June 7, 2024

LEUBSDORF | I Really Owe It All to The Sun

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Editor’s note: The following column appeared in The Sun’s Reunion Edition issue which was published June 7, 2024 for Reunion Weekend.

It was the first time I’d seen Cornell. 

Without the benefit of a campus visit, I had applied, been accepted, chose a double dorm room and selected my courses. But I had barely considered the possibility of actually going there until Harvard and Swarthmore inexplicably decided in August 1955 to keep me on their waiting lists.

So, when I first drove up the hill on a pleasant September day to my freshman home in a concrete barracks-like structure known then as University Hall 3, I had no idea what to expect. The only Cornellians I knew were a half-dozen fellow freshmen from my high school and an old camp friend from Louisville, Ky.

As it turned out, I had lucked out, though it took much of my first year to realize it. Going to Cornell was one of the most fortuitous developments of my life.

Academically, becoming a government major was an easy choice, once I saw the scope of courses and had my first contact with one of its stars, the late Prof. Clinton Rossiter. I was already a political junkie.

But the decision that really shaped my future came when I decided the following Spring to try out for The Sun. A few years earlier, I had written for and become editor of my weekly camp newspaper. I also wrote sporadically for my high school paper. But I never thought of becoming a journalist until I started writing for The Sun and quickly realized this was a lot more interesting than my initial goal of becoming a tax lawyer. (Why a tax lawyer? Arithmetic was always my best subject in school, and English one of my worst.)

I loved the enthusiasm of my compet managers, as they were called then: the late Marsha Roberts Senz and David Engel, the latter to become editor-in-chief and a lifelong friend. And I especially loved the nights spent in the rickety old Sun office, upstairs at 109 East State Street, editing copy, writing headlines and schmoozing over dinner with my colleagues at one of our two regular spots, the Normandie across the street and the College Spa down the block.

I also liked getting to know Cornell’s vast and beautiful campus, covering stories and seeing my byline in the next morning’s paper (though my initial assignment was a deadly dull speech by a visiting economics professor). I was shy then, believe it or not, and having to deal with unknown people and situations helped me overcome it.

I soon discovered that The Sun also enabled me to pursue my interest in politics by writing occasional columns. My role model was James Reston, the famed Washington columnist for The New York Times, who combined deft political analysis with an ability to convey the tone of life in Washington, a skill I envy to this day.

It’s easy to see now how these factors, academic and journalistic, combined to form my goal of becoming a political columnist. I soon became a regular night editor, putting out the next morning’s paper; and later, a member of the Editorial Board; a regular proofreader (nights spent among the characters on the Ithaca Journal’s night crew), and finally, in my senior year, Associate Editor in charge of the editorial page.

David, managing editor Bob Malina and I had barely settled in when the campus exploded, climaxing two years of student unrest over the administration’s misguided effort to tighten strict social rules after a particularly out-of-control party weekend. The Sun led the resistance in what, looking back, was a precursor of the broader students’ rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. But what triggered the explosion that attracted national headlines was Prof. Theresa Humphreyville’s attempt to justify banning women students from “apartment parties,” meaning unchaperoned access to off-campus apartments. The “apartment situation is conducive to petting and intercourse,” she told the Student Council. A relatively peaceful daytime rally morphed into a less peaceful nighttime one, climaxed by a post-midnight march on President Deane W. Malott’s Cayuga Heights house. “Cornell students riot for sex,” one headline read. Some of our colleagues were displeased when we editorialized that the demonstrations “did more harm than good.”

Senior year was more peaceful, as a vice president for student affairs, John Summerskill, eased the restrictive effort. Soon, it was time to graduate. “It all seemed so hectic,” David Engel mused one night, “and now it’s over.”

But for me, what started at Cornell is still not over, 65 years later. I couldn’t have planned it better. My first job, with The Associated Press, brought me to Washington; my second one, with The Baltimore Sun, enabled me to become a White House correspondent; and my third, 29 years as Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, brought the column I had long sought, which I am still writing 43 years later.

And I really owe it all to Cornell—and to The Cornell Daily Sun.

Carl P. Leubsdorf ’59 was Associate Editor of The Sun in 1958-59. He is currently a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.