Extraordinary campaign (page 2)

Building academic advantages (cont'd)

Holiday Concert in King Chapel

"The campaign was very successful in many ways, including the creation of innovative programs like Cornell Fellows, Dimensions, and the Berry Center.  These initiatives, and the way they strengthen the fabric of the college, will continue to make a lasting difference for Cornell students for many, many years," said John McGrane '73, the board of trustee's chair-elect.

So when Cornell began its Extraordinary Opportunities Campaign in 2004, it was not a quest for quick fixes. It was the mobilization of a mission to bring the campus up to date and position it for tomorrows. It was a mission with an estimated price tag of $92 million, far more than Cornell had ever sought. 

Fearless leadership

Enter John Smith '71. Asked if he would accept this mission, in its lead role as campaign chair, the Cornell trustee, president and CEO of CRST International, and a fearless force in the corporate world, had to give it some thought. The $92 million price tag had caused him to pause.

Smith, who joined his father in the family trucking business after graduating with an MBA from the other Cornell (University) and who helped grow CRST from a $25 million annual revenue company in 1974 to one that will hit the $1 billion mark in 2011, wouldn't go so far as to say he was pessimistic.

But still.

"It just seemed unreachable in some respects," Smith recalled. 

And that was even before the college knew a pothole was ahead—a recession likened to the Great Depression. 

Leap forward six years. It's Oct. 16, 2010, the dawning of a Saturday on homecoming weekend. By midmorning, sunlight filtered golden through the canopy of Hilltop trees, decked out in their best fall finery. Alumni lingered in chatty packs, comparing technicolor memories as leaves drift to the ground around them. The former students strolled, crunching through unavoidable piles of fallen leaves, pausing to snap photos of the scaffolding that scaled the front of King Chapel. 

By the afternoon, they cheered even as the Rams lost to Buena Vista. And by that evening, at the alumni dinner and campaign celebration at the Cedar Rapids Marriott, more jubilation, much louder cheering. 

On stage, John Smith (now chair of the Board of Trustees), and Vice President of Alumni and College Advancement Peter Wilch '94 made drumroll references to what they were about to reveal. The crescendo gained in suspense. Then boom, campaign total flashed on a screen. 

Not $92 million. No, instead, $105.8 million, the highest ever for a national liberal arts college in Iowa.

"When it flashed across the screen people were pretty surprised," said trustee Gilda Vinzulis Boyer '84, who with husband Barry Boyer '84, contributed $50,000 toward the campaign. It was the class of 1960's reaction that Gilda loved most. Five decades removed from their own student experience, they were vocally overjoyed by what the campaign's outcome means for today's students. "It was kind of fun to have them whooping and hollering in the banquet hall," Boyer said.

Of the final tally, $4.6 million had come from their own class.

Fate, faith, and purple ties

Just how did it happen that a college devoted to the expensive task of keeping its campus historic, paired with a fervent desire to make its academic programs among the nation's most unique, managed to miss the recession's pothole and burst past the finish line, breaking a record to boot? 

It's complicated, of course. But condensed to some best moments, let's just say the active ingredients included, but are not limited to: fate, faith, purple ties, a campaign and trustee board that was teaming with dreams — and John and Dyan Smith, with their moxie — and their private jet.

Fate first: Richard Small '50 and wife Norma donated more than $20 million to the campaign but have over the years donated more than $40 million to the college that gave Richard his beloved wife, and the liberal arts savvy to carry him forth as a champion in the business world. 

A member of the campaign steering committee and former chair of the board of trustees, Small was just a 17-year-old in May of 1946, about to graduate from high school. In study hall one day he asked the classmate ahead of him if he was going to college. "Yes," said Campbell McConnell (who did graduate from Cornell in 1950 and went on to write the world's most widely read economics textbook). "To Cornell College." To which Small said, "Maybe I'll go there too."

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