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A Death In The Family

 

Dee Ann Rexroat '82

 

**CASE VI Gold Award Winner for Column** 

Stephen Lacey ’65 left a mark on Cornell in a way few alumni ever have, or will.

Within days of his arrival as a freshman in 1961, Stephen established a Merner Hall salon where he held court, strains of Monteverdi pouring from his mahogany stereo, upperclassmen crowded before his open door. He studied English with Liz Isaacs ’39, Winifred Van Etten, David Hesla, and John Shackford, carrying on their legacy when he returned in 1977 to teach in the very department that guided him to Proust and Shakespeare, topics for which he would become famous among students, and to which he added a third, the literature of AIDS. These and his England course are his academic legacy.

With blind luck, I registered in 1978 for his freshman English course, “Identity and Sexuality,” which heightened my love of literature, tempered my naïve expectations about romantic love, and led to other courses with Stephen over the years. He quickly built a following among students and established a new salon, this one in the college home he rented behind Armstrong Hall. He was a single man and Cornell became his family. Students, faculty, alumni, and even administrators frequented his home, where he served elegant meals and conversation with little advance notice.

Eight years ago Stephen fell ill with pneumonia and was diagnosed with honeycomb pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease. In March, he lay in his hospital bed insisting to the dean that he could teach the next block’s course from his living room sofa. He died March 27, and today it is still difficult not to imagine meeting him on the mall, engaging in conversation, and perhaps receiving a compliment or an invitation for an after-work drink.

Stephen’s close friend, professor of French Diane Crowder, kept Cornellians and others updated about his hospitalization with daily postings to a Web page. After his death, staff worked over the weekend to set up a Web site to which people could post their tributes to Stephen. Over 85 tributes had appeared by the time of the May 6 memorial service, and there are now more than 100 (see excerpts on pages 18-19). The tributes artfully capture the essence of the man one entry described as “flamboyant, colorful, full of heart, sarcasm and wit and love.”

For those who knew Stephen, the use of technology to memorialize him is ironic. Stephen was not a strong proponent of technology. (When I was a student he refused even to own a television.) But those who initially questioned the use of this format were convinced of its effectiveness.

There have been other memorials, as well: Organist Robert Triplett dedicated his King Chapel concert to Stephen the weekend following his death. British Royal Shakespeare actor Desmond Barrit dedicated his upcoming performance as Falstaff to Stephen. Three students gathered tributes from English majors for the English Department Awards Dinner. The college set up a memorial fund to endow Stephen’s Shakespeare play course.

At the final memorial, faculty entered King Chapel wearing full academic regalia. Former colleagues flew in from across the country and dozens of alumni came to honor their teacher, mentor, friend. Those who spoke at the service delivered tributes that were loving, passionate, articulate, moving, and humorous. Like Stephen.

[See also the e-Report feature and obituary.]

 

 
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