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January 22, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Cornell must do more to remember Res Club Fire

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Members of our classes should remember the “Res Club Fire” that occurred in the early morning hours of April 5, 1967 in the Cornell Heights Residential Club (now Ecology House) and took the lives of nine Cornellians, including five senior and graduate women living on the second floor, nine students who were members of the first class of the experimental six-year Ph.D. program (“Phuds”) and John Finch, a professor of English who lived there as an advisor. Mr. Finch had indeed escaped the building, only to return to assist others and be overcome by the toxic smoke that was responsible for all the deaths.

The fire, which included two subsequent fires at locations where Phud survivors were living (Watermargin Cooperative and an apartment in Collegetown), and an investigation that never identified the perpetrator of what was apparently arson were reviewed in a long New York Times article by N. R. Kleinfield on April 13, 2018. Partially motivated by this article, 13 survivors of the fire from the classes of 1967, 1969 and 1970, along with three relatives of one of the deceased students, met with Cornell President Martha Pollack and several members of her staff on Aug. 6, 2018 in Ithaca.

We had several requests of President Pollack. First was a public apology on behalf of Cornell for the institution’s actions (and lack thereof) before and after the fire. Their actions included housing students in a dormitory that did not meet fire codes of the day, lacking sprinklers, multiple exits and fire doors. There was also a shocking lack of support offered by the University to the fire survivors, their families and the families of the dead, in sharp contrast to the outpouring of support from the Cornell and Ithaca communities.

We also sought the opening of all the Cornell archives related to the fire, including but going beyond the material supplied to Mr. Kleinfield. This also included the records of the Cornell Police Department, which was involved in the investigation along with the Cayuga Heights Police Department (which had primary responsibility), the Ithaca P.D., the New York State Police and the Tompkins County District Attorney. Finally, we asked that the victims be appropriately memorialized by the University. We requested both a permanent physical memorial to be located in a prominent site on campus (such as a “reflection garden”) and “living memorials” in the form of scholarships named for each of those who died to be awarded to students pursuing degrees in the victims’ areas of study. President Pollack has subsequently suggested a lecture series named, each year, for one of those victims.

President Pollack was very welcoming and indeed delivered a personal apology. What form a more public apology might take is still under discussion. She agreed to open all of the Cornell archives that were not otherwise restricted, and she has; several of us have reviewed many of these documents, through our tears.

A major area of discussion remaining is opening the archives of the Cornell, Cayuga Heights and Ithaca Police Departments. Because the investigation of the Fire remains an open case, we have not been able to access the police record. We believe that a 51-year old case in which no active investigation is ongoing is effectively closed, and we have urged Cornell to bring its influence to bear on getting the case officially declared closed so that we may access these materials.

Dr. Pollack and her staff have agreed in principle to both permanent physical and “living” memorials. We have strongly suggested a memorial garden and full scholarships for current students in the names of the dead. Many details remain to be worked out, but we feel that Cornell certainly has the resources to provide appropriate memorials to these nine Cornellians, for whose deaths it bears so much responsibility.

In meeting together, those of us living all realized how much our lives have been affected by this horrific event of more than half-century ago. Cornell has made a good start, but after an initial cover-up, which our examination of the documents makes clear was mandated by the chair of the Board of Trustees, and more than 50 years of neglect, a fuller understanding of what happened, and why, can be achieved only through the continued good faith application of resources by the University.

We have committed to continuing to work with the Cornell administration so that the fire and its toll can finally be appropriately recognized in our lifetimes. We want the names of those whose lives were cut short to be remembered. We believe that open acknowledgement of the mishandling of the situation by the University will decrease the likelihood of another such tragedy occurring, at Cornell or elsewhere, in the future.

Ann Agranoff ’69
Diego Benardete ’70
Edgar Blaustein ’69
Neil Blumberg ’69
Sherry Carr ’67 MILR ’70
Matthew Clark ’69
Loren Cobb ’69 Ph.D. ’73
Margaret Ferguson ’69
Joshua Freeman ’69
Gene Fry ’70 Ph.D. ’89
Judith Adler Hellman ’67
John Mark Heumann ’70
Michael McFarland ’69
Paul Mermin ’70
Laurence Parker ’70 Ph.D. ’79
Marcia Schwartz ’69
Susan Meld Shell ’69
M. Robert Showalter ’69
David Skidmore ’69
Adrian Tinsley Ph.D. ’69, Res Club resident
Jabez Van Cleef ’70
Marguerite Waller ’69
Thomas Cooch, brother of fire victim Peter Cooch ’69
Eleanor Segal
Sara Segal
Zachary Weiss, first cousin of fire victim Martha Beck ’69