October 12, 2007

The Man Behind the University

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It is hard to miss the bronze statue immortalizing Ezra Cornell that stands across from Goldwin Smith Hall in the Arts Quad. Daily, hundreds of students pass by the numerous tributes to Ezra Cornell spread around the campus. This year marks his 200th birthday, yet many students here know little about Ezra Cornell. Who was he? Why is Cornell named after him?
He was born on January 11, 1807 in Westchester New York; Ezra Cornell would later found Cornell University. The oldest of eleven children, Ezra Cornell only attended school for three months a year, in order to help with his father’s pottery business. Cornell developed an interest in carpentry as a teenager and traveled considerably as a carpenter. He was charmed by Ithaca and Cayuga Lake and moved to Ithaca permanently in 1828.
Cornell, who was a Quaker, married Mary Ann Wood, an Episcopalian, in 1831 and was promptly excommunicated from the Society of Friends. He worked as a carpenter, a farmer, and a mechanic before he began stringing telephone lines. Cornell founded Western Union Telegraph Company with Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. It was with this company that Cornell accrued his initial wealth.
Though he was involved with philanthropy for much of his life, it was after Cornell amassed his fortune at Western Union that he turned his efforts to education. He had always been concerned with education and had a particular interest in science and agriculture.
Cornell wrote, “My greatest care now is how to spend this large income to do the greatest good to those who are properly dependent on me, to the poor and to posterity.”
He began this endeavor by endowing the Cornell Library in Ithaca, a public library for Ithaca residents.
In 1862, the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act gave Cornell the ability to start a university. He offered his farm for the location of the school. He met his good friend Andrew Dickson White while serving in the N.Y. State Senate in 1864, and a year later they in 1865 founded Cornell University. Cornell said, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” This became the motto of Cornell University. The doors to Cornell University were opened to students in 1868. At first, only male students could attend. Two years later, women were admitted making Cornell University the first co-educational Ivy League school.
Later in life, Cornell took interest in the railroad business but did not achieve much success.
He then built a mansion in Ithaca called Llenroc (Cornell in reverse), but died before its completion. It was sold to Delta Phi fraternity years later.
To mark Ezra Cornell’s 200th birthday, Cornell University ran an exhibition in Kroch library, The Ezra Cornell Bicentennial Exhibition, from March to August of this year. The Ezra Cornell Papers, a collection of diary entries, photographs, letters and documents written by Cornell were part of the exhibition located in The Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections. The online version of the exhibition can be viewed on the Cornell website.
Priya Sahay ’11 viewed the online exhibition earlier this month.
“I knew it was Ezra Cornell’s 200th birthday this year and I was curious about his life. I had no idea about everything he had accomplished. He is really inspiring,” Sahay said.
Elaine D. Engst, director and University archivist of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, expressed her feelings that students at Cornell should know more about the school’s founder than they do.
“The work Cornell did was so amazing; he had a radical educational philosophy of the nineteenth century. He was an extraordinary man with a fascinating life. For him, education was the answer,” Engst said. “People were very impressed with the exhibition, it was very informative and exciting.”
During the time the exhibition ran, hundreds of people were awed by the life of Ezra Cornell. The exhibition’s guestbook was filled with pages of comments by students, faculty, alumni, Ithaca residents and family members. One such comment in the guestbook, by Linda Johnson ’63 was addressed to Ezra Cornell.
“Thank you for your vision and perseverance, which has made Cornell University the remarkable institution it has been since 1865 and such a large part of my heart, soul and mind for the past 51 years,” it read.
In March of 1997, workers renovating Sage Hall were able to remove an historic letter written by Ezra Cornell five years after Cornell University was founded, the contents of which epitomized everything Ezra Cornell believed in.
“From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their conscience shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University. The letter, addressed to “the Coming man & woman” was relaid in the cornerstone of Sage Hall in October of 1997.
Ezra Cornell, along with his wife, is buried in Sage Chapel. Cornell University’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, is buried there as well.