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8.23.2010

13 We’d Send Our Son to Cornell*

Proud parents.
Loyal Cornellians to the power of two.
Meet Michelle and Jerry Phelps.

Owners of Lot 11, Block, 6, Plat 6149 Cornell (Blocks 1-9, Commonly Called Original Plat of Cornell) in Chippewa County. Among other "Cornell" plats.


A few Thursdays ago I spoke with them long distance to get a few more details about their personal histories in Northern Wisconsin, the story of their “Ezra” pine land, and their reflections on a son of Cornell becoming a Cornell son: Aaron – the sole identified graduate of both Cornell High School (1995) and Cornell University (1999).

Jerry’s great grandfather (Aaron’s great-great g.f.) settled near Cornell after the turn of the previous century. The rest of the family connections to the Wisconsin woodlands go back almost as far. Michelle's ancestors are from Norway – then California.

Jerry and Michelle met at Cornell High School and were married soon after. Michelle is a mental health professional for Chippewa County and Jerry works with delinquent males.

In their youth their knowledge of Cornell University and Ezra Cornell was minimal. “It wasn’t until we bought the land that we became aware of the region’s connection to the other Cornell.”

The land.

The first acres were purchased in 1984 a few miles south. The title on their “Cornell Plat” is the physical record of the land grant. The first owner – United States Government. Then come Ezra and Mary Cornell’s signatures.

The Phelps ownership of this land brings the Wisconsin story full circle. For while the trees and land were sold first to build a nascent university, 100 years later the Phelps confirmed that trees on this same land were felled and sold to pay a portion of Aaron’s tuition, rent, food and books. A poetic if not romantic notion.

“It’s hard to describe what it felt like to visit Cornell the first time,” offered Jerry. "Walking on campus, seeing the statue of Ezra Cornell on the Arts Quad – I was grinning from ear to ear. Most of the people I met in Ithaca had no idea about the Wisconsin connection. I had to convince them that we owned land 1,000 miles away with Ezra’s signature on the title.”

Michelle shared that, “it was exciting to go to Cornell, knowing the connection and knowing we were linked so personally by so much history.”

We discussed a Cornell-Cornell connection. “The local schools and students would benefit greatly from a relationship with the university. The university might inspire our students to raise their expectations and shift their aspirations,” reflected Jerry.

"And there is some pressure to retire the high school's current "Chiefs" mascot." Cornell Bears anyone?

In late May this year, President David Skorton stood before the throngs at Schoelkopf and acknowledged the support and sacrifices of the parents that allowed Cornell students to become Cornell alumni. After my brief virtual kitchen klatch with the Phelps, I know that the archetype Cornell parents is this couple from Chippewa County.

I’m looking forward to meeting them up north soon and maybe bringing a bit more of Cornell to Cornell – and vice versa.

(* with admiration of E B White)

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