Wonderful Cornell parents

By Charles Milhauser

Parents as parents--rather than as alumni, faculty, or trustees--receive scant attention in college histories. The one constant for Cornell parents over the past 150-plus years has been finding the financial resources to pay for their child's education. In the 19th century, when many students came from farm families, parents had also to forgo the child's labor.

Local parents were always welcomed to attend college events as were those who could afford the time and expense of traveling to Mount Vernon by train. When the automoble ceased to be an exotic luxury, parental visits increased. On Oct. 15, 1932, Cornell inaugarated its first Parents' Day and 220 parents attended. A Parents Club was organized in 1964.

Parental confrontations with college officials in the earliest years were rare because Cornell's presidents were ministers and their moral pronouncements were rarely challenged, even when they told a parent his child was "worthless." Still, one Chicago mother, a lawyer, in 1890 fought the expulsion of her son for drinking. She may be the first parent to threaten the college with a lawsuit. The first mass action by Cornell's parents occurred at the close of spring semester 1912-13, when the college suspended nearly 100 students for refusing to relinquish their memberships in fraternities or sororities. The college was forced to relent, and the students were allowed to return but only after promising not to affiliate.

Some parents moved to Mount Vernon to enroll their children. Nelson Fancher bought a house here and put one son, eight daughters, and six of his wife's relatives through Cornell. Another parent, Mrs. Sells, took a job in 1877 as housemother at the Cornell Boarding Association (now South Hall) in order for her two sons to have free tuition. Son Cato would become U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs and have a town in Arizona named for hi in 1918. Yet another parent, John Cory, a local farmer originally from Scotland, sent all four of his children to Cornell and later paid for the rare Seth Thomas clock in the bell tower of King Chapel. Both Law Hall and Allee Chapen are dedicated to the non-alumni parents of their donors.

Just as the automobile increased parental contacts, so too did telephones, which were installed in all the dormitory rooms in 1983. A Chicago mother, notified that her son overslept and missed class so often that he was fluncking, called him every weekday morning to rouse him out of bed. A few parents assumed that a small, rural, religiously affiliated college was tantamount to a gulag or nunnery. A few parents negotiated with (forced) unwilling children to attend Cornell for a year or two before the parents would consent to the kid's pursuing his or her dream (flight or culinary school, carpentry, etc.). A divorced father with a teenage daughter whom he could not manage decided Cornell would set her on the straight and narrow. Within a few days of her forced enrollment, she ran off with a man she met. The police returned her to her father.