Hundreds of Cornellians gathered on Ho Plaza Tuesday evening for a candlelight vigil honoring President Elizabeth Garrett after she died of colon cancer at her home in New York City on Sunday night.
Attendees listened solemnly as student leaders and administrators payed their respects to President Garrett and the Cornell Big Red Marching Band played the Alma Mater.
Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi remembered how he was one of the first people who Garrett hired to join her administration, saying he knew from their first conversation that she would be a wonderful colleague.
“I remember the night vividly that I first met with her,” he said. “We had about a two hour long Skype conversation and when I got off of Skype that night, I went home and told my wife that there was no question I would work for her if given the opportunity. It was incredible and I think most people who had the chance to interact with President Garrett felt that same connection.”
Lombardi added that despite the complications of her illness, Garrett repeatedly expressed to him how much she regretted not being able to be interact with students during her treatment.
“I was in touch with her until the day before she passed,” he said. “I had an email from President Garrett from about 4:30 in the morning that said ‘Please tell the students that I’m so sorry that I will not be able to see them today. I feel terrible that I can’t be there to listen to their concerns. Please let them know how much I care about them, how much I respect them and how proud I am to be their President.’”
Lombardi added that until the end, Garrett cared about her students, stressing that in the end what mattered most to Garrett was “that Cornell was moving forward in a way that would serve students the best that it could.”
“I think it’s important that you all know that, that’s what your president was all about up until the days before her last breaths,” he said. “I’m honored to have had the chance to work with her and I look forward to carrying on — as we all should — the incredible vision that she set out for all of us and for this great institution.”
Michaela Olson ’16, a former drum major for the Big Red Marching Band, said she will always remember how Garrett represented the Cornell spirit.
“Beth is in every note and every melody and every song that the band plays to bring spirit and celebration to Cornell University,” she said. “We are not only wishing her farewell, but inviting her to stay with us and inspire us as we work to making her vision a reality.”
Other attendees said they came to the vigil both to show their support for Garrett and for the Cornell community.
“I wanted to support the community and show that Elizabeth Garrett is in our thoughts and prayers, and I think it’s a good opportunity for all of us to come together and think about how short and precious life really is,” said Lory Henderson grad.
Shikhorshams Wahad ’19, called Garrett an “integral part” of his Cornell experience, citing her pioneer status as Cornell’s first female president as a source of inspiration.
“She was a true inspiration as the first female president at Cornell,” he said. “She was part of the Cornell experience for me … As a freshman, I used to think of her when I think of Cornell. I’m deeply saddened by what happened.”
Chris Arce ’19, one of the event’s organizers, said the vigil marked a change from the moment of silence on Monday.
“Yesterday we were observing, it had just happened,” he said. “But today it was good to actually reflect and speak about President Garrett so we could come together as a community and grieve but also rejoice in the fact that we had her for the time that we did.”
He added that he helped organize the event to honor Garrett’s legacy, remembering her commitment to the idea that a sense of community should supercede self.
“Last year during convocation she stressed how it’s important to have a purpose that extends beyond ourselves,” Arce said. “I really think that by gathering here tonight we can show that although she was only president for a few months, she really was invested and her purpose extended beyond herself.”