Pahlavi at Williams: a year in the life of a Persian prince

Imagine wandering into art history or psychology on a Monday morning and plunking down in the seat next to a crown prince. Many of the students in the Class of 1982 discovered during their freshman year that they could do just that, as Reza Pahlavi, then Crown Prince of Iran, was one of their classmates at Williams. Fresh from his training as a jet fighter pilot in the United States Air Force Training Program, Pahlavi and his bodyguards showed up at the College in the fall of 1979 during a period of intense political ferment in Iran.

Though Williams is of course the number one liberal arts school in the country, one must wonder why Pahlavi chose to come to our little purple bubble, as opposed to a larger and perhaps more widely known school. To understand this question, we need to rewind a bit to Pahlavi’s application process, which, to say the least, was nothing at all akin to the way in which the average student loses sleep over admissions interviews and SAT scores.

During his application process, Pahlavi was stressed out about quite a different matter: demonstrations against his father, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his family’s subsequent exile from Iran. “At the time we were looking at prospective schools, we were in the ordeal of traveling from one country to another during the various steps of exile,” Pahlavi said during a phone interview. “When my parents came out of the country in the first place, we were together in Morocco, then the Bahamas, and we ended up in Mexico.”

According to Pahlavi, the College was highly recommended to him. Of course, there was also the added benefit that the College is in the middle of nowhere. “In terms of a smaller town, [Williams was] perhaps more secure in terms of environment,” Pahlavi said. “There were a lot of security concerns at the same time.”

After flying to the College around August of 1979 to be interviewed by the president, Pahlavi settled into the swing of college life. Of course, his swing was a little unusual. Pahlavi did not have to endure cramped living quarters in the Frosh Quad, or that annoying roommate who brings back his girl at 3 a.m every night. At first, he stayed in the grandest public accommodations in town: the Williams Inn. “Before we moved into a house that we had rented near the school, I used to stay in this little motel, which was at the entrance of the town,” Pahlavi said. He was, however, sometimes compelled to enter our little tuna cans. “I would visit my friends in their dorms and stay with them. You know, an all-nighter to pull or whatever,” Pahlavi said. “The dorms were kind of packed.”

Pahlavi later moved into a house on the edge of the Taconic Golf Course, which, as one might imagine, would be a scenic but potentially hazardous place to live (think flying golf balls). “It was a very typical New England house, a four-bedroom type house. I could see one of the course holes, which was right next to my door,” Pahlavi recalled.

For Jeffrey Kiesel ’82, one of Pahlavi’s classmates, the “typical New England house” brings back a very vivid and perhaps not-so-pleasant memory. Kiesel’s memory is tangled up with Pahlavi’s bodyguards, whom he first encountered because he worked as the weight room monitor at the gym. The three or four bodyguards frequented the weight room constantly. “They would do judo or jiu-jitsu, so they were stretching and doing martial arts,” Kiesel said. “And they were lifting more weight than anyone at Williams was lifting. They were easily bench-pressing 350 pounds. Easily.”

Keisel eventually got to know them, although “they weren’t the most outgoing guys.” His experience with the house came about because one of his friends hit a lousy shot on the golf course that flew smack into Pahlavi’s house. “One of the guards came out with a tommy gun,” Kiesel said. “Luckily, I said, ‘Hey, hey, hey; it’s me, Jeff – we’re just bad golfers.’ And he laughed it off, but he was on edge. He thought it was a gunshot.”

Besides the off-campus house, the intense guards and, well, the fact that he was a prince, Pahlavi lived a pretty normal college life. He loved the environment of the College, and enjoyed French literature because French was his second language. Admittedly, in between classes, he had to dodge reporters, and his friends helped him do so. “Students would say, ‘Reza, watch out, there are a couple of reporters over there, go the other way so you can miss them,’” Pahlavi said. “There was only so much time between classes – the last thing you need is to be caught by some reporters who expect you to give them a full interview in the middle of the street.”

Like the rest of us who go to the College, Pahlavi did not have much free time. “All you can do at Williams is study. Study, study, study. It was not a ‘party school,’” he said. In his free time, however, Pahlavi did enjoy taking photographs of the “festival of colors” the trees showed in the fall and flying jet planes over the College from a small airfield in North Adams. Willy Stern ’83, a member of the varsity soccer team, remembers that Pahlavi played JV soccer. “He shared the same locker room as us. He was just one more guy on the soccer team, only his guards would come down to the locker room with him,” Stern said.

Unfortunately Pahlavi’s life as “just one more guy” was actually underwritten by the concerns about crises like his family’s exiled status, his father’s deteriorating health and the uproar caused when U.S. hostages were taken into the embassy in Iran. During the summer of 1980, when other rising sophomores were dabbling in internships or soaking up sun, Pahlavi, in Egypt, was propelled into the Iranian political scene after his father’s death because the Iranian opposition was structuring itself. Forced to live in Egypt for three more years for security reasons, Pahlavi still wanted to continue his studies. “It was impossible for me to come to the States and continue classes,” Pahlavi said. He could only study through correspondence, and did so, earning his degree in political science from another school – UCLA – because Williams did not offer this option.

Now settled with a wife and three daughters, Pahlavi lives in Maryland and campaigns for human rights, democracy and freedom for Iranians. Although he only attended the College for one year, he still has fond memories of this time, and returned in 2004 to give a lecture on Iran. “Practically half of the town had shown up,” Pahlavi said. “It was very heartwarming to see so many people whom I remember from those years.”