad that John beat me, as I didn't relish the idea of spending my entire Christmas vacation on the road with many others I might feel uncomfortable with.

I mentioned that John was a good friend, not only because he played trombone with me, but also because he was a Christian Scientist and we were the only two members of our class who were.  John had attended the Christian Science school called Principia.  So had another classmate, John Lemp, but he stopped going to Christian Science church or Sunday School as soon as he came to Princeton.  In alumni years I still regarded John Mulock as a close friend, and he and his wife Patti once visited us in Kenmore.  John died only a few years ago.

Seemingly, the Princeton events that stand out most in my memory were those of freshman year.  Some of the events of later years which stand out were the burning of the School of Science, the construction of the Chapel, my years in the University Orchestra and the friends I made there, the one cross-country race I was in (it was against Rutgers,  and I finished last).  There were also some memorable academic courses in addition to the course on Goethe which I already mentioned.  I did well in all my math courses, but I don't look back at them as being memorable. My favorite math teacher was Alonzo Church, who taught what little I remember about relativity (almost all the upperclass math was related somehow to relativity, which was a big subject at that time).  Our worst math teacher was named Tracy Yerkes Thomas, and his teaching was so poor in our opinion that my classmate Gil Fitzhugh told Thomas that he was worthless as a teacher, something which undergraduates never said in those days.  Solomon Lefshetz was never one of my professors, but I was personally fond of him, and in much later years he was at a  research center in Relay, Maryland, where we then lived.

I did take a course in Italian art, which I enjoyed, and I also had a course senior year in music theory and history which was excellent, taught by the chapel organist and choir director Ralph Downes.  Only six of us took the course, pianist Jim Sykes, orchestra conductor and violist Jo Hawthorne, Irv Pedly, Lester Smith, myself and a member of '31 whose name I have forgotten.  Bach and Wagner were the main composers whom we studied.  Downes was a Britisher, a phenomenal musician, only a fair teacher, but what he taught stayed with me.

During my junior year, the football team lost its last game, so the big bonfire which would have celebrated a championship season was cancelled. But in the middle of the night when it would have occurred, people came into my room (I roomed alone in Cuyler) and yelled "the School of Science is on fire".  I hate to think of what probably had happened, namely that students torched it since we couldn't have the championship bonfire. Actually the fire was a tragedy not only because it was there that chemistry and physics were taught, but also it was there that nationally important scientific research had been taking place, and findings of great importance were lost.

The university authorities made up the story that the building caught fire because of defective wiring, though most students were convinced, as was I, that one of their number had set it on fire.  It was a very old building and had been built in stages over several years, and most students hated to be in classes there or to have to work in a lab there.

This was on a Monday night, and I remember that a few days later I visited Swarthmore College where I met with a committee examining me as a contestant for a Rhodes Scholarship.   I had thought I had a chance of being chosen and would certainly have accepted a scholarship had I been chosen. I remember that my meeting with the committee was right after the fire, and that I described the fire to the committee members, to their horror.

In both freshman and sophomore years I roomed off campus in the home of a Mrs. Farlee and her two daughters Edith and Stella.  Mrs. Farlee was the widow of a Civil War veteran, and her daughters had jobs on the campus. There were two adjoining rooms rented to students, and in freshman year my roommate (if you could call him that) was Edmund Halsey of the class of 1929. What I remember most about Ed was that he was a recent convert to Catholicism and therefore a very ardent Catholic.  I then knew nothing about birth control (or about sex, for that matter), but Ed kept telling me how evil birth control was.  But he also didn't like women, and this was evident from what happened on April 1, 1927.  We both read in the Daily Princetonian  how the wealthy woman, Hetty Green, who had just died, left many millions to Princeton, for which Princeton had agreed to become co-educational the following year.  This shocked Ed so much that he immediately rushed to the registrar's office to tell that he was quitting Princeton right then and wouldn't even wait until the women students were to arrive.  At that point Ed learned it was an April Fool's joke.  Ed stayed at Princeton until graduation and then joined an order of RC monks, perhaps a cloistered order, and I guess remained there the rest of his life.

My sophomore year roommate was Jack Gates, who was then a freshman.  We got along quite well and kept in touch for several years after Princeton. Jack became a vice-president of a New York bank, but on the way he married the daughter of Norman Thomas, the socialist leader who ran for US president several times.  For a while Jack and his bride lived in the Thomas home on Long Island, and I met Thomas on one of my visits to see Jack and his wife. Norman Thomas had graduated from Princeton in 1905, and his major alumni reunions were therefore in the same year as mine. Even though he was a socialist, he was highly respected at Princeton. During those years he led a group of alumni and students who urged Princeton to accept blacks.

I often saw him over the years and knew him by sight, and one afternoon at the 1965 reunion I saw him wandering alone on the campus as if he were lost, so I joined him and asked him what I could do for him.  Our son Dick was with me at the time, and John who was then finishing sophomore year was with some classmates.  Mr. Thomas told me he was to visit someone in the town of Princeton but didn't know how to get there, so Dick and I drove him to his destination. Just a year or two later I read that Norman Thomas had just died.  Dick was impressed with having met him.

Before graduation each of us was asked to designate five classmates with whom we thought we would keep in close touch during our alumni years. John Mulock was one whom I designated. Another was Bob English who had gone to New Trier with me, still another was Jerry Crowley who majored in math and also went into actuarial work. Still another was Irv Pedly who was very close to me in alumni years and who was at my wedding with Jean and took movie films of it which I still have.  The fifth was Erwin Beck, who was one of the very top students in the class and who was also a member of Prof. Priest's delightful class on Goethe.  Erwin was a music lover, and he and I spent a weekend in New York senior year where we attended both a Broadway show and a Metropolitan performance of Faust in which the incomparable bass Chaliapin sang Mephistopheles.  Erwin was the only Jewish one of the five, a very warmhearted friend and a very keen observer of national and world problems, also an excellent tennis player, and I never asked to play with him, though I frequently played with Jerry Crowley whom I usually beat, and with Irv Pedly who usually beat me.

It so happens that each of these five predeceased me, though John Mulock lived the longest.  I have been in touch with Patti Mulock since John's death, and in 1998 I visited Donna Beck, Erwin's sister, who is a judge in Washington, DC.  Jerry and his family were very close to me during my New York days, but he died before completing the actuarial exams.  Bob had gone to law school after Princeton and later became a judge in Chicago and an alumni trustee of Princeton.

It so happened that these five remained the five classmates closest to me during alumni years. Now that they have died,  only about 20 othe classmates are now living out of the original 650. There are several of these 20 whom I remember fairly well.

At Princeton I found it very easy to get good grades in math, so easy that I majored in it and even chose some math as electives. Looking back, I see that I wasted some educational opportunities by taking far more math that I ever used in my future work as an actuary.  I would have become a more rounded individual had I taken more courses in the humanities. My classmate Gil Fitzhugh knew about actuarial jobs and told me and others about them, and he and I and three other math major students chose actuarial careers.  Since we had passed some of the actuarial exams while at Princeton, we were able to get actuarial jobs when we graduated.  Gil himself eventually became president of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  The job I got was at New York Life.

Early Years
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