SJT shmoozes with freshmen

More 400 freshmen chatted with President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg on issues ranging from his first kiss to tuition increases Wednesday night in the Hippodrome.

The annual “late night with the president” offered freshmen the opportunity to ask Trachtenberg questions and a chance to win a pizza party with the president. Lafayette Hall, which had 47 percent of its residents in attendance and showed the most “spirit,” won the prize.

Some freshmen got to know the President last week, when he invited
70 honors students and faculty to hear stories, look at family collections and photographs and eat appetizers with the Trachtenbergs in their home Wednesday, Oct. 23.

The students were chosen through a random lottery of 220 interested honors freshmen, said University Honors Program Director Peter Rollberg, who said he was “amazed at the response.”

Students met a trolley at Kogan Plaza and rode for about 10 minutes before pulling up to a wooden gate that leads to a four-story brick house on Bancroft Drive near Embassy Row.

Trachtenberg and his wife, Francine, showed photo collection and told stories, including the origin of the bronze hippo statue outside Lisner Auditorium.

“We were in Newport, Rhode Island and stopped at a place that sold old architectural remnants,” said Francine Trachtenberg. “Stephen started talking to the man running the shop. I had to go back to Washington, but Stephen bought and shipped the hippo to the house. When I saw it, I said ‘to campus!'”

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s version of the story included sharing a “six pack” or two with the shop owner.

Mrs. Trachtenberg said her husband doesn’t have a particular fondness for hippos, but that his purchase prompted nine friends to give them miniatures anyway.

“If they had a fabulous elephant, he would have bought t,” she said.

The Trachtenbergs said they invite several student groups a year to their house, but this was the first in two years for the honors program.

Guests stepped through the large entryway, which has a newspaper clipping of the GW men’s basketball team on one side and a picture of the Trachtenbergs with Tipper Gore and New York Senator Hillary Clinton on the other.

Honors students and faculty were escorted to the second floor up stairs lined with photographs of Albert Einstein.

“President Clinton once said ‘this is a swell place,’ and I told him, my lease is the same as yours,” said President Trachtenberg, noting the former president of the United States spent some time at the Trachtenberg home during his term.

GW allows University presidents to live in the house free of charge during their tenures. The Trachtenbergs moved from Connecticut, where President Trachtenberg served as president of the University of Hartford, when he began his term at GW 14 years ago. The family lived in a house paid for by Hartford during President Trachtenberg’s 11-year term at the university.

Einstein’s photos represent part of the Trachtenbergs’ collection of 100 pictures, which are displayed throughout the house.

President Trachtenberg called his home “one of Washington’s most elegant public houses,” adding “it is a tool for the job.”

Mrs. Trachtenberg spoke to the students about the family’s several collections, including photographs, fountain pens and hippo statues.

She said a third of the photos are of New York, where the Trachtenbergs are from, a third are portraits and the final third are “eclectic pieces that we loved and didn’t fit into any other categories.”

Students and faculty munched on appetizers as they mingled with the Trachtenbergs in three large rooms on the second floor, talking about everything from the Middle East to rugby.

“(President Trachtenberg) was sincere,” freshman Melissa Bez said. “He told me about a good Chinese restaurant in my area.”

Freshman Michael Vogel noted the house’s museum-like quality, and said he didn’t want to “touch anything.”

“As formal as the house is, I hope it can be informal,” said Mrs. Trachtenberg, who serves as senior vice president for WETA, D.C.’s public television station. “It is a nice way to get personal. There are 8,000 undergrads and we do it about 70 at a time.”

In addition to entertaining, the Tratchenbergs make an effort to appear on campus.

“I have lunch at J Street every week, and office hours once a month,” President Trachtenberg said. “I’ll be holding an open forum soon, which is just a meeting in Thurston Hall with a bunch of pizzas.” He also said he enjoys napping in the Gelman Library on the red leather chairs.

“We show up at as many activities as possible, but we can’t get to all,” Mrs. Trachtenberg said. “It is a seven-day-a-week job in that sense.” She also said her husband “walks around campus and looks for people who look lost.”

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