Thursday, January 6, 2022

Small World

 TigerBlog starts today with some thanks to the great Ken Perry from the Class of 1950.

Ken emailed TB to give him two additions to the list of Princeton athletes who had been named Rhodes Scholars. Here is what Ken wrote:

JAMES H. BILLINGTON was a goalie on the varsity soccer team, playing as a freshman and three years on the varsity.  He went on to  be our 13th Librarian of Congress serving from 1987 to 2015. PHILIP T. ZABRISKIE played baseball his freshman and sophomore years. ’50’s third Rhodes, JOHN B. LAWSON, did not play varsity sports at Princeton, but wrote in his 10th reunion bio that during his Rhodes, “an acute shortage of lacrosse talent enabled me to play defense for Oxford.”

Ken signed his email "at 94 still a daily follower of Princeton sports." That's one loyal fan there.

James Billington's name immediately jumped out at TB. Billington was in fact a soccer letterwinner and in fact the Librarian of Congress, appointed to that position in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. More than that, Billington was the Librarian of Congress for 28 years.

He passed away in 2018 at the age of 89. This is from his obituary in the Princeton Alumni Weekly:

During his long tenure he led the library into the digital age and added millions of books, films, and artifacts to its collections. Among the many books he wrote, six were on Russia and revolutionary tradition. He received more than 40 honorary degrees. The Washington Post described him as “commanding.” In his own words, “the way I work is very intensive.” Jim is survived by his wife of 61 years, Marjorie; children Anne ’83, Susan, James Jr., and Thomas; and 12 grandchildren.

Billington was a world-renowned Russian scholar. The way his name caught TB's attention, though, was from the women's history book.

It was James Billington to whom Helena Novakova was introduced when she first arrived in the United States after escaping from the Soviet invasion of her native Czechoslovakia in 1968. Of all the stories in the book, for sheer drama that is one of the best two or three.

Novakova was one of the first two women to compete for Princeton, back on Oct. 17, 1970. She and Margie Gengler Smith drove up to New Paltz to play in the Eastern women's tennis championships, where Helena reached the semifinals, Margie won the championship and the two of them won the doubles championship and, all by themselves, the team championship.

Before that, Novakova had to get out of Czechoslovakia and into West Germany, doing so a few hours before the border was sealed. Then she made her way to England, while at the same time two Princeton students met up with her brother outside of family home, completely by chance.

There are about 10 other completely random occurrences that would land Novakova at Princeton. She would work in the Slavic Languages library for a year before she became a student, and it was during that year that she lived with the Princeton professor to whom she'd been introduced by the two traveling Princeton men who'd met her brother.

That Princeton professor was James Billington. Small world, right? 

Helena, by the way, would become the first winner of the von Kienbusch Award as Princeton's outstanding senior athlete of 1972. She was also a swimming letterwinner.

If you like stories like that, then you can click HERE for information on ordering the book.

By the way, when TB first began to do the book, he went to South Florida to meet up with Merrily Dean Baker, the first woman to be an athletic administrator at Princeton. He spent a few days speaking to Merrily, who is the subject of Chapter 1.

When he came back to Princeton, he reached out to Helena Novakova. As it turned out, Helena was also retired and living in South Florida, about 10 minutes from where Merrily lives. Neither realized the other lived so close.

TB was able to connect them, and they met up after all those years. They even sent TB a picture of the two of them together, which is also included in the book.

As he said before, small world, right?

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