Editor's note: Evening Tribune reporter Al Bruce graduated from Cornell University in 1962. Last weekend, he returned to the university campus for the first time in more than 50 years. This is his account of that visit.
ITHACA — Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again.
Especially if you want to see Alma Mater, Latin for "foster mother."
This writer stepped off the Cornell campus in 1962 to become a Democrat and Chronicle reporter. Even after he left that paragraph factory for more luxuriant pastures, the writer remained active in university affairs, taking alumni leadership roles in Albany; Pittsburgh; Washington, DC; and Raleigh, N.C.
Last weekend he visited the storied hill far above Cayuga’s waters for the first time in more than 50 years.
The theoretical reunion reason: an invitation to watch the Cornell men’s hockey team play rival Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in a fast Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) hockey league game.
In October 1957, the writer watched classmates try out for the then-new Cornell intercollegiate hockey team. One friend started four years in an era when the Big Red were neither big nor successful and red described embarrassed blushing. Jimmy self-described himself as "a nimble guy who could whiz around the ice." The upstate New Yorker was maybe five-seven and weighed 165 pounds.
Big Big Red starters today are recruited from towns across Canada, Finland, Belarus and, increasingly, colder sections of the U.S. Example: Cornell sophomore Reece Willcox, a 6-4 200-pound defenseman from Surrey, British Columbia, looks suspiciously like an oak tree at Lynah Rink.
Musing on the trip with host, friend and veterinarian Dr. Grant Seaman, a graduate of the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, included every corner of the sprawling Ithaca campus, home to nearly 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Seaman and less-biased chroniclers rank the veterinary medicine school first in the nation.
Animal medicos learned in a small cluster of gray World War II surplus Quonset huts until 1957 when contemporary brick, metal and glass replaced ribbed steel. Seaman pointed with appropriate pride at the modern multi-story complex of buildings where, even on that cold Saturday night, students crowded around microscopes in state-of-the-art clinical settings.
The scene compared with heritage university 1950s chemistry labs where patinaed wooden walls surrounded beakers and pipettes. That half-century-old recollection seems to compare scientific Model As with the sleek engineering marvels on American highways today.
Since 1905, humanities at Cornell were taught in Goldwin Smith Hall. A severe space shortage prompted construction of a new environmentally-friendly humanities facility with central atrium.
This writer took too many English literature and writing courses plus 8 a.m. German classes in Goldwin Smith. The neoclassical stone building embodies how Ivy League campuses should look: vaguely British with easy walking access to shade trees that helped inspire undergraduates studying early 20th century Irish and English authors James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and Wilfred Owen.
Sun-draped oaks conjured English forests that supplied planking and beams for royal Navy ships during the Napoleonic Wars when "Britannia ruled the waves."
Another recollection: A classmate’s wife called a Collegetown hangout "a seedy dump." She was more accurate than habitués of the Royal Palms Tavern care to remember. A Cornell Daily Sun reviewer called the venue "dark, dirty and often sticky" and "a classic dive bar."
The Sun reported the building and two nearby properties sold for $3.75 million in 2010, more than four times their collective assessed value of about $800,000.
Even Lynah Hockey Rink rafters bespeak improvement aka change. Dozens of Ivy League, ECAC and national championship banners hang proudly.
A classmate served as team goalie that first season and routinely stopped almost 50 shots each losing game. That’s like being a human target in a carnival shooting gallery.
Nostalgic Big Red hockey fans think of 6-4 Ken Dryden, three-time All-American Cornell goalie who earned his history undergraduate degree and an NCAA championship before starting for the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden was named NHL rookie of the year and the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup several consecutive years with him patrolling the net.
A brief imaginary campus stroll Saturday invoked presentations from Harry Truman and John Kenneth Galbraith in Bailey Hall in the late 1950s. President Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno, one year ahead of this writer, introduced the former president
One campus landmark seems unchanged since completed in 1891: McGraw Tower (Libe Tower in the 1950s) overlooking Libe Slope where, the writer suspects, underclassmen still slide downhill on dinner trays borrowed from the nearby Willard Straight Hall dining room.
John Omicinski, a fellow reporter in Rochester a long time ago, said "you can go home again, if you’re king." John became city editor and attempted to re-recruit this writer with a prestige beat and modest raise into a city room crowded with dull office furniture and clanking old manual typewriters a few years after the personal employment Diaspora.
Round trip musings plus game Saturday were eight hours of gladness and, as the Irish tune Kerry Dance laments, were "gone, alas, like my youth too soon."