The men of Princeton in the early years of club life found camaraderie in small groups finding lodging and meals about town in private residence and rooming houses. It seemed only logical and economical to buy or rent their own house and hire a cook for meals. So it began with a simple cook, evolving into a slippery existence somewhere between Delta Tai Chi and Downton Abbey. The Gildersleeve clubhouse, built at the end of the Victorian era required a functioning staff. The Cap and Gown Club, with twenty to forty members, employed a steward, cooks, service staff, housekeepers and housemen to oversee daily life, often summoned by the press of little mother of pearl buttons strategically placed about the public spaces of the clubhouse. As membership rose and daily operations became more involved a part-time business manager was hired to keep the club’s books.
The club steward manages the clubhouse staff and over-sees operations. Longevity maintains traditions, and Cap has seen only four stewards in the Gildersleeve clubhouse. In 1952 after the passing of long time steward Mr. Dickenson, George Marshall, a Cap houseman for some time, took the reins.
Mr. Marshall as steward, his wife Mrs. Marshall (Jenny) as housekeeper, and Ochran Davis as head waiter were the heart of the Cap and Gown staff for more than two decades. Davis, known to many as “Mr. D,” lived at the clubhouse for many years until his retirement in the early 80s. He greeted each member daily by name as they were seated for meals. Jacketed waiters including Lorenzo and Ralph served soup or salad and the single entrée cooked up by Gerty and Rose.
In late 1978 Mr. Marshall passed away suddenly, and the club stood at a crossroads. The employment of a gentile service staff was falling from social favor, membership was growing, and other clubs on the street had struggled through the social evolutions of the 60s and the turmoil of the Vietnam War era into the 70s.
Following his army service, Gordon Harrison ’68 returned to Princeton to work in the Club Business Office in a part-time capacity for the Cap and Gown Club. Gordon, later joined by Andrea Rabbitz, managed to keep many of the floundering clubs afloat during these changing times.
With the death of Mr. Marshall, in 1979 Gordon Harrison ran a simple want ad in the New York Times: “Wanted, Steward for Princeton Eating Club, Call 609-921-7235.” After interviewing candidates, the Cap and Gown Club hired Dennis Normile, who remains as steward of the club after 35 years. Gordon Harrison retired from Cap in 1999, but remained a tireless supporter of the Princeton Eating Club legacy. From its inception, Gordon served on a volunteer basis as treasurer of the Princeton Prospect Foundation until his death in 2012.
In 1990, the club brought on Valarie Bay to keep the books and Dennis Normile assumed management of all the clubhouse, member, and alumni duties. Cap continued to flourish, maintaining a strong membership and loyal alumni base. Terry Wooding also joined the staff as House Advisor working with the undergraduate officers.
The current era of operations in the clubhouse continues to be a family affair. Carlos Romero maintains the integrity and beauty of the clubhouse; Maria, Argentina Mendez, and Adiela Garces have worked as successive housekeepers; Carlos’s sister Ursula, son Johnny and nieces Barbara and Mindy work in the dining room; while Reggie, Arturo, Effer, Eliseo and Roberto have manned the pantry.
The days of the army or family cook passed into history. The need arose for Princeton’s eating clubs to hire professional chefs to meet the increasing membership and diverse culinary requirements of both undergraduate members and alumni. Buffets, soup, and salad bars soon replaced waiter service. Sushi and wraps were more common than mint jelly, and “carb loading” could not be done with just one plate at dinner.
Dennis Normile, an accomplished, award-winning chef in his own right, trained both Josh Estenes and Michael McNeilas as apprentices. Mark Hunter and Greg Bonagura, Cap’s successive club chefs, have raised the culinary bar over the years. Alumni Open House events now attract crowds of 500 or more undergraduates, alumni, and friends. Formals have become multi-day marvels. Weekly club night dinners showcase cuisines from around the world, and daily diverse menus reflect the increasing appetites and cultural tastes of the membership.
Dennis Normile’s role as steward has extended in other ways as well. He is most often found in his office, now a nice new space with a view in the basement of the new addition, offering advice and instructions to the staff, officers, and members who frequent his door. He’s always there to lend an ear and is frequently a guidance counselor for students dealing with the challenges and pressures of college life.
Dennis is a man of many talents. In addition to being an outstanding chef who can whip up a multi-tiered wedding cake, he is a talented painter and a number of his paintings are hanging in his office as well as with collectors and in the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. Dennis trains championship dogs and can play a mean set of drums. The students get the benefit of his talents for special parties when he’ll help devise clever themes, paint backdrops, and even whip up an ice sculpture.
Mike McNeil and Josh Estenes have both had serious illnesses in the past few years. We are so glad that Mike is back. And we keep Josh in our hearts and prayers.
Cap and Gown has been blessed to have such a devoted staff who make it a very special place, which is why this book is dedicated to our staff over the years. Perhaps the hired cook of the “Incubator” would have been hard pressed to whip up a gluten free Thai dinner, but the Victorian membership of that time would still find Cap as inviting and comfortable a clubhouse as the members do in the 21st century.