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Thursday, 08 July 2010


Touchdown I and friends

In 1915, some alumni decided that Cornell needed a mascot—so they donated a bear cub, who was dubbed Touch-down. "The manager of the football team suddenly became bear caretaker," Earle says. "They'd take the bear with them to away games. They'd bring it on the train and it would stay in hotels with them. There are a lot of good stories of the bear getting loose in hotel lobbies or at bars and terrorizing people. None of the bears lasted longer than a season, because by the end it was a little larger than it started out." Earle notes that Touchdown's inaugural year corresponds with Cornell's first national football championship—and that the last time the Big Red had a live mascot (Touchdown IV, in 1939), it won its last national title. "So if you ask me," Earle says, "it's not a new coach that we need, it's a bear cub."


Traditionally, the sophomores would try to sabotage the annual freshman banquet, generally by kidnapping the class president to make him miss the party. But in 1894, class rivalry hit a new high—or, rather, low—when some sophomores pumped chlorine gas into the banquet room of a downtown hotel via holes drilled in the floor. "Whether they had failed chemistry is not known," Earle says. Freshmen started collapsing, rushing out of the building, and pulling each other to safety. In the end, the single casualty was the cook, whose death prompted a criminal investigation and strained town-gown relations. "No one in the sophomore class would come forward," Earle says. "The ingredients were traced back to two class members; they refused to testify and were jailed for contempt, but successfully appealed on Fifth Amendment grounds." The judgment became part of case law on "pleading the Fifth."


Beebe Lake skating
Skating on Beebe Lake

Once upon a time, the hockey team played on Beebe Lake—which probably sounds more romantic than it actually was. "This meant that away teams could spend a whole day on a train, and when they got here the ice would have melted and the game would have to be called off," Earle says. "So it wasn't the most convenient setup. Some years the season would be twelve games long, some years two, depending on the weather." The Big Red stopped using the lake in the Forties—so, as unthinkable as it may be today, Cornell went a decade without a hockey program until Lynah Rink opened in 1957.


ImageIf Campbell's Soup cans inspire Big Red spirit, it's because the design is actually based on Cornell's signature colors. As Earle tells it, a Campbell's executive went to the Cornell-Penn game on Thanksgiving 1898— and "he was so impressed with the colors, he said, 'We should make our cans red and white.' " Cornell lost that day, but its colors have graced Campbell's labels for more than a century.


ImageWhen Sage Hall was built in 1873, Ezra wrote a letter that was sealed into the cornerstone; should the University fail, he told his contemporaries, the letter would explain why. Since Sage was built as a women's residence, it was assumed that the letter addressed issues of coeducation. But when the cornerstone was opened during Sage's gut renovation in the Nineties, the long-awaited missive proved to be about something else: religion. "Ezra was concerned that the non-sectarian nature of the University would be its downfall," Earle says, "that pressure from religious critics might prevent the 'any person' ideal from holding true."


Cornell is the only Ivy League school with an English motto: I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study. In his talks, Earle deconstructs how the motto offered inclusion on five fronts—noting that, "in 1865, these were radical concepts."

Any gender—"It didn't say 'any man'; it said 'any person,'" Earle points out. "This was the close of the Civil War, and there were no major coeducational institutions in the U.S. Cornell was the first to admit women alongside men." In the Twenties, when the League of Women Voters published a list of the twelve greatest women in the country, three were Cornellians: naturalist Anna Botsford Com-stock, Cornell's first female professor; home economics pioneer and Cornell dean Martha Van Rensselaer; and Martha Carey Thomas 1877, second president of Bryn Mawr College.

Any ethnicity—From the outset, the University was open to people of any race. Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American, intercollegiate Greek letter fraternity in the U.S., was founded at Cornell in 1906.

Any nationality—At a time when few universities had international students, Cornell's first class included people from Russia and Brazil.

Any religion—"The other institutions of the time were pretty much of one faith or sect; it would be a Presbyterian school or a Methodist school," Earle notes. In his talks, he displays a page from an early yearbook listing class statistics that included religious affiliation, with responses ranging "from Hebrew to heathen." "At any other school you'd get kicked out if you said you were a heathen, but at Cornell that was just fine," Earle says. "Cornell got a lot of negative press for this—we were called 'the godless institution.' As a joke, a group of students once formed the Infidels Association."

Any socioeconomic class—As a self-taught man raised in modest circumstances, Ezra wanted his university to welcome people from all walks of life. Says Earle: "Cornell had an early version of the work-study system, where the students built McGraw Hall to pay their tuition."


mud and students
Mud Rush, Spring 1925

Class rivalry used to be much more intense than it is now, Earle says. Among the quaint traditions of yesteryear: the Mud Rush, "which was basically the freshman and sophomore classes beating the crap out of each other." Another popular tradition, known as the cane rush, involved trying to steal a stick that served as the class symbol. "It would turn into an all-out brawl—people would break arms and legs, clothes would be torn off," Earle says. "Today, I think Risk Management would have a problem with it."

Last Updated ( Thursday, 08 July 2010 )