50th anniversary report to Princeton

(Not about language, and personal. This is a report for a 50th-reunion book at Princeton, about my life. So much left out … Remember that the audience for this is my 1962 classmates at Princeton.)

I came to Princeton from a background close to the farm, the factory, and small-shopkeeping, and from a public school. I was (as we’d say these days) nerdy (I was serious about mathematics), artistic (I was a serious classical pianist), and deeply non-athletic. My goal was to teach, in particular in college.

So I was not a great fit for Princeton, but it promised a spectacular education – and on that it delivered, even more than I’d hoped. (Early on, I discovered linguistics and found my intellectual home, the place I was meant to be.) But socially it was tough. In addition to the casual class-contempt of many of my classmates, the place was wildly misogynistic, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic, all of which appalled and distressed me. (When I describe those times to recent Princeton grads or to current Stanford students, they are stone-stunned incredulous.)

I was, predictably, not a great success, and Bicker triggered the first of two serious depressive episodes of my life. (The second, much later, had to do with my homosexuality.) Despite this, I found friends – especially Frank Carr, who roomed with me for three years. (Nevertheless, there’s only one Princeton friend I’m close to now. In contrast, I have several friends from my grade school and high school years that I’m close to, plus a huge, rich web of friendships from my grad school years at MIT.)

I ended up as a kind of hanger-on at Campus Club (a fine group of guys, entirely congenial).

Meanwhile, I juggled many jobs (primarily: tutoring calculus at Princeton, working as a tech guy in the Language Lab there, spending all vacations as a reporter on the Reading (Pa.) Eagle); my family couldn’t afford Princeton, so it was General Motors, some other foundations, and a hell of a lot of jobs that got me through.

Into this came Ann Walcutt Daingerfield, Miss Daingerfield of the Language Laboratory, who (with her roommate Benita Bendon, my daughter’s godmother) offered an oasis of real, civilized, adult life and friendship.

Yes, reader, I married her, four days after my graduation, after which we set off for my life as a grad student in linguistics in Cambridge (and hers as Mrs. Zwicky of the Science Teaching Center at MIT; but eventually she went to grad school herself, in French – French linguistics, specifically – at the University of Illinois).

I did the many-jobs thing at MIT (though an NDEA Title IV fellowship paid the bulk), teaching field methods and working all my vacations in computational linguistics at the Mitre Corp. in Bedford, Mass.

Our daughter Elizabeth (now one of my best friends, and a neighbor in Palo Alto) arrived in February 1965. I finished my dissertation that summer, on Sanskrit phonology (I got the Sanskrit at Princeton, to the bafflement of the math faculty).

I’ve had, in some sense, an illustrious career – I tell people that I am extremely famous in a very small world (though you’ll occasionally see me quoted in the New York Times) – and shot up very fast: a Ph.D. in three years, tenure just before I was 30 (at Ohio State, where I was enticed in 1969), an early Guggenheim and an early fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, visiting professorships throughout the U.S., plus the U.K. and China, the presidency of my learned society, and so on.

Along the way I came out as gay, forged a still-loving (though obviously eccentric) relationship with Ann, picked up a male partner-for-life (Jacques Henry Transue, yet another linguist) in the 70s, lived in a mènage a trois for eight years until Ann died (of metastatic breast cancer) in 1985, and started a university-commuting life (Ohio State most of the year, Stanford in winter quarter; Jacques and I drove back and forth) later that year.

That life continued until 1998, when I moved fully to Palo Alto and Stanford. Jacques was suffering the consequences of radiation therapy that had saved his life in 1980 (after a fast-growing brain cancer); in 1991 he began a dreadful decline (dementia and many other neurological conditons caused by the radiation), and I nursed him through twelve years of hell until his death in 2003. (I have no idea what my academic life would have been like without this significant withdrawal from it for so long, at what is usually the peak of a professional career. But, frankly, what were the alternatives?)

Later that year I narrowly escaped death (or, short of that, amputation) myself, from necrotizing fasciitis, and since then I’ve limped along, on my own. But I’ve had great happiness.

At Stanford, I enjoy wonderful colleagues and students (undergrads as well as grads). And I have a vibrant presence on the net, thanks to Language Log and my own blog (mostly, but far from entirely, on language), So like Monty Python’s Mary Queen of Scots, I’m not dead yet.

One Response to “50th anniversary report to Princeton”

  1. A Princeton education « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my life, following up on my piece for the 50th-reunion book at […]

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