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Election Woes Before The Chad


Charles Milhauser

An unknown artist painted this image of Bishop Thomas Nicholson in King Chapel. In 1914, Nicholson was elected as president of Cornell but had to decline the offer.

Long before there were chads, a Cornell College presidential election had to be canceled and a new vote taken, much to the embarrassment of all concerned. When President James Harlan retired in the spring of 1914, the trustees elected Thomas Nicholson to succeed him. The Mount Vernon Record’s headline on June 23 proclaimed, “Dr. Thos. Nicholson New Head of Cornell.” On the 30th, the paper printed a retraction, explaining that Nicholson, who at the time was secretary of the Board of Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church, had accepted Cornell’s presidency under the assumption that the Church would release him. It refused to do so, and he was forced to decline. The Trustees reopened the search and some months later offered the presidency to Charles Flint, a Methodist minister from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Thomas Nicholson was an excellent first choice. Born in Canada, graduated from the University of Toronto, and possessing a second baccalaureate from Garrett Biblical Institute, he came to Cornell in 1894 as professor and principal of the Academy (Cornell High School). From 1895 until he resigned in 1904, he continued as principal and was also professor of logic and biblical literature. In 1916 he was appointed resident bishop of Chicago. He held the same position in Detroit from 1924 until he retired in 1932 and moved back to Mount Vernon. From 1933 until his death in 1944, he was an honorary member of Cornell’s Board of Trustees.

While his life may seem an open book, his courtship of Cornell’s Latin professor was conducted so discreetly that their secret rendezvous escaped even the most indefatigable gossips. Evelyn Riley met Nicholson, who was married, when she joined the faculty in 1902. Their characters and behaviors were beyond reproach, but, as later events would prove, there must have been a spark even though they ignored it. Sometime after Nicholson’s wife died in 1915, Riley wrote him a letter of condolence. Whether or not she intended to convey more than sympathy, he was soon smitten. As a bishop in his mid-50s and a recent widower 15 years older than Riley, he risked scandal if he courted her in Mount Vernon and worse if she visited him on the weekends in Chicago. Besides, there was her position at the college to consider and her reputation should their romance not end in marriage.

Love found a way. Riley visited a woman friend in Lisbon on weekends. The bishop took a train to Mount Vernon and hired a horse and buggy to drive to Lisbon. Presumably he arrived in the morning and returned to Chicago later the same day. Only the stationmaster, Jake Klimo, knew the bishop’s destination and purpose, and Jake told no one. The community, therefore, was genuinely surprised when Professor Riley resigned at the end of the 1916-17 academic year and on June 16 married Thomas Nicholson in Greencastle, Ind. Former president William Fletcher King was one of the guests.

As a resident of Palm Beach County, Fla., classics professor and registrar emeritus Charles Milhauser is all too familiar with chad ballots.

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