It’s that time of the year again. Reading week has arrived, and papers and finals are probably fully occupying your full attention. But 20 years ago, Northwestern students had something even bigger on their minds.
On June 4, 1996, her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, Princess Diana, came to Northwestern.
“Andy Warhol once said that everybody deserves 15 minutes of fame in their life. I just got more than my share,” then ASG President Leontine Chuang wrote in an article for the Daily Northwestern. She was one of six lucky students selected to greet Princess Diana in front of University Hall when she arrived on campus.
Henry Bienen, former president of Northwestern University, first received Princess Diana on the Lakefill and accompanied her for three days during her visit to Northwestern and Chicago. Looking back on the grand reception now after 20 years, Bienen said the path leading to Norris had never been so crowded.
“We walked around, and I was amazed at the lines behind her. I was less surprised with her than with these crowds of people,” Bienen said.
Northwestern’s Director of Media Relations Pat Tremmel said she was “completely swept up in the Princess’s magic” at the scene.
“It was like a figure from a fairytale came alive,” Tremmel said.
Bienen recalled how impressed he was by how fresh Diana looked, even after a long flight. He and several student leaders showed her around the campus before escorting her to the President’s house for dinner.
“The newspeople were outside the house, the governor was there and only by that time I realized what a big deal it was,” Bienen said.
However, many students knew fully well what a big deal the royal visit was. When the Princess first arrived on campus at 6:40 p.m. surrounded by police cars with blaring sirens and helicopters, cheers and screams erupted among student onlookers.
According to the Daily Northwestern, one student shrieked, “Oh my God! There she is!” After shaking hands with the Princess, another student said, “I’ll never wash that hand again.”
“She awed us all with her shy beauty, her strong passion about making a difference and her desire to be as accessible as possible to the crowds who were crazy to get up close to her,” Tremmel said.
In preparation for the Princess’s visit, everyone who would potentially interact with her had to learn the protocol expected when dealing with royalty, such as when to address the Princess as “Your Royal Highness” versus “Ma’am” and when it was acceptable to shake her hand. However, they soon realized that Princess Diana didn’t seem worried about such formalities.
“She didn’t care at all,” Bienen said. “Although there were security officers and people from the British Council, but she herself was extremely informal.”
A friend of Bienen’s wife initially proposed the idea to host the Princess. The friend used to work at People and noticed the publication’s subscription numbers always rose when Princess Diana appeared in an issue. The plan didn’t come to fruition right away, but about a year later, his idea became a reality.
As President of London’s Royal Marsden Hospital and its Cancer Fund at the time, Princess Diana visited Northwestern to raise money for the University’s Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center.
Over the five days she spent in the U.S., Princess Di visited both Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses, Cook County Hospital and the Chicago Field Museum. When she first stepped out of her black Rolls Royce at the Field Museum for a fundraising gala, the 300 spectators were surprised by her purple gown.
“I asked if she knew that purple was the color of Northwestern, because it could just simply be the royal color, and she just laughed,” Bienen said. “I think she did it on purpose.”
Not many people get to be Prince Charming for a night and dance with a real princess. But Bienen can still vividly recall his dance with Princess Di at the gala.
“She was wearing heels, and so she was very tall. When people saw the picture [of me dancing with her], they asked if I had shrunk,” Bienen said.
The royal visit has left a lasting impact on cancer research at Northwestern and other hospitals in the Chicago region. Bienen said she raised at least a million dollars in total during her five-day visit.
“Research is the heartbeat of leading universities, and I was so impressed with how she used her worldwide celebrity to advance such a worthy cause,” Tremmel said.
Yet the Princess’s connection to Northwestern did not stop at just one trip. Later on, she sent Bienen autographs and photos of herself with her sons.
One year before her death, she was still sending Bienen letters and emails. In exchange, Bienen gave her Northwestern gear. “She was photographed going into her gym in London wearing Northwestern sweatshirts,” Bienen said. The Princess brought her purple pride all the way back to the U.K.