Dinner at an Oxford High Table

Worcester College Hall

In the late 1990’s I was a guest for dinner at High Table at Oxford University’s Worcester College. My host was the Provost, Richard Smethurst.

Each of Oxford’s colleges has a High Table in its dining hall. It is a table on a raised platform at the far end of the hall that is reserved for the college’s dons and their guests. The rest of the hall has tables for the students on the floor of the hall. Many English novels set in Oxford or Cambridge have High Table scenes.

On the evening of the dinner I reported to one of Worcester’s Senior Common Rooms, which are rooms exclusively reserved for the dons’ communal gatherings. I was given an academic gown for the evening to wear over my business suit, shirt and tie.

We then marched to the dining hall, and upon our entry all of the students rose. We then proceeded to the High Table and our assigned seats. One of the students said grace (in Latin). Then everyone sat down, and service of the meal began.

The food that evening was excellent, and I said to the Provost that the food was much better than what we had when we sat at the other tables as students. Richard agreed, but said that the students’ food that night also was excellent. He explained that after Worcester had become a coeducational college (long after Richard and I were students), the father of the one of the female students was her dinner guest and was appalled at the poor quality of the food. The next day he made a special gift to Worcester to finance better food for the students once a month. (Once again I wish that I had kept a journal so that I could faithfully report exactly what was served for dinner that night.)

Once the meal was finished, everyone at the High Table rose and marched out of the dining hall while the students stood in homage. We repaired to another Senior Common Room. There snuff was passed around. I did not take any. We also were served port or sauterne wine. I imbibed the port.

The evening was not over. Another Senior Common Room was the next destination. Now it was coffee, brandy and cigars. I did not smoke, but had coffee and brandy.

It was a very pleasant to experience dinner at High Table after so many meals as a student for two years at Worcester seated at the other tables. (Again, if only I had a journal, I could decorate this essay with the details of the witty conversations that evening.)[1]

[1]  See Post: Oxford in New York City (May 27, 2011) (retirement dinner for Richard Smethurst.)

Oxford in New York City

Richard Smethurst

Two months ago I attended a dinner in New York City in honor of Richard Smethurst, [1] the retiring Provost of Oxford University’s Worcester College.[2]

Richard and I were students together at Worcester, 1961-63, and studied together (or revised together, as they say at Oxford) for the final examinations (or Schools in Oxford parlance) in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). Richard recalled that our economics tutor told us and the other PPE students at the College that when he “took Schools” he had answered the first four questions on the examination paper to show the examiners that he knew everything. Richards also remembered that I thought our tutor’s suggestion was stupid or silly and instead said we should select the four questions out of the 12 to 15 on the paper for which we were best prepared.

Richard and I then embarked on our own revision together in the spring of 1963. In that effort I prepared the answer to a possible question on Public Finance that luckily turned up on the actual examination. Richard and I both answered that question, and we both received Firsts (the highest mark).

In New York I recounted this story in after-dinner comments to the group and joked that I was responsible for Richard’s receiving a First.

Also at the dinner was Bill Bradley, the former basketball player and U.S. Senator, who was a Rhodes Scholar and PPE student at Worcester, 1965-68, and who had Smethurst as his economics tutor. [3] Bradley told the group that while he was in the Senate, Smethust spoke at a dinner in Washington, D.C. and said that Bradley was the best economics student he had ever had . . . who became a U.S. Senator. Left unsaid at the earlier dinner, Bradley told us in New York, was the fact that he was Smethurst’s only economics student who had become a U.S. Senator.

At my dinner table were Bill Sachs, who was the brother of Daniel M. Sachs, and Dan’s widow, Joan Sachs Shaw. Dan was an all-Ivy League football player at Princeton University and a Rhodes Scholar at Worcester, 1960-63. Dan played for the Oxford University rugby team, but in 1961 was”aced” out of playing against the Cambridge University team for the all important “Oxford Blue” honor when the Oxford captain prevailed upon Pete Dawkins to return to the team for the Cambridge match. (Dawkins was a running back for Army who in 1958 won the Heisman Trophy for the best football player in the U.S. and who was a Rhodes Scholar PPE student at another Oxford college, 1958-62.[4])

Dan Sachs was a friend of mine during those Oxford days, and In June 1963 he was my best man when Mary Alyce and I were married in Oxford.

After Dan’s untimely death in 1967, friends established in his honor a Sachs Scholarship for a Princeton graduate to attend Worcester College.[5] The most famous Sachs Scholar so far is Elena Kagan, now U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice.[6]

[1]  Wikipedia, Richard Smethurst, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Smethurst.

[2]  Worcester College, University of Oxford, http://www.worc.ox.ac.uk/.

[3]  Wikipedia, Bill Bradley, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Bradley.

[4]  Pete Dawkins, http://www.petedawkins.com/.

[5]  Princeton University, Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Scholarship, http://www.princeton.edu/sachs/index.xml.

[6]  Wikipedia, Elena Kagan, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elena_Kagan.