August 29, 2012

The Birth of Our University

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In 1865, a man who made a fortune burying telegraph wires found himself cooperating with the man he had been fighting with for the past year. Initially wanting to split the land grant that the Morrill Act gave New York State between his own wish for a university and the now defunct Ovid College, Ezra Cornell gave into Andrew Dickson White’s perseverance in keeping the grant whole. After putting their differences aside, they established Cornell University with 412 students. “I would found an institution,” Ezra Cornell said to them, “where any person can find instruction in any study.”

Cornell’s idealism for an open institution also brought a lot of headaches during the University’s inception. Now that education was not only an upper-class luxury, people of all walks of life flocked to the institution and insisted on paying for their schooling through whatever skills they had: accounting, carpentry and masonry. A midwestern man indignantly quoted Cornell’s motto after being told that he could fulfill his wish to learn to read at his public school. Another came all the way from Russia, running broke by the time he came to Ithaca, in order to attempt to convert the United States to the Russo-Greek Church.

In other words, the school was the typical Cornell class: diverse, dedicated and weird.

147 years later, Cornell has largely followed its founder’s ideal. Here, you can learn everything from History to Magical Mushrooms, choose between Engineering or Hotel Administration and take classes in New York City or Qatar. We’ve had CEOs, scientists, architects and talk show hosts. We’ve also had serial killers, the #1 guy on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and even more talk show hosts.

Having around 245,000 alumni and even more people affiliated with Cornell makes it difficult to know more than a couple of famous Cornell related people other than Bill Nye ’77, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54, Prof. Carl Sagan, astronomy, E.B. White ’21, Thomas Pynchon ’59 and Andy Bernard “’95.” This makes The Unofficial (And Slightly Irreverent) Cornell University Who’s Who, written by alumnus Michael Turback ’66 and released on July 23, an entertaining read for those who want to learn a little more Cornell history.

The book isn’t useful for in-depth research on the people affiliated with Cornell University; the author intended the book to be a “drive-thru compendium.” It largely succeeds in its purpose with its 250 double-spaced pages, each dedicated to one person.

It is also, as Turback describes, more of a list of people that we should know as being affiliated with Cornell, rather than just those that we must know. There are famous people whose lifeblood is bleeding Big Red, like CEO of S.C. Johnson & Son Herbert Fisk Johnson III ’79, who earned five degrees at Cornell, and those who only crossed Cornell’s paths, like geodesic dome inventor Prof. Buckminster Fuller, architecture, who stayed as a “visiting critic” long enough to build a geodesic dome on Rand Hall. There are people whose fame is universal and enduring, like Christopher Reeve ’74, and people on the rise, like Jane Lynch, M.F.A. ’84. There are people known for less-than-ideal things, like the only Jew to be lynched in American history, Leo Max Frank 1906. There are people who bring up Cornell in a way that makes us proud, like E.B. White, and those who often embarrass us, like Keith Olbermann ’79 and Ann Coulter ’84. There are Cornell people who you don’t know are famous, like Amit Bhatia ’01, who in addition to getting Libe Café named after him, also married Vanisha Mittal, daughter of the Lakshmi Mittal (one of the richest men in the world), in the most expensive wedding in history at the Palace of Versailles.

There are also those that leave their legacy here at Cornell, so that you can check it out yourself today. You can find the piano of the 109-year-old Cornellian alumna and Bloomingdale’s fashion coordinator, Helen “Happy” Reichert ’25, — who passed last year as the university’s oldest living graduate — in the common room of Carl Becker House. Notorious prankster Hugh Charles Troy Jr. painted a trail of footprints between the statues of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White that are still repainted to this day. Prof. Vladimir Nabokov, Russian, in writing Lolita, would sit on Ithaca buses and write down what little girls said when school ended.

In the end, it feels like it hardly matters: Cornell doesn’t care how rich, successful or famous you are, as long as you want to come here. With one double-spaced page dedicated to each person in the book regardless of fame, it emphasizes that Cornell is not about the cold, the U.S. World and News Rankings or grade deflation, but rather about who you are as a person and how you can become a part of the University. Everybody knows how cold and painstaking Cornell can be, but more than 250,000 people (except for Bill Maher ’78) agree — this is a place where openness, in all its forms, is celebrated.

The Unofficial (And Slightly Irreverent) Cornell University Who’s Who is now available on

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng