October 3, 2003

The Origin of Ithaca's Icon

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Walking around campus inevitably leads you to see at least one person sporting a kelly green t-shirt with the logo “Ithaca is Gorges” emblazoned across the chest in white letters. After being at the University for a while, the shirt becomes a part of the Cornell landscape. But who ever stops to think about where it came from?

“It just popped into my brain,” said Howard Cogan ’50, owner of the advertising agency Howard Cogan Associates, which came up with the idea over 20 years ago. Initially the logo was published as a photo illustration on the cover of a weekly publication called the Town Crier. “Right off the bat, we allowed people in the community to reproduce it. [We] let people use it and have fun with it.”

Cogan gave the logo to the Ithaca Chamber of Commerce, which made the first “Ithaca is Gorges” merchandise — the green-and-white bumper stickers that are still sold today. The logo has always been the same: white lettering with a waterfall for the letter “l.”

The first t-shirts were made when Abdul Razak Sheikh, the owner of T-Shirt Expressions on the Commons, asked Cogan for permission to use the design.

“We started creating the t-shirts 20 years ago,” Sheikh said. “It sold, but not like the last three years. The student community from both colleges picked it up as their shirt — it became a fashion statement.”

Now an Ithaca fan can find almost anything with the “Ithaca is Gorges” slogan printed on it — t-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, cards, buttons, magnets, stickers, bath towels, tote bags and even Nalgene water bottles. The t-shirt and bumper stickers are the most popular and have become a method of identification for Cornellians and Ithacans throughout the country and around the world.

Ann Maynard ’06 bought her t-shirt at the beginning of her freshman year. While at home in Turlock, Calif., she wore it to a Starbucks where a woman asked her if she was from Ithaca. It turned out that the woman lived in Ithaca and was visiting a sister in Turlock.

Worldwide Exposure

Eliot Brusman ’07 wanted to see how people back home in Atlanta, Ga., would react to the shirt.

“They’d say, ‘What the hell is that t-shirt? It makes no sense,'” he said. “No one has seen a gorge in Atlanta, so they don’t know what it is.”

“My son had [the bumper sticker] on his Volkswagen when he went to Washington, D.C. for law school,” Cogan said. “He used to come back to his car in the parking lot and somebody would have penciled a note under the windshield wipers to say, ‘Hey Ithaca, I’m from Ithaca too!'”

An “Ithaca is Gorges” bumper sticker was even spotted in Beijing, China, stuck to the back of a rearview mirror on a Chinese bus, Cogan said.

Ironically, the man behind the logo found all around the world isn’t originally from Ithaca.

Cogan, born in Philadelphia, moved to Ithaca in 1936 as a five-year-old. His first memory of the city is walking to Belle Sherman Elementary School with his collie Ichabod Crane — “Ichy” — who would wait all day by the school for Cogan to finish and then walk home with him again.

After graduating from Ithaca High School, Cogan married his high school sweetheart and studied speech and drama at Cornell. He ended up writing advertising copy for a local radio station and eventually wrote radio commercials for businesses in town.

“I got contracts to write radio commercials and to voice them as well,” he said. “It was a lot of fun; it beat the hell outta working for a living. Along the way I ran a couple of businesses, including Howard Cogan Associates.”

Right now, Cogan is “working toward retirement,” and he enjoys the idea that his design has come to represent Ithaca.

“It’s nice to think the idea … has been picked up and enjoyed by people in lots of places,” Cogan said. “I grew up here and my family lived in several different places near the waterways, and we used to go swimming and fishing in the gorges. It’s a great town to grow up in, marry your sweetheart and raise your own kids. Even if you leave Ithaca, it’s a wonderful place to come home to.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop