Jan. 11, 2007

Cake, balloons and 'any person': Cornell celebrates Ezra Cornell's 200th birthday

Ezra Cornell's aspiration of "any person" receiving an education was honored and celebrated Jan. 11, the bicentennial of the birth of Cornell University's co-founder.

Though most students were away from campus for winter break, Cornell faculty, staff, alumni and friends helped kick off the 200th birthday celebration of the university's original visionary. Olin Library's Libe Café was adorned with three large red-and-white cakes, balloons, and even printouts of Ezra Cornell wearing a superimposed, colorful birthday hat. Five campus entrances were decorated with banners to mark the occasion.

The Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in the Carl A. Kroch Library began the celebration with a short talk by historian and senior lecturer Carol Kammen. The author of several local history books, Kammen spoke about Ezra Cornell's humble beginnings, his later fortune in the telegraph industry, and his vision for access to education that would become Cornell University. She called Ezra Cornell a "hero."

"It seems to me that heroism is that which happens when an individual has the capacity to make a change for the better, or an individual creates the possibility of making change for the better," Kammen said. "In both cases, Ezra Cornell did this."

She asked the audience to consider the significance of the word "person" in the Cornell charter and its motto: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study."

This radical idea came at a time, in the mid-19th century, when higher education in the United States meant colleges that educated men. Illustrating Ezra Cornell's breakthrough vision, Kammen told of a man from Cambridge, Mass., who wrote to Ezra Cornell the summer before the university was to open. He inquired whether "person" might possibly include his daughter. A similar letter he had written to Harvard University had been ignored. The answer, of course, was "yes."

A black boy from Ohio; Brazilians who traveled a total of 22 days to get to Ithaca; a boy from England; all were all welcomed at Cornell, Kammen explained.

"Ezra Cornell was tremendously committed to opening this university to a variety of people," Kammen said. And so, she said, was Andrew Dickson White, Cornell's co-founder and first president.

Visitors to Kroch Library also got glimpses of Ezra Cornell's mid-19th century life through an exhibit of papers, tools and other artifacts on loan or part of the library collection.

Among the items on display were a telegraph receiver, various papers, and the wire cutters he had used to nip telegraph wires and which bear his carved name. A more complete exhibition, called "I Would Found an Institution: The Ezra Cornell Bicentennial Exhibition," will open March 8.

Ezra Cornell's great-great-great-grandson, also named Ezra Cornell and a member of the university's Board of Trustees, attended the festivities and cut the first piece of cake.

"The founder was an extraordinary man," Cornell said. "His character, vision and deeds have benefited the state, as he thought it might, but have also benefited all of mankind."

Trustee Ezra Cornell also stressed that while the campus has bloomed into the Ivy League university it is today, the "any person" dream is still to be realized. Cornell must continue to raise funds to meet that goal and provide more scholarships for students, he said.

A chimes concert by chimesmaster Gretchen Ryan '97, a Cornell staff member, capped the day's events. Her repertoire ranged from "Happy Birthday" and 19th-century period musical arrangements to the Alma Mater.