Portrait of Princeton: He came back to die in paradise

George “Horse” Kerr Edwards 1889 (1866-1897)

Illustration: Daniel Hertzberg

In the spring of 1897, George “Horse” Edwards 1889 learned that his health, which had been steadily worsening from tuberculosis over the past three years, had deteriorated considerably. Doctors told the 30-something that his remaining time on Earth could be measured in days. He already knew where he wanted to spend these days.

“I’ll probably die next spring, but I want to die in the old East College, where I stayed at Princeton,” he had told friends the year before. “I want to see another Yale game and attend another Ivy dinner, and then I’ll be happy.”

On June 11, a damp afternoon, Edwards returned to campus for meetings. “He was very weak because of his illness,” recalled an elder who attended the event. “He could barely raise his hand to greet the throngs of old friends who greeted him as he walked from the station to East College, where his old bedroom had been set up as it was in his college days for his return.”

Many Reunionese traditions were new in those years. The first P-rade took place the previous year. In 1897, P-rade Walkers, for the first time, headed to the baseball field to watch the Tigers play against Yale. Edwards couldn’t walk that far, so his classmates pushed him in a wheelchair. The Tigers beat the Bulldogs and he was throbbing with joy, his classmates said.

Edwards, a Delaware native, got his nickname in college because of his penchant for pranks and tricks, or heckling. “Edwards was the popular man of his day,” James Alexander wrote in 1898 in a book about Princeton, published just a year after Edwards’ death. “No college crowd was complete if he wasn’t present. He had an utterly original kind of humor, and those who knew him – young and old – will never forget his fake seriousness when he was called upon to make a speech at a meeting, or how he pointed out certain imaginary victims of his eloquence, and with a frowning brow and a piercing eye, utter the words: “And, gentlemen!”

He had heard the clap of billiard balls at his old dining club and the roar of thousands at the University ballpark. He had watched daylight descend on Nassau Hall, relived old pranks with friends from his happiest years, and watched the night sky through treetops heavy with the song of summer insects.

After graduating, Edwards studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, becoming a physician at Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia and later at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Every year, he would get together with other members of his dining club, Ivy, to raise a glass at an alumni dinner. At the 1897 Meetings, he gave a final toast to Ivy. “When the after-dinner conversation began, ‘Horse’ came to the table, and laughed and cried as his old friends echoed a toast to him and sang to him in the familiar old strain: ‘Here’s to you, Horse Edwards!

At 2 p.m. Monday, Edwards died in his old dormitory, surrounded by friends and former teachers. “Although his death was not announced until Monday evening at 11 p.m., the next morning at 8 a.m. more than 500 people were present at the services held in the college chapel,” a newspaper article from the time said.

A black and orange bunting hung all around. That weekend, traversing crowds of faces that gleamed with expressions decades younger than those who wore them, Edwards had gazed happily at small abandoned dormitories, worn chairs in amphitheaters, the medieval gold of the morning light on limestone. He had heard the clap of billiard balls at his old dining club and the roar of thousands at the University ballpark. He had watched daylight descend on Nassau Hall, relived old pranks with friends from his happiest years, and watched the night sky through treetops heavy with the song of summer insects.

When he passed into Heaven, did he even notice the difference?

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