August 27, 2003

Legends of the Hill

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Everybody loves a good ghost story. It seems as though the human psyche is inexplicably drawn to the unknown. And while there may not be any true ghosts at Cornell, the University does have its fair share of secrets, superstitions and outrageous stories.

Many of Cornell’s legends revolve around relationships. It is, after all, a college campus — and rumor has it that 60 percent of Cornellians marry other Cornellians. One of these legends says that if someone refuses a kiss on the suspension bridge, it will collapse and fall into the gorge.

Actually, there are two suspension bridges on campus. According to Brian O. Earle ’68, advising coordinator of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the bridge the legend refers to is the one that crosses Fall Creek next to the Johnson Museum of Art. However, “some have claimed that the other one [located in the Plantations] qualifies as well,” he explained, “especially if they have a date.”

After students get past that first kiss, they may consider going on a long romantic walk together. However, they should consider where that walk may lead them. Another popular campus superstition says that if a couple holds hands while walking all the way around Beebe Lake, they’re destined to become engaged.

And that rumor about 60 percent of Cornellians marrying each other? According to Greg Pratt ’00, staff development specialist for Campus Information and Visitor Relations, it’s actually closer to 8 percent.

But if a student should happen to meet that special someone here on campus, they might choose to get married in Sage Chapel. If they do, it’s common for the bride to prepare in the crypt.

“The chapel doesn’t have a bride’s room … so that room is used [instead],” Pratt explained. “There’s a legend,” he added, “that says that if a bride takes a long enough time getting ready, that the spirits of the founding fathers will rise and bless the union.”

Another story involving the crypt explains why the chapel’s namesake, Henry Sage, is not buried there. According to tour guide Katie Wickham ’05, Jenny McGraw Fiske’s will included a donation to Cornell to help build Uris Library. After she died, her husband Willard Fiske, then Cornell’s librarian, challenged the will and was eventually awarded the money. According to the Cornell Library website, the legal battle — known as “The Great Will Case” — lasted seven years and was finally decided by the Supreme Court.

“It made [Sage] so mad that he gave the money for the library himself,” Wickham said.

Sage also refused to be buried in the crypt along with the Fiske family; he is instead buried under the altar.

“The Pumpkin” is another popular story around campus. In October of 1997, a specimen of the great orange gourd mysteriously appeared on top of McGraw Tower, where it remained until March of the next year. No one ever took credit for the prank, although a 2000 article in The Sun revealed the intricate planning that went behind it, involving a daring climb to the top of the tower, some duct tape and a lot of chutzpah.

“It’s a great story. It’s just so captivating for the whole community,” Pratt said, adding that it is also extremely popular with visitors.

A piece of the pumpkin is still kept in Uris Hall as a tongue-in-cheek addition to the Wilder Brain Collection.

Another mysterious sight on campus is the memorial in front of Day Hall.

“There’s a little grave marker right on [East Avenue],” said Lauren Gavin ’04, another campus tour guide. “People always think that someone’s buried there.”

The marker, which reads “Ostrander Elms 1880,” is actually in memory of the elm trees that once lined the street. In a Sun article last year, University archivist Elaine Engst explained that the trees were donated in 1880 by John B. Ostrander but were wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the 1960s.

Another memorial can be found on the Arts Quad in the form of two statues honoring Cornell’s founding fathers — Ezra Cornell 1870 and Andrew Dickson White. These statues, however, are now legends in their own right. Rumor has it that when a virgin crosses the Quad at midnight, the statues walk to the middle and shake hands. While no one is sure when the legend started, they do know that the footprints on the sidewalks were painted in 1936 and are renewed every year by a local fraternity. In an effort to explain the tradition, all Pratt could say was, “It’s just fun.”

Tour guide Cory Sinclair ’04 likes to tell his tours about the gargoyles in the Memorial Room of the Straight.

“If you notice,” he said, “the ones on the left are positive and the ones on the right are negative.”

According to Pratt, legend has it that the gargoyles on one side are the professors that Willard Straight 1901 preferred, and the ones on the other side are professors that he disliked.

“On one side they do look a little more flattering than the other side,” Pratt said.

He also added that one of the professors has “a finger that seems to be stuck up his nose for eternity,” and that he was perhaps a particularly disliked individual. However, if the gargoyles do represent specific professors, they aren’t very good likenesses. “They all kind of look alike to me,” Pratt admitted.

Even the sports teams at Cornell have stories attached to them. According to Pratt, the school colors aren’t actually red and white, but carnelian and white. The reddish color was chosen for its similarity to “Cornellian.”

Campbell’s soup also has red — or carnelian? — and white as its main colors.

“The colors for the cans are the same as our colors because Mr. Campbell was at a Cornell football game one time and decided that he liked the colors so much he’d use them [himself],” Pratt explained.

And Cornell’s bear mascot actually started with a real bear named Touchdown.

“That bear was part of a small zoo that was kept by a biology professor in the very early days of Cornell,” Pratt said.

It was a huge hit with the students and became an unofficial mascot. The original Touchdown was followed by Touchdown II and Touchdown III. According to Earle, the University switched to the bear costumes after one of the bears “mauled another mascot.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts