King Chapel across generations (Page 2)

Cornell’s third president and the building’s eventual namesake, William Fletcher King, was out of the country on sick leave when the Board of Trustees decided to build a chapel, though they had no money to do so. King returned to news that not only would the building be built, he would have to raise the money.

Crews arrived in 1875 and the walls were half erected when the contractor went bankrupt. His workers filed liens on the college. Cornell had to mortgage the campus and buildings to pay them. If not for the faculty’s contribution of 20 percent of their salaries—and King’s contribution of 40 percent—over three years, there would be no Cornell today.

What rose from that debacle became a gathering place, a site of ceremony and pageantry, mirth, matrimony, profound thought, and passionate protest.

On Sept. 11, 2001, students turned to King Chapel for comfort, a homing response that is timeless. After the Kent State shootings in 1970, it was the place where students, including Marty Benson McGrane ’73, converged to figure out how to respond, and found themselves with a rifle-carrying student in their midst who had to be calmed down.

In gentler times McGrane was delighted with a John Denver performance in 1970, finding the performer taller than she had anticipated. And she was in the audience when Brooklyn Bridge, one of the nation’s top bands, came in 1969–1970, prompting students to dance on the pews. “It was a great concert. It was wild. It was rocking the place,” she said.

McGrane, a choir member, spent countless hours in practice on the first floor. She also climbed the tower, with permission, to shoot the view with a 16-mm camera for a Cornell public relations project.

Such permission was not always sought. Richard Williams ’63 confessed that the tower was a great place to take dates. Not for the view, mind you.

But King Chapel was also Williams’ view to the world he had left behind. A decade before Ruter pined for his hometown football games, Williams—a transplanted Chicago native—was missing city life.

King Chapel delivered the bigger world right to his new home. There was Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962, who Williams remembers as young and incredibly dynamic. He marveled that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed there during May Music Festival, a luxury that Williams understands even more now as a paying subscriber to the symphony’s concerts.

“It’s amazing for me to think today that they would come!” he said.

Such is the pull of a good speaker at King Chapel that Williams came back to the Hilltop this spring to hear George Stephanopoulos speak and to meet him at a campus reception. It was at the height of the presidential primary season, so Williams was able to watch as Stephanopoulos offered his keen political insight to ABC News from President Les Garner’s lawn.

Junior Chris Davids was part of the packed Chapel audience at the Stephanopoulos visit. The bookends to his school year — New Student Convocation and Baccalaureate’s farewell to another senior class — took place there as well. In between, King Chapel was transformed into a performance stage for students, a comedy house with a Second City performance, and a social justice platform for The Rev. Raphal Warnock.

“Cornellians take pride in King Chapel, so it is only appropriate that the historic building majestically stands as the pinnacle of our campus,” Davids said.

For a brief moment, King Chapel was a pinnacle of embarrassment for another student, Marcella Lee ’48. A petite soprano from Fergus Falls, Minn., Lee always sang her heart out, aiming to reach the back rows with her young voice. One year the Chicago Symphony came to Cornell to perform Handel’s Messiah with Cornell’s choir, a performance that was broadcast live on radio.

Lee counted the hallelujahs at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” There are four, mind you. She got carried away. “My zeal kept me going too long. I started to put a fifth hallelujah. And the conductor just looked at me and he would have killed me if he could have.”

On a happier note, Lee later auditioned for a music professorship on the same stage, reaching the back rows with her mature and trained voice, and got the job. She taught music at Cornell until 1991.

Inevitably, King Chapel can be taken for granted. But only for so long.

“Most of the year it’s this place you walk by on the way to somewhere else,” said Tim Wynes ’83, now chancellor of the Iowa Valley Community College District. He did see some memorable figures there. The Ramsey Lewis Trio, for instance. “I’m not a big jazz fan but this concert would make the most casual music fan come alive,” he said.

And he saw Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation magazine. “It should have been riveting based on the material but the speech was a wandering, rambling discourse that seemed to go forever with no focal point. At one point the student sitting next to me said, ‘Do you have any idea what the hell he’s talking about?’ ”

But it wasn’t until graduation day that Wynes really grasped the essence of King Chapel. After commencement Wynes hung around King Chapel for a long time, talking to classmates as they checked in their graduation mortar boards and gowns and said good-byes.

“It was such a Cornell moment,” Wynes said.

Mark Hudson ’99 points out that students are “born” into Cornell at King Chapel in New Student Convocation. They leave Cornell in the same spot with Baccalaureate. Divine inspiration comes in between, its imprint unique to each student.

Hudson has known since he was 5 that he wanted to become a lawyer. Enter Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the King Chapel stage in 1999, with Hudson getting to sit at his side.

“The Supreme Court has always been shrouded in secrecy or viewed as though they were on a pedestal and rarely came out of the Court for interactions with the public. But, here I was, a 21-year-old interacting with one of the most revered and vilified Supreme Court Justices of all time. Frankly, it reaffirmed my passion for the law and confirmed my desire to further my dreams of becoming a lawyer.”

A divine moment. Much inspiration. Another young life launched.

America’s greatest architect may have dubbed King Chapel an eyesore, but Wright completely missed the point of the pinnacle. King Chapel was built with moments like Hudson’s. And in the eyes of Cornellian beholders, the icon is nothing short of beautiful.

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