In June, 1946, after having served two years in the Navy, 20-year-old Truman Semans was discharged and returned home to Baltimore. That fall, he reapplied to Princeton, where he’d been accepted prior to the war, and headed off to his freshman year. Semans has kindly agreed to share his memories of Ivy.
The Vine: We’re so grateful you agreed to talk with us. Can you tell us what it was like being an Ivy member directly after serving in the war?
TS: Extraordinarily different. I’d been an enlisted man in the Navy. To sit down for meals at the Ivy Club, with Prosper as the Club Steward and with unbelievably good food, candle light and linens, wasn’t something I’d been used to. But more important, I think, was getting to know the people, many of whom had been in the war. These men had been overseas and very much in harm’s way. It was an extraordinarily fine and able group of men, many of whom were only there because of the G.I. Bill of Rights.
The Vine: What was going through your mind being at the Club with so many men who shared your experiences of the war?
TS: What was going through my mind was how fortunate I was to be there. Many men had had more dangerous experiences in the war than I, so I don’t think we shared so much our experiences of the war; we were so delighted to be in a different milieu and to be able to relax with one another and not be in a military setting, particularly a war setting. We all thought about how lucky we were to be there and how wonderful it was in every way, particularly in terms of the people. They were truly men for all seasons.
The Vine: Do you have a favorite room or favorite painting at Ivy?
TS: My favorite room at that time was the dining room. The food was exceptional, and the service was something I wasn’t used to. I’ve joked with my wife that since we’ve been married my living standard has gone down every year as a result of being in the Ivy Club. It was quite something, particularly after WWII. The management of the Club was marvelous, the food and ambiance were great.
The Vine: What can you tell us about Prosper?
TS: Ivy had lots of things that were endearing, not least of all Prosper who was the Steward but, more than that, a friend of all of the members. He provided first class service but also really cared for each of the members. I thought he was an unusual fellow in every respect and did a great job there. I’ve been involved in a fair number of clubs, and I’ve never seen a club run better than the Ivy Club under Prosper’s management. And he did it with grace and such humility. He was an exceptional human being.
The Vine: What do you remember about Princeton sports, in particular the football games?
TS: The games were great fun. There were many good
athletes in the Ivy Club, particularly folks who had come
from New England schools. Half the hockey team at
Princeton was made up of Ivy Club members, and other
members were very involved in tennis and racquet sports,
but we had a couple of very good football players. Princeton
teams in those days were nationally competitive; Charlie
Caldwell was a great coach, and we had several people on
the Princeton team who were All-Americans. I remember
Princeton won a great victory against the University of
Pennsylvania, which was supposed to be the best team in
the country, and I think it was Red Smith (Pulitzer Prize- winning sports columnist for the New York Times) who wrote in a column that “the implausible brats from Princeton” had beat the best football team in the country. And I remember they tore down the wooden goal post after the game, and the Philadelphia police were mounted and came after the Princeton students. It made national radio and newspapers.
The Vine: How did Ivy shape you as a student?
TS: I was a different person having been in the Ivy Club as a student because, even though socially it was great fun, we would, from time to time, have professors come for dinner. I had a history professor I was particularly fond of named “Buzzer” Hall who would come for dinner sometimes. The Ivy Club had a lot of people who were scholastically bright; it was intellectually stimulating.
Note from The Vine: Walter Phelps Hall— known as “Buzzer” due to his noisy, earlyvintage hearing aid—taught at Princeton from 1913 to 1952 and was one of the most popular professors of all time. His final lecture was in Alexander Hall to accommodate the crowd of 700, which was led by a six-piece band in singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” The Vine: How did being a member of Ivy affect you after graduation?
TS: Besides the life-long friendships I sustained with my own section mates, I found that the older members of the Ivy Club were very helpful to me, especially after I’d graduated from law school in 1950 and was looking for a job. Whether or not I ended up working at their institutions, they always made an effort to be helpful and to give me advice and counsel. It was particularly helpful to me because my father had died when he was quite young, so to have older men who had been successful— not just economically but in life–take an interest in you was unusual, I think, but not unusual for the Ivy Club. I think once you’re in the Ivy Club, you don’t tend to forget that you’ve been there, and you try to help younger members.
The Vine: What would your experience at Princeton have been without Ivy?
I would’ve gotten a wonderful education; I was a history major and loved it. However, I regret to this day not taking advantage of all of the wonderful professors there, who were very accessible. I think I probably relaxed too much after the war; we used to joke that we were “getting it out of our system.” Princeton without Ivy would still have been a great educational institution but not the experience I had, which was a wonderful social experience. Other than being with my wife, it was the greatest experience I’ve ever had.
The Vine: Do you take Ivy with you?
TS: Yes, I do. I was always taught to live up to your ancestors, and I feel that way about the Ivy Club. If I could live up to the standards of the Ivy Club, I’d consider my life quite successful.
The Vine: Thank you, Mr. Semans. We’re honored to count you as part of the Ivy family.
For his 90th birthday, Truman’s friends published a book. It is a fitting tribute to this legendary Ivy member, and a copy is in the Club’s library.