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9.15.2010

17 Channeling Ezra

The drive to Ithaca is always therapeutic. Interstate 86 (I still call it Route 17) meanders through New York's Southern Tier pleasantly devoid of traffic for all the years I have traversed this highway. The first crossing was in 1976, a winter break return trip from Madison, with a new acquaintance, Jim Rutherford '76, a fellow Madisonian (though from the east side of town) who was returning to Cornell in time for fraternity formal rush week.

Jim (and, briefly, I) drove the world's oldest "working" Saab for about 20 hours through blizzards and darkness at a rate that might seem as frustratingly slow as Ezra Cornell's round trips to Wisconsin 110 years earlier.

The best part of the trip was – and remains – coming over the hill on Route 13 leading into Ithaca when, for the first time and for only a brief moment, you're tempted with a distant view of the city and the Cornell campus still several miles away. If Cornell is alma mater then it is also alma domus.

I am returning to campus for some more research on the land grant, a meeting or two, and the alumni board meeting of Sigma Phi (Jim's and now my fraternity), a society I was introduced to for the first time at the end of that January drive in '76.

The Kroch Library elevator descends a few floors (somewhat less colorfully than the phone booth in Get Smart) where I meet Elaine Engst, the University's affable archivist, to discuss the land grant and the Ezra Cornell collections. My goal: bring highlights of the bicentennial (of Ezra's birth) exhibit to Cornell, Wisconsin's public schools and to the city's visitors center.

Also Ezra Magazine wants a photo for a print and web article it's publishing in a few weeks about my Wisconsin explorations: a shot in front of Ezra Cornell's statue on the Arts Quad. I arrive early for the Monday 9 AM shoot (jealous of the coffee-ed, iPod-ed and backpack-ed future alumni crossing the Quad on their way to enlightenment) and spend a few private moments with Ezra, in silent communication with the tall green sculpture; he listens politely.

"In case you were wondering," I offer, "your great great great grandson says hello."

Ezra Cornell '70
The day before I stopped by the home of the living Ezra Cornell '70 to discuss my research and exchange ideas. This Ezra is a lineal descendant of our founding Ezra (and then Alonzo) and he provides an enthusiastic and informative link for my history lesson.

He has a handful of humorous stories that come with being named after a famous man. As an undergraduate, the university was easier to navigate using his "EC" moniker. His hilarious tale about his admission's application to the university is a classic (it involves a grandmother, a long drive from New Jersey, the dean of admissions, a Saturday phone call to the university's president, and retrieving an application from the wastebasket).

Most importantly, Ezra expressed his interest in joining me for a trip next spring to Cornell, WI for a rendezvous with teachers, students, and history.

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