Take Five with Niles Eldredge ’65, GSAS’69

Niles Eldredge ’65, GSAS’69 is a curator emeritus in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; he joined the curatorial staff in 1969.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived on campus on a sweltering hot day in September 1961, after spending most of the summer watching Mantle and Maris hitting home runs with my younger brother Dave, and listening to Bessie Smith singing the blues.

I told the interviewer in Admissions that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up (Perry Mason, and the fact that the guy with the most money in my neighborhood of Eastchester, N.Y., was a trial attorney, were my stated reasons). I told him I was thinking of majoring in Greek and Latin, and he looked at me crossed-eyed. I got in despite that. Didn’t hurt that my father graduated from CC in ’38: white boy privilege squared.

1961 was the year Columbia tied for the Ivy League championship in football. We lost first place when we faltered against rival Princeton, in the last game of the season, down at their less vibrant, if more bucolic, digs. With fellow trumpeter Dan Carlinsky ’65, JRN’66 and many other goofy kids, I was in the famed Marching Band; we broke rank as we frantically assumed the next “choreographed” position in our send-up satirical halftime shows.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I moved into New Hall (later, Carman Hall) on the corner of Broadway and 114th. Four guys, two-bedroom suite and shared bath. Pretty classy. My roommates were David Sard ’69 (in with me), Richard Dungu ’65 from Uganda (who graduated in three years and went, like Charles Darwin and so many others before him, to medical school in Edinburgh), and Tom “TZ” DeZengotita GS’73, GSAS’92.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I needed a science course to fulfill my Core Curriculum obligations. Friends told me to take geology — a gut course, if you could put up with the boring details. I collected my first fossils in some Middle Devonian rocks in East Stroudsburg, Pa., on a spring 1963 historical geology field trip. I collected more fossils that summer in the field in Brazil, in Pleistocene sandstone that eroded into a natural harbor where the fishermen anchored their saveiros at night. My project was to study the technology, and the navigational and fishing techniques, of those men who took me out in that wind-powered fleet. I am, literally, still hooked on technology — these days, technological evolution.

So there was a bit of a playoff going on: Was it to be rocks and fossils, or the world of social customs and mores? The answer was “yes” for a while — but I needed to narrow it down.

The Big News was the arrival of a small bunch of new graduate students in paleontology, most of them enrolled in the geology department. One of them was Stephen Jay Gould GSAS’67, and others who would go on to play a big part in my professional life. These guys let me tag along, participate in student-run seminars, go on field trips — just hang out.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Schermerhorn Hall, with “Speak to the Earth and It Shall Teach Thee” carved into a slab of Indiana limestone above its entrance-way doors; it became the focus of my campus life.

Off-campus, The West End was an early focal point, especially when Phil Schaap ’73 added live jazz with a heavy emphasis on Count Basie alumni. Still blows my mind. I got together with five or six others, including Leonard Pack ’65, LAW’70, SIPA’70, our class scribe, who was a hell of a ragtime pianist and an all-around nice guy, and formed the Columbia-Barnard Jazz Club right away. We met in the newly built Ferris Booth Hall. Michelle Wycoff GS’66, the sole female founding member in that club, and I started dating pretty soon thereafter. We were married in 1964 and celebrated our 56th anniversary on June 6, 2020. Two boys, five grandchildren. Columbia paid off bigly right from the get-go!

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Short answer: I owe pretty much my entire life to Columbia College. And, sure, I’d do it all over again — provided I didn’t have to start in 2020!