Woodrow Wilson coined the phrase “Princeton in the nation’s service” while he was president of the university, a motto later recast to “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” That call to moral and proper action is carved into stone, on the approach to Nassau Hall, where you have to look askance to miss it.
Despite the regular repetition while on campus, the motto never really registered with me as an engineer until 1991 when I was asked to literally hack a device driver for the US Air Force at the outset of the first Gulf War. Pilots’ lives depended upon my ability to make a Sun workstation talk to an aging TEAC floppy drive with flight logistics data. Seventy two hours were a blur of failed builds, Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and strong encouragement from the sales team depending on me. Work under duress, my contributions to what was later publicly named Sentinel Byte, made “nation’s service” more clear, and somewhat more personal, but still 10,000 abstract miles away.
Back up fifteen years:
Sometime around 6th grade, a kid named Steve showed up in our school; he had moved from the South and everyone remarked on his gentle accent and more gentle manners. He was a remarkably good kid — good at soccer and basketball and socializing — and enlisted in the Navy. His courage, mental and physical strength and fortitude were ingredients that made him a member of Seal Team Eight. Serving on the aircraft carrier Enterprise in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, during the first Gulf War and before the tensions of 9/11, his service was alternately intensely boring and life changing.
He wrote in a letter in 1996: “Breakfast: Forty-five minute wait in line. Every meal is the same. Standing in line sweating. That’s OK, though. There are people in my country who neither know or care that their freedom is being protected at this very moment. That too is OK, because I do know. I’m doing it.”
He was killed in a search and rescue mission two days later, something I didn’t find out until four years later at a class reunion, and in the ensuring two decades more details have been revealed. Steve was, and still is, the only person I know killed in active military service. That realization forcefully grounded “in the nation’s service” and unwrapped Woodrow Wilson and Memorial Day for me.
Steve’s Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal citation calls out “his ability to motivate his teammates.” While he was an outstanding athlete, he was also a great teammate to the awkward, incredibly poorly coordinated kid on the recreation team (me), and I had the honor of experiencing what would become his outstanding call to personal leadership when I was still a tween.
Courage and valor power us through life changing and life threatening moments; humility and humor make the intensely boring bearable; character, however, is revealed on a middle school basketball court, when nobody else sees, but those empowered cherish the memory.