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2 The Other Cornell & Other Cornellians

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It’s Day 2 in Cornell, WI.

Last night, Dave Hoel called Paul Sounderegger to ask if he’d give me a boat ride on the Chippewa River in the morning so I could get some aquatic video. I meet Paul at Turk’s (bar, diner, town square). Another stranger comes through.

At 9:00 am the temperature is already warm but in the speedy boat my fleece keeps me comfortable in the boat-made breeze. The water is like a mirror and both banks of the Chippewa are edifice-free leaving tranquil vistas in all directions.

We round the bend at Brunet Island State Park and Doug slows down enough to point out an eagle’s nest just below the crown of a tall pine. A precocious eaglet stretches its neck wanting to be seen. A few moments later momma appears over the tree tops, riding the thermals; she circles and returns to the nest.

Cornell, Wisconsin and my hosts are pulling out all the stops.

Later I wander to the front of the Cornell Theater – a modest, boarded up cinema that has roots probably going back to the 1920s. Middle of Main Street – of course. Several locals tell me that it’s changed hands several times but no one in recent times has made a go of it. Later in the day I spot a 2008 ad in the Cornell Courier for “WALL-E”: maybe the last film shown since the theater was shuttered.

The film takes place in the distant future, when a small waste collecting robot inadvertently embarks on a (space) journey that will ultimately decide the fate of mankind. Is this a variation of my story?

I’m thinking Cinema Paradiso meets Badger State. The first “project” I can get excited about is the restoration of this place (see article). What’s so appealing about reviving a movie theater (Jim Carrey in The Majestic 2001)?

City Hall is a small wooden building with an 600 square foot first floor. Missy greets me from behind the high counter; I ask if the city administrator is available. Dave DeJongh makes time and answers all my questions. He reveals that 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the City of Cornell (prior to which it was known as Brunet Falls).

My mind is crunching dates: (A) 100th anniversary of the City of Cornell (2013), (B) 150th anniversary of New York State’s acceptance of the Morrill Land Grant Act conditions (2013), (C) nearly 150th of the establishment of Cornell U (2015). Sounds like a party.

Dave takes down a picture from the lobby wall. It’s a portrait of Ezra Cornell, the city’s namesake. On the back is an undated newspaper article about the Ezra/Cornell WI connection. The author is Monica Rejzer Novakovic a former resident of Cornell who, according to the byline, lives and works in Ithaca, New York. OK – a new lead to explore. Am I crazy or do I recognize the typeface from the Ithaca Journal?

An hour later I’m at the Visitors Center (10:00 AM – 4:00 PM seven days a week) when I come across a copy of “The Builders of Cornell” which pays tribute to major donors to the University. Why is this volume here? Inside the front cover is a photocopy of a business card (Andrew M. Novakovic, professor of Agricultural Economics at Cornell). Also are the words, “donated by Mr. & Mrs. Stan Rejzer 6/2000.” Google tells me that Monica, Andrew’s late wife, was a chimesmaster. (Update: Prof. Novakovic and I exchange emails the next day)

While I’m perusing articles and artifacts, Lyle Adrian shows up. He is a city councilman and he tells me he was speaking with DeJongh and he drove down (takes about ninety seconds to drive across town) – wants to know if he can answer any questions. We spoke of the mineral rights, the Ladysmith copper mine, the anticipated restoration of the world’s only remaining wood stacker out our window, and Betsy White.

“For local history, you need to speak with Betsy,” Lyle advises. “She now is in a care facility in nearby Bloomer, WI, but even at 95 she is sharp as a tack though you might have to remind her to turn on or up her hearing aid.” Lyle calls me four hours later with her number. She’s anticipating my call.

Lyle proudly tells me that the town’s Camaraderie Club – meets every Monday – sent over 1,000 care packages to the troops in Iraq. For a town of 1,466 this is an impressive effort.

My twenty-four hours in Cornell ends with a visit with the mayor, Judith Talbot. A few years ago Talbot was appointed mayor filling an unexpired term, but then lost to Mark Nodolf by four votes in 2008. She ran for city council in 2009; lost by four votes. Judy won her seat this April by defeating former mayor, Nodolf, 124-120. And, appropriately, there were four write-in votes. Will the excitement never end?

Judy immediately starts in about the Save Our Stacker initiative. The 97-year-old pulpwood stacker needs to be painted to abate the rusting of this 175 foot structure (I suggested some dramatic night lighting). They’ve raised about $30,000 toward the $300,000+ goal. The mayor hopes the restoration will be completed in time for the stacker’s centennial in (wait for it) 2013.

Judy is excited about the notion of a Cornell (City)–Cornell (University) partnership. These have got to be the first town-gown bedfellows separated by 1,029 miles. The City seems eager to welcome a friendship with the University. We’ll explore the reciprocal feelings next. Mayor Judy wants the town (especially the youth) to know its history and finds exciting the notion of a link or at least some programs with Cornell University.

I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of these “Cornellians” – I never did ask what the natives are called! I want alumni to know the story of Cornell’s land grant in Wisconsin. I want the University and its alumni to nurture this unusual bond. Like relatives who know of each other's existence but haven't connected – yet.

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