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Student Life


The Tower Room on the third floor of Rood House’s East House. The desk at left is still in the room.

Carl Sandburg at the Pal.

The literary societies provided not only entertainment but a valuable forum in which students were able to engage in public speaking and creative writing. The libraries, which the societies maintained, also proved to be the main source of literature for students, because the college library grew very slowly.

Literary societies also sponsored the student newspapers, the first of which, The Collegian, appeared in 1869. In 1880 The Collegianwas succeeded by The Cornellian, the present college paper. The Royal Purple, the college’s yearbook, was first produced in 1902. Cornell’s own radio station, KRNL, first broadcast over the air in 1948.

From the membership of these public societies were formed secret societies, of which little is known except that they became the nuclei for today’s social and service groups. These are local fraternities and sororities without national affiliation or separate housing, organized to provide additional social life, leadership, and service opportunities as well as close fellowship for their members.

Student social life, limited by the strict rules of the college, was sparse in the early days. Social activities mainly revolved around college-sponsored events and the activities of the literary societies. By the early 1920s, however, student-sponsored programs, such as the popular Sans Souci celebration, had come into existence. It was at a Sans Souci party in 1926 that students, at a prearranged signal, started dancing, breaking long-standing rules against this activity and ushering in a new era in student social activities.

The 19th-century world of the first Cornell students is radically different from that faced by students today. College administration and faculty have constantly readjusted rules and programs to meet changing ideas of what the college experience should be, as well as to provide a safe environment that fosters a positive learning experience for students.

Cornellian staff members Dick Sandretti ’61, Pat Lidrich Brown ’60, and Jerry Bauman ’60 (1959 Royal Purple).

Famous speakers

Over the years, students have been able to enjoy presentations by a number of notable speakers who have appeared on campus. These speakers range from abolitionist Frederick Douglass to women’s rights activists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; political leaders such as Booker T. Washington, Robert La Follette, William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, François Mitterand, and George H. W. Bush; reformers W.E.B. DuBois, Frances Willard, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Nader, and Ida M. Tarbell; explorer Sir Ernest Shackleto; writer Jack London; poet W. H. Auden; and sculptors Lorado Taft and Gutzon Borglum. Singers John Denver and Harry Chapin performed on campus, as did legendary contralto Marian Anderson and violinist Isaac Stern. Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart spoke on campus in 1933, as did artist Grant Wood in his first public lecture. Poet Robert Frost read his poetry in King Chapel, a building that architect Frank Lloyd Wright characterized as “the second ugliest building in America” when he spoke there in 1946. In more recent years journalist Helen Thomas, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia have been hosted by Cornell.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer Carl Sandburg was invited to speak at Cornell by English professor Clyde Tull in 1920, the first time that the author had been invited to speak on a college campus. Sandburg fell in love with Cornell and developed a warm relationship with the Tull family. He returned to the college several times over the next two decades, never accepting more than his original $100 fee, and speaking for free during the Depression. Cornell was one of the first places where Sandburg sang folk songs in public, and he often stayed up into the early morning hours talking with students gathered around the Tull fireside.

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