Cornell and Carl Sagan

26 01 2013


When I came up for the idea of this topic, I was originally a little hesitant to write an entry. Unlike A.D. White or Dear Uncle Ezra, there are probably a number of readers who can remember when Sagan was alive and active on campus (Sagan passed away in December 1996). If the number of hits I receive for his old house at 900 Stewart Avenue are any clue (~600 hits since this blog’s inception), the late astronomer and Cornell professor remains a relatively popular figure. As someone who was just a kid when Carl Sagan passed away, it’s a little harder for me to identify, and in Sagan’s place, figures such as Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson fill different niches not-too-distant from Sagan’s public role.

With all that in mind, I decided to take an approach similar to what I did with my “Founding Fathers” entries, and provide a smorgasbord of tidbits. I have no intention of delving into his interests of extraterrestrial life, agnosticism/humanism, or marijuana use, but the wikipedia entry would be a fine substitute for those interested in those topics.

-First off, the basic facts. Carl Sagan arrived at Cornell in 1968. We should only be so lucky that the high minds of Harvard decided to deny him tenure the previous year, because they were unhappy with his “pandering to the public”. Sagan became a full professor of the astronomy department in 1971, and remained so (the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences) until his untimely death from pneumonia while recovering from cancer a quarter-century later.

-Carl Sagan might have been an excellent publicist for science, but few would call him a focused academic. The filming of his Cosmos  television series in Los Angeles in the late 1970s forced the university to cancel several of his courses, and several grad students under his advisory had to move into the research groups of other department faculty. His astronomy colleagues were unimpressed with this shirking of duties and attempted to have his lab kicked out of the Space Science building.

-Things were not a whole lot better upon return to campus, the blessing and curse of the success of his television series and associated NYT bestseller. While Sagan garnered much favorable publicity and considerable wealth, he was also subject to death threats from those in vehement disagreement to his views. Police regularly patrolled his home, and his name was removed from the Space Science directory and from his front door, out of safety concerns (this policy must have relaxed late in his career). Some of his colleagues remained unenthused about him, accusing Dr. Sagan of being an egotist, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and failing to give other scientists due credit.

-While at Cornell, Sagan began a critical thinking course (ASTRO 490). This course was under his guidance until he was hospitalized in 1996, when other faculty filled in. The course was discontinued after his death, but was brought back under the tutelage of other faculty a few years later. Under Sagan’s time, the course could only be enrolled into after completing a rigorous interview process for one of the 20 available slots.

-On the note of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan tried to recruit him to do his undergrad at Cornell. Unfortunately, the future Dr. Tyson chose to go to Harvard instead. Bill Nye had Sagan as a professor, so perhaps Sagan has had more of a hand in the science communication to Generation Y than we realize.

-One of the more whimsical tales of Sagan is that during the height of his popularity, he had a secret tunnel from his home to campus, where he could drive his Porsche away from prying eyes. In reality, he would walk some of the back-trails along the gorge.

-Another reason to seek anonymity – Sagan used a vanity plate inscribed with “PHOBOS”, a Martian moon. These vanity plates became a hot souvenir for anyone with a screwdriver and ten minutes, since 900 Stewart has no driveway or garage (rather, it has a deep curb). Sagan eventually caved and asked the DMV for a more anonymous plate.

-I’ve already covered Sagan’s home a couple of times previous, but a quick rehash – built in 1890 as the meeting place for the Sphinx Head secret society, who sold it their neighbors, Dr. Robert Wilson, in 1969. The home was relatively unused, and sold to Dr. Stephen Mensch in 1979, who renovated the property into a home, and actually allowed Sphinx Head to make occasional use of the property. Sagan acquired the property in the 1980s, and the house is still a part of his estate, though it is vacant. According to a 1993 DUE, Sagan likely did not live in the property towards the ends of his life.

Although vacant, it would be ill-advised to try to trespass – the property is covered with security cameras, one of which is right above the entranceway (the not-visible corner in the below photo).

On a personal note, when I had taken the photos of the former Sagan residence, I had not known this was his home. I just thought it was a highly unusual building in an area of mostly early 20th-century homes. It was not until I typed the address into my search bar when I came home that I discovered the building’s significance.


Cornell’s Founding Fathers: Andrew Dickson White

29 06 2009
Continuing the Founding Fathers entries, we’ll stop at the other man who helped the university go from a pipe dream to a stone and mortar reality, the illustrious Andrew Dickson White. Once again, the primary source is Bishop’s History of Cornell, with the page numbers in parentheses.

In terms of upbringing and character, White was quite much Cornell’s opposite. White was born in 1832 in Homer, which is also in Cortland County (30). The family moved to Syracuse when he was seven, and his father was a prominent banker. He rejected his Episcopalian upbringing, so his father tried to rectify that by sending him to a church school, Geneva College (now Hobart and William Smith), where he was a sophomore at the age of 16. Since the school was esssentially a bunch of drunken partiers (31), he left after one year (try to imagine studying for an exam while your classmates had barricaded themselves in a room and were attacking the president’s house. It was really that bad).  Although, I find it odd that the entire college had 37 students, and he still joined a fraternity (Sigma Phi). Frats were different animals in those days. Anyways, his father wanted him to go back, but when he showed up, he promptly left school and hid with a former teacher of his while he studied up for Yale’s entrance exams. At this point, old Horace White was furious, and said he would’ve rather received news of his son’s death. Well, A.D. passed the exams with flying colors, and entered Yale as a sophomore, spending a few happy years there, being a member of Skull and Bones and Alpha Sigma Phi (which was a class society back then, before it became a social fraternity — although, he was a tremendous asset to both fraternities as they established themselves at Cornell). After graduation, he hung out in Europe for a couple years, attending German and French schools and becoming all worldly and multifaceted. He arrived back in New Haven in 1856, where he obtained an M.A. and almost became professor, were it not for his anti-church sentiment. He was accepted as a professor at the progressive University of Michigan in 1857 (35), and married Mary Outwater of Syracuse that same year (38). After Horace White died (leaving him $300,000, an astonishing sum in 1860) and the Civil War broke out, White took a long leave of absence and came back to Syracuse in 1862 (41). Being politically inoffensive yet well known in Syracuse, he was nominated for and elected to the State Senate in 1863, hardly 31 years old. Here he met Ezra Cornell.

Skipping the university and focusing on White, he served as university president from 1866 to 1885. During and after that time, he served as ambassador to Germany, minister to Russia, and comissioner to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He was suggested for the Republican presidential nomination in 1884, and for vice-president in 1900. White passed away in November 1918 at the age of 86.

A.D. White’s oddities are so quirky to provide juicy details to any biography about him.

-For one, he was quite short, about 5 feet 5 inches. He was really sensitive about his height, and likely wore elevator shoes (he never admitted it) (43).

-White loved the ideals behind a great university, loved designing buildings and promoting Cornell qualities in print and in speeches—but he hated running the day-to-day affairs. Such work bored him. For a guy know to be excitable, nervous and emotional, routine affairs were not in line with his interests.

-He often dreamed of being an architect or journalist (his architectural designs were based off of  his adored Oxford, which he would’ve made sweet love to in a hypotheical world). He felt that red brick made a building look cheap, hence his distaste for Lincoln and Morse. This is why they were built when he was abroad. [5]

-He only really considered three men his social equals – Goldwin Smith, Willard Fiske, and W.C. Russel (the vice-president of Cornell in the 1870s and 1880s) (45). He hated to be overshadowed and outdone (47), and while he was a sucker for flattery, he would dwell on criticism for days at a time.

-He was known for being very high-minded. One student publication (47) in the 1870s referred to him as “Andy Deity White”. Friends and accquaintances would mockingly refer to him as “You Majesty” and “Saint Andrew”. This high-mindedness was probably why he hated pranks.

-His wife hated Ithaca. Prior to 1874, he used to go up to Syracuse on the weekends. In those days, that involved a steamer on the lake during the warmer season, or in winter a buggy trip to Cortland to catch a train. This was no fun in the CNY blizzards. (100)

-He threatened to resign many times: in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1879 and 1883. Even when he didn’t resign, he was abroad so often that trustees and staff were begging for him to come back and actually do this job (200).

-Although he was an avid rower at Yale, he never watched Cornell sports matches. He never saw a football, baseball or basketball game (he considered football barbaric), and only saw a Cornell crew race five years after he left the presidency (48).

-He loved animals. He expelled a student in the 1880s for killing a chipmunk with a cane (49). He would allow squirrels to run through his library, even when they chewed on his books.

-His commisioner job in Santo Domingo was because he had to decide whether or not the U.S. should annex the Dominican Republic and make it into a “refuge for colored people” (103). We’re going to assume that his progressive nature, and the fact that the Dominican Rep, was never made into a second Liberia, to mean that he recommended a “no”.

-White’s ultimate grudge came from where he felt he wasn’t given enough credit. When Charles Adams took over as president, he gave an 86-minute inaugural speech, of which 12 were dedicated to White. He was gravely offended because he felt his work was ignored (he expected Adams, a former student of his at Michigan, to glorify him). (258)

-A.D. White met Leo Tolstoy while working in Russia. Tolstoy shared his fascination with Mormonism with White, who then also became fascinated, and amassed a collection of Mormon literature second only to that of LDS and Brigham Young U. itself. This was possible beause the Mormon faith was founded near Rochester, hardly an hour drive from Ithaca, so he raided local collections. [2,3]

 He was a great man, of course. But White would’ve been the old guy to tell lone, rambling stories that would put people to sleep, full of his own pomp and circumstance and still trying to share his ideals with anyone who had two ears and half a heart to pay attention. He was rather needy and attention seeking, and begrudged those whom he felt didn’t give him proper credit.

Our founders are only human.







Cornell’s Founding Fathers: Ezra Cornell

27 06 2009



So, one of the comments received recently on this blog suggested I write an article on an individual. I thought about it, and then  decided against it. I’m limited in what I can say, as I’m sure people have both good and bad opinions of this person, as they would anybody. I write about Cornell and groups that comprise it, but with the extraordinary exception of Mary Tomlan ’71, I generally limit myself in comments on individuals.

However, I decided to take the idea and run with it in another direction, by revealing a little of the history of the founders who shaped much of the university in its formative years. This entry will cover Dear old Ezra Cornell himself. Any citations within the entry will refer to Morris Bishop’s History of Cornell unless otherwise noted.

 A lot of Cornellians know bits and pieces about the founders of Cornell. Dear old Ezra himself, born in 1807 in downstate New York to a quaker family (Bishop 8), moving to the Cortland County town of DeRuyter at 12, and then to the boomtown of Ithaca in 1828. According to Bishop, he was a tall, gaunt gentleman, disinclined to show emotion or to talk more than necessary. He married Mary Ann Wood in 1831 (12). Initially, Ezra made his living operating a flouring mill for Col. Jeremiah Beebe (flouring mills would ground up gypsum to be used in fertilizer). After the Panic of 1837 (akin to today’s economic crisis, only craploads worse), he lost his job and tried his hand at several ventures, including selling plows in Maine and Georgia, which failed (15). When he went back on another trip to Maine in 1843, he lucked out, and an accquaintance asked him to design a machine to lay telegraph lines. Being a self-taught mechanic, he built it, received a contract to lay the wire, became convinced it was bad method, and read up on electricity, coming to the conclusion that overhead wires were best (16).

As a builder of wires, he made his fortune, and by 1849 had laid one-third of telegraph wires operating in the U.S. (17). Since he took his payment in stock, when Western Union bought him out around 1855, he was a made man. He went back to Ithaca, bought the land where CU sits today, and ran a model farm. He became president of the NYS Agricultural Society, and used some of his money to donate a library to Ithaca City (which was built at the SE corner of Seneca and Tioga it was demolished in 1960 as part of urban renewal. It was turned into a parking lot). He was the oldest member of the State Senate when he was elected in 1863 (persumably in the days before they had political gridlocks that accomplished nothing but gave everyone a mighty headache). It was here that he met A.D. White, when he was getting a bill of incorporation for the library (White, as the head of the Literature committee, had to approve the bill). I’ll be covering Andrew Dickson White in an entry in not too near future.

So anyways, the basic facts are great and all, but Ezra also had his oddities and faults. These are the facts Cornell probably doesn’t share so much. Can’t blame them-

~Ezra was extremely self-righteous, which led to him being scorned by most of the Ithaca community. He was also extremely forgetful with regards to his debts, and his family’s needs (Bishop 13). People did not trust him, especially with money. For many years, his wife and kids had to live off her father thanks to his lack of provisions.

~He was apparently quite tactless as well. Col. Beebe, and later Samuel Morse (of Morse code fame) would have a hard time dealing with his demeanor. Beebe called him “coarse and impudent” (13), and Morse referred to him as “the plague” (17).

~Carl Becker just out-and-out called him a bad businessman. The fact that he managed to make a fortune in the telegraph industry was astounding to even his own family and friends. He beat competitors by “starving them out”, even if it meant keeping himself in the poorhouse. (18)

~Family and friends did not pronounce his last name Cor-nell. They pronounced it Corn’ll. His own pronounciation of his name changed sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s. (19)

~Cornell hated Syracuse. He referred to as “that Gomorrah” (11) after he was cheated out of some wages when he was young. Kinda funny that A.D. White represented Syracuse in the State Senate. When White proposed using a large hill to the south of Syracuse, Cornell threatened to withdraw from the proposal unless the university was moved to Ithaca, which he had hopes of becoming a major city. Well, it didn’t, and the proposed hill was where Syracuse University established itself in 1870.

~Cornell’s vision of the campus was that of an industrial campus, egalitarian in nature. Namely, anyone could work their way through school, in the chair factory and shoe factory he proposed to set up on campus (126),like a trade school. One could not have been farther from the classical college educations of that time, or from A.D. White’s vision of CU.

~Perhaps tying to Cornell’s unorthodox nature, a Rochester newspaper concocted a story in October 1869 that Cornell sought to make a huge personal profit out the university (183). Doesn’t sound too different from the stories you find in editorials in the Ithaca Journal about how Cornell ruins the city. It came up again in 1873, when a Schuyler County legislator accused Cornell of defrauding the Morrill Act in order to make a $22 million profit, which resulting in a formal state invesitgation (it cleared Cornell in April 1874[186]).

~Cornell loved to invest in railroads as much as he did his own university. His desire to make Ithaca a major city resulted in a constant investment in new railroads in and around the area, such as the Elmira-Ithaca-Cortland route and a proposed route to Auburn. He invested so much that White and Cornell’s attorney thought he might go bankrupt if something were to happen, like the Panic of 1873. Uncle Ezra lost a lot on those failed railroads (187).

~In what I can only describe as completely creepy, Ezra had nine kids [1]. Sadly, one of them, Charles Carroll Cornell, died at the age of 4 in 1837. So Two years later, his wife had another son. They named him Charles Carroll Cornell. This child died at two years of age, so at least he never had to realize the utter sketchiness associated with naming a child after one of your other dead children.

Long story short, Cornell could be stereotyped as the rather crotchety old man who would scare small children at a glance and launch into stories of “when I was your age” to be shared with the students.




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