Extraordinary campaign (page 3)

Fate, faith, and purple ties (cont'd)

Faith: A Cornell student experience fosters friendships, the resulting diploma officially attaches you to a family tree. Families look out for one another. In the end, nearly 60 percent of alumni donated to the campaign, $150,000 was given by graduating seniors, and 23 commitments were for $1 million or greater.

Purple ties? They are the ubiquitous hallmark of Cornell's staff. Peter Wilch, explaining his job to his son's kindergarten class on career day, boiled his role in the $92 million campaign this way: "I help organize parties. I make sure the Web page works well. I ask people for money. And I wear purple ties. Any questions?" A girl in the front row raised her hand excitedly. "Yes?" Wilch asked. "I like your shoes," she said, admiring his wingtip tasseled loafers.  

Which brings us to the jet: Shoe leather takes fundraisers on the personal visits that are so essential to building donor relationships. But jets. Well, they speed things up a bit.  

John and Dyan Smith donated $5 million to the campaign and spent countless hours challenging other alumni to pitch in too. Smith, Garner, and former vice president of alumni and college advancement Terry Gibson '59 were frequent fliers on Smith's CRST jet, a favor from Smith that saved valuable travel time. 

Gibson had developed wonderful relationships, Smith said. Garner, Smith recalled, was eloquent and concise, taking the enormous list of wants and needs and condensing it to a pocket companion for donors. Smith was brought along to make the ask. 

"His leadership was essential, and he's never seen an ask he couldn't make," Garner said.

Redefining Liberal-Arts Education

For now, with the campaign goal surpassed, a mountain has been scaled and the view on the other side is breathtaking. On campus, faculty and scholarship endowments have been fortified, buildings reinforced. In classrooms, new programs leverage the block plan's schedule with countless off-campus study opportunities and an infusion of on-campus programming and career guidance. In this way, Smith said, Cornell has "redefined liberal arts education."

To Wilch, who took the campaign helm in 2006, the outcome already has been "transformative, elevating the college to a new level, in reputation and academic opportunities for our students. We aspire to educate and prepare students for success beyond the Hilltop," Wilch said. "Now we have programs that connect the dots for opportunities a Cornell education can provide."

But to junior Diego Verdugo, born in Mexico and the first in his family to go to college, Cornell's campaign has been life changing. 

He needed Cornell's generous financial aid to be able to attend college at all. That financial aid included a gift from the Frank K. Whitson Memorial Scholarship, a $2.5 million estate gift made to the campaign in 2008 by Lee and Dorothy Whitson, whose son, Frank, graduated from Cornell in 1970 and died of leukemia in 1974. 

In a single-page thank you letter to Dianne Polasik, Whitson's fiancee at the time of his death, Verdugo says a thank you to her, in words that could universally apply to every campaign donor. 

"... Thanks for giving people like me the opportunity to look for a better life. I couldn't express with words the gratitude I feel towards you and it is for that reason that I choose to express it with actions, being active, keeping a good GPA, working hard after school, and keeping my aspirations high. May God bless you and your family for even though you may not realize it, you are angels fallen from the sky. I pray to God that someday I can reach the point where you are now and I also can make dreams come true." 

Brought to Cornell by his persistence and the college's faith in his potential, don't be surprised if one day Verdugo is a guy with a purple tie (or two), a jet, a checkbook like Richard Small's, and the heart and loyalty to match. 

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