April 2, 2012

Olbermann ’79: A Memory of President Corson Includes World’s Worst Airplane

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I was staring stupidly out the waiting room window at the Allegheny “airplane” that we were supposed to have already boarded on a frigid New York morning in January, 1977. These were the days when the bus monopoly meant the flight cost just a couple bucks more and was far easier, if you didn’t mind the occasional stop in Utica and the continuous feeling that we were flying low enough that you could reach out and pull the fruit off the trees (or vice versa).

These were also the days when you boarded a small flight upstate by first sitting in a room 20 yards from where the large propeller plane rested, then going out a nondescript door and lastly up a staircase. No security, no formality and judging by the fact that we were now 20 minutes late in boarding, no punctuality.

That’s when I noticed the two Allegheny employees skipping down the stairs from the craft and ducking under its belly and pointing, with cartoon-like animation, at the underside. I’m fairly confident my astonishment has added this detail, but I can picture the performance — and from where we all sat behind soundproofed windows, they were two mimes — I swear I saw one slap his own forehead and point upwards as if trying to act out the word “eureka!”

He bolted up the stairs and back down them with astonishing rapidity, returning with what seemed to be a large floppy object about six inches high and maybe a foot long. It was only when he peeled the top of it off and handed it to his taller colleague that I realized what I was seeing. The man had a stack of paper towels. As his buddy raised one above his head, and then another, and then another, the horror finally dawned on me.There was something wrong with the plane. Something these imbeciles thought they could fix by stuffing paper towels up into it.

Suddenly I was in a William Shatner Twilight Zone episode. The other passengers dozed, or were immersed in newspapers or just were not looking. I alone could see the Gremlins guaranteeing our doom by trying to fix a plane with some Bounty. Or perhaps George Carlin’s observations about doctors had been transposed to this scene: Qualitatively, somewhere on Earth there had to be, literally, the World’s Worst Airplane. And we were about to get on it.

I was a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday and I had no idea what to do. I looked around at the disinterested airline staff and my soon-to-be co-victims, all inattentive to the mad evidence of our impending disaster. And then I heard the rustle of a newspaper being folded up and put away. Appearing from behind it was a man in a hat and old-framed glasses. I recognized him at once.

President Dale Corson.

I was never so happy to see an authority figure, before or since. I screwed up the courage to go over to him, checked back over my shoulder to make certain that Laurel & Hardy were still forcing the paper towels into the Allegheny Disastro-Liner and then spoke squeakily and hurriedly. “President Corson, you don’t know me but I’m a Cornell student and I think there’s something you need to see about our plane. Even just as a scientist.” I gestured behind me — a little too wildly. I remember the amused but indulgent look on that magnificently craggy face as he wordlessly rose. And I remember just as well how quickly that look changed to astonished anger. He put his hand on my shoulder, “Son, you might as well have a seat. Don’t worry. You and I are not getting on that plane.”

I lingered just long enough to hear fragments of what he said to the Allegheny gate attendant, and how his voice got slightly louder and his tone slightly crisper with each sentence: “We have students and faculty here” and “if I remember correctly, your airline does some promotion on campus” and finally something about “if you’d ever like to use our airspace again” — but my imagination may have added that last line.

Regardless, within five minutes there was an announcement that Flight Such-and-Such had been cancelled due to equipment problems (I chuckled at the word “equipment” and I saw President Corson doing so too) and we would all be transferred to an Allegheny jet leaving for Elmira in about 20 minutes and then bused to Ithaca at no additional charge. In the confusion of changing gates and maybe even terminals I lost sight of Mr. Corson.

But as I got onto our sleek, not-50-years old, towel-free jet, I saw him again, seated near the front. He smiled up at me. I thanked him for taking care of us, and he laughed. “That’s what I’m here for.”

Justifiably, you may know Dale Corson as the University’s unifier in deeply troubled times. But  for 35 years I have remembered him fondly — and find myself deeply saddened by his passing — entirely because of that last sentence and his commitment to a place and its people that those words so eloquently expressed.

Keith Olbermann ’79 spent one day as a Sun compet in 1975. He appears April 3 on Late Night With David Letterman on CBS. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Keith Olbermann