A simple gray granite bench, situated along Olin Library’s northern walkway, lies low to the ground, hardly noticed by passers-by. The inscription — “In memory of Steven D. Gaynor ’64, 1942-1961” — beckons observers to uncover the mystery of what caused the 19-year-old’s premature death.
Dedicating a bench has become a traditional way of remembering young Cornell students who have lost their lives during or soon after their undergraduate years.
One of the oldest campus memorials is a stone bench placed on Libe Slope by Prof. Bernhard E. Fernow (for whom Fernow Hall is named) in memory of his daughter Gordon, who died one semester before her graduation in 1902. Most recently, the family of Michelle A. Evans ’01 dedicated a memorial bench in her name on Stimson Hall Plaza, one year after she was killed by a bus while crossing Wait Avenue.
University Archivist Elaine D. Engst has wondered why benches are generally used as memorials for students who died during their Cornell years.
“I’m not sure quite why a bench is a fitting memorial to a young person,” Engst said.
According to Inge T. Reichenbach, vice president for alumni affairs and development, “Memorials are always initiated by family or friends of the deceased.” She explained that is why not everyone who dies has a memorial.
“And it is family and friends who decide on the kind of memorial they would like to have,” she added. “Benches, obviously, are very popular.”
Their popularity may derive from the relative cost and ease of approval of installing a bench versus some other marker. Reichenbach explained that costs of memorials are paid for by the friends or family of the deceased, “and the gift has to be large enough to cover the initial costs as well as the ongoing care for the memorial.”
Each request must also come before the University’s Committee on Memorials and Named Facilities, Reichenbach said. That goes for requests to name a building or any other space, or to erect a memorial. Reichenbach chairs the committee, which also includes two faculty members, the provost or her delegate, the Vice President for Administration or his? Her? delegate and the director of University development.
“The persons who would like to establish a memorial provide the committee with the proposed wording and the design. The committee’s job is to make sure that the wording is appropriate for Cornell and the occasion and that the designs are consistent across the University,” Reichenbach said. Her committee meets four times a year but addresses pressing requests via mail, e-mail or phone, she explained.
The designs and the inscriptions for the memorial benches vary widely. The Sheldon Memorial Exedra, for example a white marble seat shaped in a semi-circle around a sundial is far more elaborate than Gordon Fernow’s stone block tucked into Libe Slope downhill from Morrill Hall. And the words carved into the bench remembering Lauren Pickard ’90 are far more descriptive than those inscribed on a bench for Gaynor.
Fernow’s memorial remembers a robust, athletic young woman who, after a brief stay at the University infirmary, died of septic fever (similar to blood poisoning) on January 3, 1902. She was 21 years old.
The inscription on the stone has been beaten so badly by Ithaca weather that the words “Gordon Fernow, KKG [Kappa Kappa Gamma], To all lovers of nature,” are hardly visible.
The simple ornamentation and inscription, however, suit her personality. Fernow was an avid lover of the outdoors. At her memorial service, Prof. G.L. Burr remembered “how, in a four-mile lope through the Adirondack woods roads, I found Gordon Fernow my full match. This endurance was both outcome and condition of her boundless love of out-of-doors. True forester’s daughter that she was, no tramp could weary, no roughing daunt her.”
The Sheldon Memorial Exedra, in contrast, was placed by Charles Lacy Sheldon in honor of his two sons, Franklin Lacy Sheldon 1892 and Charles Lacy Sheldon, Jr. 1901, M.A. 1902. Franklin died in 1895 and Charles, Jr. followed in 1908. The younger Charles Lacy Sheldon was a member of Psi Upsilon Fraternity and, according to his alumni file in the University Archives of Kroch Library, became the manager of Sheldon Court and owner of the first-story Triangle Book Shop in 1902. Around the sundial is written “As a shadow, such is life.”
According to Elaine Engst, University Archivist, the Sheldon Memorial Exedra “was actually restored when Kroch Library was built between 1990 and 1992.”
One of the more descriptive inscriptions rests on a stone bench surrounded by rose bushes on Libe Slope, to the left of the subterranean reading room or Cocktail Lounge. Written in memory of Pickard, it reads, “Her joie de vivre heightened the senses of everyone she touched. We embrace her always in our hearts.”
Gaynor’s modest bench leaves more to be discovered. Newspaper accounts from December 18, 1961 tell how Gaynor was killed the day before in a car accident when his sports car was hit from behind by a tractor trailer. The driver of the truck had fallen asleep at the wheel at 4 a.m., as Gaynor, a pre-med student majoring in zoology and his friend Hanley M. Horwitz ’64 were driving to Buffalo to visit Horwitz’s parents.
Gaynor died instantly of a fractured skull, and Horwitz was treated for facial lacerations and abrasions at Brooks Memorial Hospital in Buffalo. The driver of the tractor trailer, 24-year-old Albert Gardner, was unhurt. “He was charged with reckless driving, fined $100 and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. A charge of criminal negligence is pending investigation by the state police,” the newspaper said.
A more visible memorial bench, made of wood and flanked by evergreens, sits behind Day Hall on the path between Sage Chapel and the Campus Store. It reads, “Dedicated to the memory of Clay Johnson, Jeffrey Melvin. Sigma Nu. They live within us.”
Johnson ’79 and Melvin ’81 were fraternity brothers who died on March 3, 1979. They were driving back with four other Sigma Nu brothers from a party in Cortland when their car was hit by another vehicle carrying a young couple. The couple’s car “was traveling north on Route 13 when it crossed into the southbound land, colliding broadside with the car full of fraternity brothers, driven by Johnson, which was traveling south,” said the report in the Syracuse Post Standard.
The newest bench remembering a young Cornell student was dedicated in 2001, “In loving memory of Michelle A. Evans ’01,” and is located in front of Stimson Hall. The plaque tells of Evans’ aspirations, reading, “February 8, 1979 – March 16, 2000. Devoted premedical student and dedicated biology major. She wanted to make a difference and she did.”
Cornell’s first president set the precedent for dedicating benches in scenic locations when he chose the summit of the Libe Slope for his sitting legacy. Andrew Dickson White and his wife would sit for hours behind the University Library, now named Uris Library, enjoying the view of Ithaca’s western hills and Cayuga Lake. They marked their favorite spot behind the University Library with a stone bench in 1892, inscribing it with the words, “To those who shall sit here rejoicing, to those who shall sit here mourning; sympathy and greeting; so have we done in our time.”
Archived article by Heather Schroeder