Jan. 11th was a winter day like any other in Ithaca — a blustery wind whipped leaves around a deserted quad, and the statues of A.D. White and Ezra Cornell looked out over the quiet campus while students were enjoying their last precious days of winter break. A chimes concert broke the peace — the McGraw Tower bells were pealing “Happy Birthday.” Inside the sleeping giant of Olin Library, a crowd of Cornell alumni, faculty, staff and friends filled Libe Café. It was not just any day, but the 200th birthday of University founder Ezra Cornell.
“Cornell had a lot of money and didn’t know what to do with it,” said Corey Earle ’07, who has researched Cornell University history and compiled exhibits on the subject. “He wanted to give back to the community.”
“Cornell died in 1874 before the University had taken off,” Earle, who is also a Sun columnist, said. “The best [birthday] gift would be for him to see what the university became. I think he would be proud of it.”
Prof. Carol Kammen, history, who has written two books on the history of Cornell, agreed that the best gift would be, “a chance to come back and see what he did for the community.”
Just before the founding of the University, Kammen said, “[Cornell] was $50,000 in debt and ill. When he came into all of his money, instead of spending it on himself or squirreling it away for his family, he wrote that he wanted to do the most good with it and wanted to help Ithaca, his home community. I find that stirring.”
Ezra Cornell was born two hundred years ago in Westchester, N.Y. He was the eldest of eleven children. Cornell could only attend school in the winter months. He compensated for his humble beginnings and scarce opportunities with a tireless work ethic — working throughout his life as a potter, farmer, carpenter, contractor and mechanic.
Cornell’s skill and interest in mechanics — on the subject of which he was mainly self-taught — led to his later involvement in the telegraph industry. His work and ingenuity were key to the first-ever telegraph message that Samuel Morse sent on May 24, 1844. “The telegraph is where Cornell made his first major contributions. He developed the plow that put telegraph’s underground, and the idea of the telephone pole,” Earle said.
Despite his contributions, Cornell was known to refer to himself as a farmer and a mechanic who spent some time in the telegraph industry. Cornell’s work in telegraphs earned him a wealth his family had never attained, and one that he himself had never anticipated. The Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections website attributes the achievement of this fortune to “skillful work, uncommon tenacity, and fortuitous circumstances.” These same factors would result in the founding of a truly unique university.
Cornell moved to Ithaca and made it his home in 1828. In the 1830s, he became involved in both politics and real estate. Cornell’s political involvement led to his election to the N.Y. State Senate, where he met Andrew Dickson White of nearby Syracuse. Out of their shared dream, they planned and founded Cornell University. White was inaugurated as the University’s first president on October 7, 1968.
“The founding of Cornell University brought together all the themes that were important in Ezra Cornell’s life: his deep and abiding concern for education, his interest in agriculture, his philanthropic impulse, and his political sense,” he RMC notes. Against convention, advice, and opposition, Cornell addressed the first class of 412 students—at the time, the largest class every admitted to any American college. “Finally, I trust we have laid the foundation of an University,” he said, “ an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”
In celebration of Cornell’s bicentennial, the University will hold events throughout the year. On Jan.18th, the University’s public relations organ — the Cornell Chronicle — launched the “Ezra Files,” a column about Cornell’s life. On March 8, a bicentennial exhibition called, “I Would Found an Institution” will open in the Kroch Library. An academic symposium is being planned for Oct. 18.