Cornell as Ellis Island

By Mike Conklin '69

For Cornell students raised in the Mount Vernon-Lisbon area, the college unravels itself to become more than remote buildings atop a hill and young strangers seen meandering First Street between downtown and campus. For townies, it quickly comes alive as a mix of identifiable people from places you’ve only read about and adventures not in brochures. For me, as a kid from Lisbon, this was most evident during school vacations.

In spring of my first year, there was a trip to Wichita Falls, Texas, for break. My new Milt pledge mate and friend, George Huntington III ’66, invited me and my car to spend it with his family. I drove and, to help with gas, we gave two other students rides to Kansas City.

In Wichita Falls, George and I were on a golf course when ominous, black clouds rolled in from the northwest. The skies got weird, and in the distance George pointed out a funnel cutting across the horizon. He knew what to do. We hurried to his home, where he collected his camera and spent the next hour chasing and photographing the tornado and its destructive path.

George tried to sell the pictures to the local newspaper, but I cannot recall if any got published. The tornado was one of the worst in Texas history, severely damaging the local Air Force base, killing seven people, injuring 100 more, and destroying over 225 homes and businesses.

In my sophomore year, inspired by a Joe Board-taught international relations course, I left the Hilltop for Puerto Rico during Christmas vacation to attend a conference on Caribbean politics. Another Cornell student and new friend, Henry Stewart ’66, also made the trip.

Logistics were more complicated this time due to my tight budget. Henry lived in Delaware, so I took the Greyhound bus to meet him there. Then, we bussed to New York City, stayed a night in a youth hostel, and boarded a chartered airplane at JFK Airport with other college students.

The conference was in San German, 100 miles from San Juan. After several days, we discussed leaving early for an extra night in the capitol city. Overhearing us, a little old lady attending the event suggested we share a publico—a long-distance taxi—since she wanted to depart, too.

Later, after piecing together our conversations during the ride with our travel companion, we deduced our fellow passenger had been Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt and first woman to have a U.S. Cabinet position.

There were other adventures. One spring break was spent tromping the Midwest with other students for Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. In Lisbon on a Thanksgiving, I recall a turkey dinner for foreign students stuck on campus, hosted by health professor Judy Sonnek in her log home. She dressed as an American Indian, others wore Pilgrim outfits.

As I think back, Cornell was an Ellis Island for townies. We watched and met students from Africa, Japan, Cuba, and other exotic places land on campus and pass through classrooms. But the Hilltop was a portal for us, as well, a place we passed through doors to new places.