In a memorial service at Sage Chapel Saturday, friends and administrators honored the life and achievements of former University President Dale Corson, who died on March 31 at the age of 97.
Corson, who served as president from 1969 to 1977, was recognized at the service for a wide array of academic accomplishments in the field of physics. In 1940, Corson was part of the team at the University of California at Berkeley that discovered astatine, the 85th element in the periodic table.
His accomplishments also led him to earn a Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1947 and several awards from the National Academy of Sciences later in his life.
But in his welcome address, President David Skorton highlighted Corson’s humble background, noting that it made Corson modest and reserved about his successes.
“We talk about first-generation college students, but [Corson] was the first in his family to attend high school in Emporia, Kansas, where the family moved after their farm failed,” Skorton said. “[Corson] obviously rose to the very highest levels within his profession, but he remained true to the values of his Midwestern roots … always exemplifying integrity and competence and great and hard-formed wisdom.”
According to Prof. Emeritus Maury Tigner, physics, Corson –– prior to his arrival at Cornell –– put his scientific expertise to use during World War II. In 1941, he began working with radar technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying how it could be used in war airplanes. In 1946, he helped found the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., a facility “that focuses on the application of the sciences to national defense,” according to Tigner.
Corson arrived at Cornell in 1947 as an associate professor of physics, and was promoted to chair the physics department in 1956. According to Tigner, Corson’s love of teaching and scientific curiosity quickly made him a favorite among students.
“No better summary of the first years of his teaching could be given than the 1950 report of the then-physics department chair, and I quote: ‘During the past five years, [Corson] has been in charge of part of the sophomore physics course for students of Arts and Sciences. He has taken a great interest in this course, and he has been instrumental in improving the quality of the course, and at the same time, stimulating and maintaining student interest in it,’” Tigner said. “Pedagogy remained a central part of [Corson]’s devotion.“
Still, several speakers noted that one of Corson’s greatest contributions to Cornell was his leadership during the student protests against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In 1969, following the Straight Takeover — in which black students took over the Straight to demand improvements in the inclusion of minorities on campus — the selection of a new University President was treated as having critical importance.
Prof. Emeritus Robert Plane, chemistry and chemical biology, said Corson’s honesty, trustworthiness and integrity made him a clear choice for the position.
“It was an immediate and unanimous agreement that we must get a president just as soon as possible, and the only one for the job was [Corson],” Plane said. “Every action he took reflected his devotion to truth and his strong conviction that a university must be a place for discovery and preserving truth.”
According to Prof. Ken McClane ’73 M.F.A. ’76, English, who was a freshman in 1970 during Corson’s tenure, the president’s ability to “listen more than he talked” held the University together during the civil rights movement.
“In the difficult years of Cornell’s racial coming of age, it was [Corson] who kept the institution together [not only] physically, but also spiritually,” McClane said. “He viewed [students], as he did me, as fellow travelers … He understood that we were variously impassioned and sometimes wrong and sometimes naïve, but irrefutably valuable.”
Prof. Emeritus Walter LaFeber, history, said that Corson was also known for his humility. Despite his reputation as “the quiet president,” Corson will be remembered more for his “personal courage” and his “cutting-edge intelligence,” LaFeber said.
“Dale’s gifts, like his personality, were unique, and those gifts will also be inspiring for the many he touched and helped, nationally, and internationally, and I think especially for Cornellians,” LaFeber said.
Katherine Corson and Abby Spencer, two of Corson’s granddaughters, said that they will most remember their grandfather’s curiosity that lasted from his childhood to his old age.
“There didn’t seem to be any question [Corson] couldn’t answer,” Katherine Corson said. “He remembered people, events and dates with amazing accuracy, and knew something about almost everything … What he didn’t know he took on as a challenge.”
Skorton said Corson’s legacy in Ithaca continues in the form of the Pew Sundial on the Engineering Quad, which he co-designed and built in 1980; the Kendal at Ithaca Assisted Living Community that he founded in 1991; and the Dale R. Corson Memorial Fund, an organization that supports Cornell students’ health and well-being.
But according to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, Corson will be remembered for his unique love of learning.
“Dale Corson was indeed Cornell’s good fortune,” Murphy said. “Ever the educator, he also remained a learner until the very end, inspired by his insatiable desire to know, and his eternal sense of wonder in all that surrounded him.”
Among the guests in attendance were Nellie Griswold, Corson’s wife of 73 years, and many current and emeritus professors who knew Corson. The service included performances by the Cornell Glee Club the Cornell University Chorus, and University organist Prof. Annette Richards, music. The event was followed by a reception in Dyson Atrium in Sage Hall that was hosted by Skorton and Corson’s family.