Those who knew and worked closely with President Elizabeth Garrett spoke about her passion for learning, her spirit of undying curiosity and her commitment to Cornell at a memorial service held in Bailey Hall Thursday.
Following a rendition of The Road Home by the Cornell University Chorus and a presentation of quotes from Garrett’s speeches at Cornell, Board of Trustees Chair Robert Harrison ’76 called Garrett’s death on March 6 from colon cancer “enormous, institutionally unprecedented and profound both for Cornell and for many of us personally.”
“In the past 10 days I have been flooded with condolences, expressions of disbelief and memories of Beth from people whose lives she’s touched in Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, Chicago, California, New York, China and Israel,” Harrison said. “Beth was an extraordinarily passionate, courageous and can-do leader who devoted her life to scholarship and public service. She was a remarkable role model and friend to so many.”
Harrison said that Garrett made an “unforgettable first impression” on him during her interview with the presidential search committee when, after greeting the 22 committee members by name, Garrett “turned two hours of Q&A into a virtuoso demonstration of deep familiarity with Cornell.”
Harrison said that Garrett remained “infectiously optimistic” during his frequent phone calls to her after her cancer diagnosis, stressing that she “never gave up” and remained determined to return to Cornell even throughout his final conversation with her two weeks ago.
Annie O’Toole, grad, a member of the presidential search committee that selected Garrett out of almost 200 candidates in 2014, said that she looked up to Garrett as both a leader and a mentor. O’Toole added that she saw in Garrett the qualities of a “lifelong student,” saying she related to those at Cornell so well because she herself “never stopped learning.”
“Her intellectual curiosity was limitless and she had this very rare ability to continuously seek out new information,” O’Toole said. “She was the type of student I strive to be every day when I walk into Cornell Law School. Her example reminds me that the greatest success is found when one follows one’s passions. She may have been the hardest working person I’ve ever met.”
Mark Weinberger, CEO of Ernst & Young, recalled Garrett’s “incredible excitement, anticipation, pride, optimism and pure awe” on the day before her presidential inauguration on Sept. 18. Weinberger said that he was initially incredibly frustrated with how Garrett, who graduated first in their law school class, “was always perfect” but later came to love her for it over the course of their 25-year friendship.
“There are just some people in this world who suck oxygen out of a room when they enter it and there are some who breathe life into it. Beth breathed life into everything around her,” Weinberger said. “There are those who constantly give and those who mostly take. Beth was the ultimate giver … She could have been a brilliant and very wealthy lawyer but she chose a life of education and scholarship — of building a better future for others.”
Weill Cornell Medicine Prof. Orli Etingin, clinical medicine, said that Garrett was a scholar, leader and true visionary, saying she felt privileged to care for her during her time of illness.
Etingin also remembered how Garrett continued to hold meetings, travel and deliver speeches as her illness progressed, despite the rigors of treatment which often left her feeling poorly.
“Whenever there was a brief respite from the pain or the treatments she would be sending emails to Cornell faculty and students — many of you know you got those emails at 3 a.m.,” Etingin said. “She was holding conference calls from her hospital room all the time … Those of us who knew her were awestruck by her perseverance.”
Etingin said that Garrett “always hoped she would recover from this illness” until her last day, when she returned to her home after a five-week hospital stay. Etingin said she visited Garrett and her husband on Garrett’s final night.
“She pulled me close and gave me a message to give all of you in the Cornell community,” Etingin said. “She said ‘Please Orli, please tell them. Be sure to tell them at Cornell that I think they’re great and that there are important things in store for them. I am so proud of everyone and I know that they’ll be fine. There’s a great road ahead for Cornell.’”
Acting President and Provost Michael Kotlikoff said that Garrett’s intelligence, energy, candor and fierce determination helped all Cornellians think more boldly about taking risks and striving to achieve.
He also said that Garrett’s career helped demonstrate that certain characteristics such as gender and race do not determine how well individuals perform as leaders.
“I think it’s very important for everyone in our community to know that Beth was enduring symptoms of her illness and undergoing difficult treatments for much of the time she was with us,” Kotlikoff said. “Our president, this force of nature, refused to surrender to her disease and refused to allow it to define her. She was convinced that she would beat it —While many of us may wish that she had allowed us an opportunity to offer expressions of comfort, affection and encouragement and in the end allowed us to grieve with her, Beth would have none of it. She told me ‘Mike, I don’t want to be that president with cancer.’”
The memorial concluded with a performance of Amazing Grace by the Cornell University Glee Club, followed by the Alma Mater, which was sung by all in attendance.