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Straight Ahead

One hundred years after Willard Straight 1901 died in World War I, his legacy lives on in the iconic building that bears his name


Straight in his World War I uniform.Cornell Rare and Manuscript Collections


His portrait on the dedication page of the 1926 Cornellian.RMC


Straight at Cornell.RMC

Yearbook photo of Straight

As a Cornell undergrad.RMC


Straight in his military school uniform.RMC

Two kids stand together wearing kimonos in a black and white photo.

Straight as a child with his sister in Japan, where their mother taught school after their father’s death.RMC

A century ago—on December 1, 1918—Willard Straight 1901 died in France from complications of the Spanish flu, shortly after the armistice that ended World War I. Just thirty-eight, he left behind three small children and a heartbroken widow, who resolved to fulfill the charge he’d left her in his will. “My wife, Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, is to be unrestrained in the possession and enjoyment of my entire property and estate,” the document read. “I nevertheless desire her to do such thing or things for Cornell University as she may think most fitting and useful to make the same a more human place.”

It was Dorothy, an heiress and member of the prominent Whitney family, who conceived the idea of a building dedicated to the nonacademic pursuits that enrich student life. Willard Straight Hall, one of the nation’s first student unions, opened in 1925. In the intervening decades, generations of Cornellians have gathered within the Straight’s Gothic walls of Llenroc stone to dine, meet, chat, perform, play, study, or just hang out. Along the way, they may have gotten glimpses into the man who made the building possible—most prominently, the advice to his son that’s carved over the Memorial Room fireplace. “Hold your head high and keep your mind open,” it reads in part. “You can always learn.”

Elaine Engst, MA ’72, the University’s archivist emerita, has done extensive research on Straight’s life. “I always thought he would make a great movie,” she says. “His story has everything.” The son of schoolteachers, Straight was born into modest circumstances in the Upstate New York city of Oswego in 1880. He was an orphan by age ten, both his parents having died of tuberculosis; he and his younger sister were then brought up by two single women (one was among America’s first female physicians) who were friends of the family. Brilliant and artistically talented but prone to mischief and insubordination, Straight was expelled from school at fifteen; after being accused of misbehavior in study hall, he vehemently denied it and refused to submit to a caning. His guardians sent him to military school—and surprisingly, he thrived there, even pondering West Point before matriculating at Cornell as an architecture student. “Devoted as he was to his work, it formed only a small part of Willard’s activities at college,” Herbert Croly, a journalist and friend, observed in his 1925 biography of Straight. “He entered enthusiastically into all the varied social and other activities of which an American college is so fertile a mother.”

Straight pledged Delta Tau Delta, living in its chapter house for most of his Cornell career. He did sketches for the Widow, a campus humor publication, and wrote articles for the Era, a weekly magazine, becoming its editor-in-chief his senior year. He served as art editor of the Cornellian, joined the Savage Club and Sphinx Head Society—and, if all that weren’t enough, he launched the precursor events of both Dragon Day and Slope Day. He was also, by all accounts, an all-around nice guy. “One of his classmates describes the final impression made by Willard Straight upon his college contemporaries as that of an admirable companion,” Croly wrote, “clean and whole-hearted in all his occupations and pleasures, and a salient, even a dashing personality.”

Despite his major, Straight seems to have seriously considered a career in architecture only briefly, if at all. After graduation—inspired by one of his faculty mentors and, as Engst wrote in the Cornell Chronicle, “embracing his own sense of adventure”—Straight spent the next decade in various positions in the Far East. They included working for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, as a Reuters correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War, as private secretary to an American diplomat in Korea, as the U.S. consul general in Manchuria, and for a consortium of American bankers promoting investment in China.

Straight and Whitney on their wedding day.

The happy couple shortly after their marriage.RMC

He and Dorothy met in 1909; he fell hard and avidly wooed her during a two-year courtship that mainly unfolded long distance, through letters and cables. (As Croly wrote: “Only by constantly communicating with her could he soothe his aching heart and render their separation tolerable.”) They married in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1911, spending part of their honeymoon on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Peking, China, where they lived for six months but were forced to leave due to the revolution. Settled in New York, Straight worked for J.P. Morgan and then for the forerunner of the insurance giant AIG. He and Dorothy also devoted themselves to progressive causes, including co-founding the New Republic magazine with Croly. The couple had three children, all of whom would grow up to have extraordinary lives: Whitney, who became a Grand Prix race car driver and World War II flying ace; Beatrice, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1976 film Network; and Michael, a magazine editor and novelist who later in life confessed that he’d been recruited as a spy for the KGB during his student days at Cambridge.

When World War I broke out in Europe, Straight became involved with the movement to prepare America for what many saw as its inevitable entry into the conflict. Although he could have served his country in a diplomatic capacity, he insisted on volunteering for the Army; commissioned as a major, he went to France in 1917 to direct the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. As the war was ending in late 1918, he stayed in Paris to assist with peace negotiations, writing Dorothy to ask her to bring the children and join him. A guide to her papers in Kroch Library, compiled onto microfilm in 1981, sums up what happened next: “On November 17, 1918, Willard wrote, ‘Dear Beloved, are you coming? This is all I’m thinking of—I love you everywhere. Your Willard.’ It was his last letter to his wife. Willard Straight died of pneumonia on December 1, 1918, before his family could leave for France.”

Dorothy was devastated—and she channeled her grief into fulfilling one of Straight’s final wishes, carefully crafting her bequest to Cornell. “She actually did a lot of research,” Engst says. “She traveled around to other universities to see what they had—that’s where she came up with the idea for a student union.” Seven years after Straight’s death, Dorothy remarried, to another Cornellian: Leonard Elmhirst 1921, whom she’d met during the process of establishing her gift to the University, and whose insights helped her refine her vision for the building. (They ultimately relocated to his native England, where they restored a fourteenth-century estate, founded a progressive school, and had two children.) In The Straight and its Origins, published the year after his death in 1974, Elmhirst described Dorothy’s hopes for how the hall might serve the school that Willard had so loved. “Mrs. Straight visualised this building as a place where every student might begin to explore the ins and outs of his or her own make-up,” he wrote. “She knew well how the imagination can begin to bud, and to blossom, in the process of exploring friendships, at leisure or in private.”

A vintage photo of Willard Straight Hall with Elms in front.


When Henry Joe ’82 received his Nov/Dec ’18 Alumni Magazine, he sent us this collection of photos from his visit to the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial outside Paris, France, Willard Straight 1901’s final resting place. Cornellians Frederic Drake 1919 and Jesse Morse Robinson 1916 are also buried there.

NOTE: DSM stands for “Distinguished Service Medal.”

A marvel when it opened, the Straight remains beloved by Cornellians—and plans are in the works to bring it into the twenty-first century. Read about the history of Willard Straight Hall on the next page.


27 thoughts on “Straight Ahead

  1. '59, Chi Psi

    The print version of the Straight article asks for memorable experiences at the Straight.
    In the late ’50s folk singer Pete Seeger came to the central hall. During a lumberjack song he repeatedly whacked a tree stump prop with his big axe after each phrase or verse. What resonance!
    And a small parlor at the south entrance was the listening room, quiet for reading but mainly used for listening to classical LPs, hearing my first Sibelius, Borodin, and Bach.

  2. Willard Straight 1901 was a fellow fraternity brother and is honored in our shelter with other brothers who gave the “supreme sacrifice” for our country in a plaque which I have attached here. Additionally, I have the “obituary” from the Delta Tau Delta national newsletter, The Rainbow, which highlighted Brother Straight’s life and actions during the War to End All Wars. Brother Straight is interned at the American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery in Suresnes just outside of Paris, France. There are at least two other Cornellians interned at Suresnes, Brother Jesse Morse Robinson 1916, and Frederick Drake (unknown year of graduation).

  3. Cornell '81

    Never forget the Help Desk at WSH, Cornell’s very own early-gen Google. 2-3456 was the number to call from your dorm room phone. I was one of three student night managers at WSH from 1979-1981, and it was a highlight from my years at Cornell.

  4. Architecture '52

    In the early 1950’s the renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was on campus at various venues and appearances, one of which was a small, private luncheon in the Straight with a small group of Architecture students, including myself. He had previously described the University of Pittsburgh’s Gothic skyscraper “Cathedral of Learning” as “the biggest keep-off-the-grass sign in the world.” As we walked into the Straight with him, he was applying similar comments to the architecture of the Straight, which of course was totally foreign to his own concept of architecture — oneness with nature, etc. This continued as we walked with him through the building from the front entrance over to the dining room on the south side. I ended up sitting right across the table from him and noted that, in spite of his dislike of the Straight’s architecture, he did really enjoy his Straight lunch.

  5. Class of 1962

    It was the center of my life at Cornell.
    From reading rides home , playing pool, eating in the Ivy room and napping in the library, it was a respite from my busy college life.
    Thank you Willard!

  6. 1964, 1966

    I remember “Willard Straight” and “Willard State” (a mental hospital) used to explain the nature of a phoneme and a morpheme in Professor Hockett’s text for Linguistics 101. It had particular meaning for me in that I did volunteer work at the latter.
    Other experiences at Willard Straight included:
    – As a freshman living in University Halls discovering the Elmira Room’s Sunday evening buffet.
    – Being stunned in the Music Room the first time I heard Carmina Burana.
    – Being moved by the production of The Fantastiks.
    – Seeing a French version of Faust, with my friend Dick Feldman (later head of Cornell’s language lab) playing the devil.
    – Hearing my British Drama Professor Caputo as the protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.
    – Enjoying the ribald and raucous Lysistrata.
    – Watching on the main floor TV the New York Giants (Y A Tittle to Del Shofner) victorious.
    – The time I was staying over Thanksgiving and enjoyed some popcorn the kitchen staff made in one of the fireplaces.
    – Spring of ’64 often got a brownie in the Ivy Room before my afternoon jog, listening to the Beatles’ songs rolling in.

  7. 1961

    My memory was jogged by the description in the print article about the gender segregation in parts of the Straight. When I was told in my Junior year at the University that there were no women allowed in the Pool Room I convinced my then boyfriend (now husband) Marshall Frank, Class of 61, and our fellow Cornellians and best friends Nancy Simon, Class of 62, and her then boyfriend (now husband) Morton Hodin, Class of 61, to defy the ban. We went up to the Pool Room and played part of a game together. I had never played pool before and was not overly impressed with the game. The room was darkish and sparsely occupied at the time as can be seen in the photo accompanying the print article. We were the recipients of a few glares from the men in the room but nothing was said to us and after a while we got bored and left.
    We thought that was the end of the escapade but the next day an article in the Daily Sun appeared calling out the blasphemy of the co-eds who had invaded the male sanctity of the Pool Room. No one knew our names since we were never approached and we have been anonymous to this day. My cover is blown!

    Rosanna Frank
    Class of 61

    • 1969

      Good for you. I spent too many hours shooting pool there and would have welcomed some diversity in 1966. But, maybe it was there and all I could see were balls of stripes and solids.

  8. 1990

    I used to study in the music room, eat in Okenshields, watch movies at Cornell Cinema and I belonged to several clubs that had offices in the Straight. I took part in many demonstrations in front of the Straight. I was back for a visit recently and I still love that building. Thanks, Williard. I hope the renovations don’t destroy the building’s historical character and coziness.

  9. 1972

    Thank you for this charming article. The idea that Straight requested his widow to do something “to make [Cornell] a more human place” is more than quaint, but that’s exactly what she did. Several comments recall the listening (or music) room. What a magical spot! On Sundays it was always packed solid and the music was always loud. Lots of very serious listeners. Very rarely do I find myself wallowing in Big Red nostalgia but this piece left me helpless.

  10. ILR 1964

    The “Straight” was an important place for me, arriving as a transfer and working the summers of 1961 and ’62 as a lifeguard at the Beebe Lake bridge and gorge. I was living in the attic of the Schoellkopf building at the east end of The Crescent, which also had the football coaches’ offices and team dressing rooms below during the regular academic year. I often took meals at the Straight, took summer courses, and did my distance running training in the evenings, mostly at the CU golf course. I really appreciated the use and comforts of the library, and also the early Cornell Cinema summer offerings. I even hosted a 10-year old boy from Harlem for several weeks at CU with the Herald-Tribune Fresh Air Fund. Lots of good memories….

  11. 1952

    My first experience at the Straight was the fall day in 1948 when my father dropped me off to begin my freshman year. Unlike today’s freshmen who arrive with a trailer full of clothes and furniture, I only had a small suitcase and an old footlocker that had been in the family for 30 years. It was a Sunday, and Dad had to make the then 12-hour drive home in order to go to work the next day. I was on wait-list for a dorm room so had nowhere to take my stuff. So Dad left me in front of the Straight, shook my hand (we didn’t hug in those days!), and said “Good bye and good luck” and left me there to fend for myself!

    Later that fall, I joined the Straight’s “Men’s and Women’s Activities Committee” and ultimately spent many, many hours at the Straight chairing several Straight Committees and serving on the Board of Directors my senior year. The Straight had a wonderful staff to guide us and my participation there probably prepared me for my business career better than any of my classes. In addition, I made many lifelong acquaintances, some of whom I am still in contact with today.

    One of our biggest events was the 25th Anniversary of the building when we had a big celebration and Willard’s widow came for the event.

    Needless to say, Willard Straight Hall is among my best memories of Cornell,
    Otto Frank Richter, ’52

    • 1952

      Otto, I was in charge of that 25th anniversary. A real highlight for me. Also meeting you and Dief (James Diefenderfer.) I agree, I learned sooooooo much being on the board there. We had great staff leadership and Foster Coffin even came to my wedding. Great, great memories.
      Harriette Scannell Morgan ’52.

  12. 1976

    One of my fondest Straight memories is the ritual of spending all study week in the M-Room, often sleeping there in a chair or on the floor, to “review” course work before finals.

  13. 1983

    This is an amazing story! My roommate introduced me to my husband my second day on campus on the steps of the Straight almost 40 years ago. We’ve been married for 35 years. I have lots of fond memories of WSH. I remember people gathered around to watch Luke & Laura drama on General Hospital in the afternoons and I still have items I purchased at craft fairs there. My first taste of Thousand Island dressing was on a Straight Burger! (I wonder if they still make those?)

    • 1980

      Thanks for all the great memories! I worked at the Straight freshman year, flipping Straight Burgers and applying the extras and dressings. Later, during my senior year, I returned to work for the director of the Straight as Big Red Barn supervisor (BRB was administered by WSH in those days.) So many great times as described in all these letters – food, naps, shows, social life, music, activism! A crown jewel at Cornell!

  14. Class of '60

    Who knew that Willard Straight Hall had an arts and crafts shop – and that one of the world’s first aluminum cans was fabricated there?

    I have fond memories of Willard Straight Hall that go back to my freshman year, ’56, when I attended an evening performance of the Firehouse Five Dixieland band in the Ivy room. The trombone player was standing on one of the dining tables and his slide extended over my head. I love Dixieland – and I became a regular user of the many facilities available at Willard Straight Hall. But, it was five years later, during the summer of ’61, that I first discovered that Willard Straight Hall had an arts and craft shop for students. This facility turned out to be a surprising benefit to me.

    At the time, I was a fourth year undergraduate student in Engineering Physics and was fortunate to secure a summer job on campus as a lab assistant to Professor Raymond Bowers in the Department of Physics. One of the assignments he gave me was to acquire a thin walled aluminum container to ship a single crystal of sodium we had made in our lab to a nuclear testing facility in Canada. An aluminum soda can or a beer can would have been ideal – but they didn’t exist at the time. (Back then, we drank beer out of steel cans at Jim’s Place.) The machinists who worked in Department of Physics were unsuccessful in machining such a thin-walled container out of solid metal. Fortunately, a Home Economics student friend of mine, Mary Ann Tower, ’61, had secured a summer job supervising the craft shop in Willard Straight Hall. She suggested that I might be able to use a lathe in the craft shop to “spin” the container from a flat aluminum disk similar to the way others spun and slowly deformed aluminum disks into the shape of ash trays as a regular craft project. The technique worked after the second attempt and I proudly received my 15 minutes of fame from my associates in the Department of Physics.

    Thanks again Mary Ann and thanks to Willard Straight Hall.

  15. 1971

    I remember being in a room with a TV in the Straight in 1969, watching the first Vietnam War draft lottery. When the first (low) numbers were drawn, it was easy to see but hard to watch a student in the room hearing his birthday called out. The memory of these now-scared men cry, in public, in front of their friends and classmates, still haunts me.

    • 1972

      I was in that room, too. #1 was just a day away from my own birthday. Continued sweating out the early numbers, and being “saved” by a high number. No one who was there will ever forget.

  16. Graduate School. Comparative Literature

    Raul Rodriguez-Hernandez says:
    The Willard was my refuge on harsh winters. As a graduate student, I spent days and nights reading endless works by Heidegger and Nietzsche. Now, even after so many years, I still can conjure up the aroma of coffee emanating from the Willard’s cafeteria.

  17. MS 1982

    WSH was an escape cafeteria in nights in which study at school offices went deep into the night. A late night hot chocolate was miraculous in keeping us awake. Thanks WS.

  18. I met my wife in the lobby of the Straight in 1967. Fifty years later at my reunion we went back to the spot where it all began. Nothing had changed except the cushions on the seats. The Straight stands as a symbol of our marriage and will always carry a place in our hearts.

  19. '79 MBA '80

    Among the more recent memories was the delivery of new college and university banners to the Memorial Room – a gift of the alumni of Sigma Phi Society. On September 11, 2009 — a somber day for all — the alumni gathered on campus for their third all-alumni reunion. I had the honor to present these banners (which replaced the banners we gifted at our Centennial in 1990) to Cornell. My reflections on this meaningful occasion are attached.

  20. ILR '59 Law '63

    While in the Law School I had the good fortune to serve as the manager of the Browsing Library. My supervisor was Mary Moore. It was she, I believe, who was concerned about the low usage of the library.

    It was incredible good luck that the woman in Day Hall working to find students employment on campus (wish I could recall her name) sent Virginia VanWynen ’63 to the Browsing Library for a job. I recognized her immediately as the sister of Joel K. Van Wynen. Joel was also a student in the Law School and former oarsman on the Crew.

    Virginia soon became my right hand in the library. It was a life-changing event for both of us. Ultimately, Virginia became the New York Times Librarian of the Year while at that time she was a Russian language major in the Arts School.

    Each month Virginia created a lovely, themed display for the front table of the library. The displays were so attractive that they brought more students in the doors to explore the contents of our library. She was also instrumental, along with Joan Travers and other staff, in changing the role of the library from a passive reading room into a lending source for records. For a small fee, students could borrow any record for a few days. The fees collected became the budget for the next month’s record purchases. So our lending collection was constantly expanding and bringing more and more students into our library where they could also enjoy the quiet for study or relaxation. Of course, one place the records could be enjoyed was the adjacent Music Room. (No thought was ever given to the Copyright laws.)

    Another change in the Library was the renovation of all the beautifully executed sailing ship models atop the library shelves. They were all cleaned and refurbished by the husband of the Straight’s secretary. (Their names also regrettably have escaped me.) Virginia’s and Joan Travers’ enthusiasm for the library was palpable and brought new, vigorous life to the library. And when I graduated Virginia took my place.

    Virginia changed my life also. I was living in a rented, basement apartment in Collegetown. As our first year was drawing to a close she noted that her sister was returning to campus for the summer session. Was I interested in sub-letting my pad to her sister and her roommate for the summer? Yup, Jane Van Waynen ’61 rented my apartment for the summer while I roamed New York State for the Ag Ec Department doing surveys for Professor Metz and his assistant Doug Dalryimple (sic). Jane and I married in 1965 fully as a result of Virginia’s handiwork.

    Of course, there is much more to be told in related stories but Jane and I are still married and now live in Rochester, Mn. while Virginia is retired as a nationally known librarian from the Library in Princeton, NJ.

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