April 25, 2002

Silbey Says Goodbye After Long C.U. Career

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Prof. Joel H. Silbey, the President White Professor of History, will retire at the end of the year after thirty-six years at Cornell, and that, he jokingly said, might make him “sob and cry.”

Giants Fan

But don’t mistake the early American history professor and author or editor of fourteen books for a dry old academic. “My whole character was set by the fact that I was a New York Giants fan, not a Brooklyn Dodgers fan,” he said referring to the baseball Giants, who moved to San Francisco. “I grew up tough.”

Originally from Brooklyn, he came to Cornell in 1966 and played a crucial role in the development of American political history here.

Silbey has served on numerous committees (“I don’t know how many,” he said), and has been actively involved with the library for many years. “When I first came here, the library was very good, but there had not been anybody teaching in my field for some time,” Silbey said.


Silbey had also directed the Cornell-In-Washington program for five years, received a Guggenheim fellowship, and, among many other honors, won the Clark Distinguished Faculty Award for undergraduate teaching.

“I can’t think of one thing that stands out and says, ‘my God, I changed the world,'” Silbey said. “But I do think I changed a lot of lives and my research has changed a lot of assumptions.”

Silbey most remembers and prizes time spent with students. He has taught courses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and on American Political History. He currently teaches an undergraduate seminar on American political history.

“He has had a tremendous impact at Cornell as a teacher,” said Prof. Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr professor of American history, a longtime colleague.

It should come as no surprise then, that Silbey was honored at a retirement dinner last Saturday at the Statler Hotel attended by friends, former students, President Hunter R. Rawlings III and Chair of the Board of Trustees Harold Tanner ’52.

“[At the event] he received a tribute from the most important person in America to [Silbey]: Willie Mays,” said David Maisel ’68, a student of Professor Walter LaFeber, the Marie U. Noll professor of American history, who has been friendly with Silbey for over twenty years.

Silbey was given a letter from Mays and a photograph of “The Catch.” Mays caught a hit from Vic Wertz in the eighth inning of the first game of the 1954 World Series, which the New York Giants went on to win.

Maisel presented Silbey with the gift. He also created the LaFeber-Silbey Endowment in American History that brings lecturers to campus and provides research grants to students.

Silbey’s love for sports will not come as a surprise to his students. “My students know their grade depends upon how well the New York Giants do,” Silbey joked.

Silbey and his wife Rosemary, who works with Alumni Affairs and Development, also “attended many Cornell football games for thirty-six years and suffered, more often than not.” Both of his children went to Cornell and majored in history.

He said of himself, “I am a loyalist: loyal to the Giants and loyal to Cornell.”

Silbey will continue to conduct research, advise students and write books. His latest project involves the Texas Annexation Crisis of the 1840s.

Current students expressed sorrow at his departure, but joy at the courses he taught. “His skills as a teacher may even excel his esteemed scholarship,” said Michael Bronstein ’03, a veteran of three of Silbey’s classes. “It’s going to be a huge loss.”

Archived article by Peter Norlander