I leave for a six-week seminar at Yale University on Friday, and I am reflecting upon the many, many remarkable people
who have studied there. As a preparation for starting my work there, I have written a little about ten Yalies that I find particularly interesting. Most of them graduated from the university, but some of them left for one reason or the other. Regardless, they are all part of Yale’s tradition and are listed below in no real order at all.
10. Jonathan Edwards (Class of 1720)
Jonathan Edwards was a religious fanatic and notorious fear monger, but he was also a scientific man. In our age, where religious leaders go to ridiculous lengths
to disprove even the most basic scientific tenets
, Edwards was a man who was obsessed with science. His hero was Isaac Newton, and he used Newton’s findings in physics as a germ for his understanding of God.
Edwards was a prolific writer and intellectual. He lived his life based on 70 “Resolutions” he created for himself, which included rising at four in the morning and studying for thirteen hours a day.
He is best-known for his role in America’s “Great Awakening,” and for his fiery 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” If you haven’t read that sermon recently, it’s worth your time. You may not agree with his violent view of the cosmos, but it will make you feel grateful that you woke up this morning.
9. John C. Calhoun (Class of 1804)
John C. Calhoun was born into a slave-owning family, and he spent his life fighting for the rights of slave-owning planters in the south. He hated war, but hated centralized government even more. His hard-line support for states’ rights was in vain, but we can still admire the man for being one of the most dogged fighters in the history of American politics.
Calhoun served as Vice-President under two U.S. presidents–the only man to do so. He served as John Quincy Adam’s vice-president from 1825-1829, and then served the same position for a very different president, Andrew Jackson. However, in 1829, four years after taking up the position, he had another political change and abandoned Jackson’s administration. For the last fifteen years of his political life, he served as a senator from South Carolina.
Calhoun argued shrilly for the sanctity of slavery and states’ rights. He seemed to have seen the spectre of war sooner than most. In fact, he uttered his dying words, “The South! The poor South!” a full ten years before the start of the Civil War.
8. Maya Lin (Class of 1981)
Maya Lin was a soft-spoken twenty-one year old Yalie when her senior project won a national competition and forever became part of American history. You may not recognize her name, but her project, which was highly controversial at the time, has become a poignant and sacred treasure for millions in this country. Today it is immediately recognizable to entire generations and can reduce people to tears in an instant. Come on, you still don’t know what it is?
7. Fred Smith (Class of 1966)
Anyone who lives in Memphis understands how powerful and influential Fred Smith is. He is the founder of Fed Ex (formerly Federal Express), which was the first company to use a combination of air and ground travel to provide overnight package shipment. Today, it is one of the biggest employers in Memphis and has helped create the city’s identity as a major distribution hub. Fed Ex ships more than six million packages per day and had assets of nearly $26 billion in 2008.
At Yale, Fred W. Smith was a member of the Skull and Bones society. He was flying partners with John Kerry and friends with George W. Bush.
But there are some less-known facts about Fred Smith. For instance, his father was the founder of Toddle House, which was a nation-wide chain of diners that trusted its customers so much that it relied upon the honor system to make its money. Customers paid their bills by putting cash into a box at the end of the counter.
Furthermore, there are various apocryphal stories surrounding Fred Smith. One is that he wrote his business model for Federal Express as an assignment at Yale, and received a C from his professor, who claimed it wasn’t “feasible.” Another rumor states that he was on the short list to become George W. Bush’s secretary of defense in 2000, but was passed over in favor of Donald Rumsfeld.
Today, Fred W. Smith co-owns the Washington Redskins, who play at Fed Ex Field.
5. Jodie Foster (Class of 1985)
Although I’m not a huge fan of Jodie Foster, she gets the nod for playing Iris in Taxi Driver and Clarise in Silence of the Lambs.
Jodie Foster was a student at Yale when John Hinckley Junior stalked and harassed her. She held a press conference from the Yale campus when she learned that Hinckley had tried to shoot president Reagan in order to impress her.
4. David Bushnell (Class of 1776)
David Bushnell was a Connecticut man who was a student at Yale in 1775. He was an inventor of military devices such as the time bomb and the screw propellor. What he is most famous for, though, is the creation of the first submarine ever used in combat, which he called The Turtle. Now that’s one good-looking submarine.
3. Nathan Hale (Class of 1773)
Nathan Hale will always be remembered as the first spy for the United States and a martyr of the first degree.
In 1776. he was a young officer fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. When none of the other captains would volunteer for a dangerous spy mission, Hale stepped forward. His mission was to travel from Harlem Heights to Long Island to spy on the British army and return with information about their size and position.
Hale disguised himself as a schoolmaster, and took his diploma along with him for proof. He completed his mission and was almost safe back in Harlem when he was captured by the British. They hauled him in, whereupon he was identified by none other than Samuel Hale, his own cousin and sworn Tory.
Once identified, Hale gave himself up and stoically accepted his sentence–to be hanged the very next day.
On the gallows, Hale gave stirring speech that ended with a paraphrase from Cato. Hale’s last words were: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
2. Bill Clinton (Class of 1973)
Bill Clinton was my president. I was only fifteen years old when he was elected with 42% of the popular vote (thanks, Ross Perot!), and I became conscious of politics and the role of the government during his administration. 1992-2000 seems a pretty halcyon time in hindsight, but I remember being proud of my first president even as he got mired in a Republican congress, a sexual scandal, and another Yalie who helped to erase his historic surplus.
Check out the William J. Clinton Foundation, which fights malaria, obesity, global warming, and AIDS through charitable giving.
1. Paul Newman (Class of 1954)
Paul Newman was destined to inherit his father’s sporting-goods store in Shaker Hights, Ohio. But he didn’t. Instead, he became the paragon of American maleness, and that’s what gets him at the end of this list of prestigious Yalies.
I’m sure you know the movies that Newman starred in (if you don’t, google them), and you probably have a favorite. A thousand different film critics have written a thousand different tributes about him, both while he was alive and after his death in 2008, and there’s no need to add to that.
There is need, however, to call attention to his line of food products. Newman’s Own
brand is an “all-benefits company,” which means that the company gives away all of its profits. Its motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good,” and since 1982, Newman’s Own has donated $290 million to charity.