Brush With Greatness: Elena Elenadana Kagan

Unless every news outlet on the Internets has it wrong, once again President Obama is nominating a Princeton alumna to the Supreme Court.  Unlike Sonia Sotomayor, this time I actually knew her.

Elena Kagan was a year behind me, and I worked with her at The Daily Princetonian.  Every night a small rotating team of Prince reporters and editors would “work press” — oversee the production of the paper throughout the evening and sometimes into the early morning.  We would proofread, rewrite headlines and cut stories to make them fit, and when she and I worked press together or when I edited her stories, I briefly would have been her supervisor.  I don’t recall any such occasion, but I have no doubt that my wisdom and dedicated professionalism helped inspire… ah, nevermind.

Each year the student journalists would elect a member of the next year’s graduating class to serve as Chairman, and that person would oversee the paper for the coming year.  Elections typically went through several ballots and into the night.  My outgoing class ran the election for her incoming class, and Elena came in second (a lot better than I had fared the year before).  She arrived at the party after the balloting looking disappointed but composed, and I was impressed by her quiet dignity.

She was a hard-working, serious person.  A new TV show called Saturday Night Live was a massive hit on college campuses across the nation, and the late Gilda Radner played a recurring character called Roseanne Rosannadanna, a loopy newscaster.  For reasons lost in the mists of time, a few of us started referring to her as Elena Elenadana Kagan.  I remember being startled to learn that she had never watched SNL and had no idea what we were talking about.

I’ve had no contact with her since I graduated. I’d like to be able to say that I knew she was destined for great things, but I had no such insight.  I will say that years ago, when I read she had been named Dean of Harvard Law School, that I was impressed but not particularly surprised.

Before he died in 2008 at the age of 111, a man from my church was the oldest living alumnus of both Rutgers University and Harvard Law School.  At his funeral I learned that Harvard had honored him, and his family was surprised and grateful at how much time Dean Kagan spent talking with them and making them welcome.

Unlike Sotomayor, Kagan has no paper trail of judicial activism.  Her politics undoubtedly are to the left of mine, but that would be the case with any Obama nominee, and I see no reason to oppose her nomination (much to her relief, I’m sure).  Besides, since I didn’t know her classmate Eliot Spitzer, she’ll become the most prominent person about whom I can say “I knew her when” — and how cool is that?