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Making History


Dee Ann Rexroat '82


Jean McNeilly Balster ’42 (second from right) came to campus to hear Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962 when her daughter was a student. Jean was the third of five generations of her family to attend Cornell.

Cornell College is well-known for educating a great many first-generation college graduates. Even today, the numbers tell this story. Seventeen percent of first-year students last fall said their parents attained only a high school education. Of those whose parents went beyond high school, 41 percent said both parents earned less than a bachelor’s degree.

For these students especially, a Cornell liberal arts education offers a bright future.

Of our 1,000 current students, 35 represent the small but influential group of Cornellians with strong family ties that reach back for generations. The impact of these families stretches from the founding of the college in 1853 to the sesquicentennial class of 2003. Some of the names are legendary in Cornell’s history—Fellows, Rigby, Soper, Williams—and cut across decades of Cornell’s enrollment records. Their families include a Cornell president, faculty members, and trustees, as well as many typical alumni whose lives were enriched by their Cornell experience.

Gladys Smith McNeilly is one of the latter. The great-grandmother of the Cornell student pictured on the cover of this magazine, she attended Cornell for just one year in 1911-12, “but her entire life was greatly enhanced by the experiences and culture that surrounded her during her association with Cornell,” wrote her non-Cornellian daughter, Ruth McNeilly Buck. “I can see the huge influence Cornell College has had, not only on our immediate family and the many cousins who have attended, but also on the education and culture it has given to so many, especially Iowans.”

Gladys (whose mother attended high school at the Cornell Academy in the 1880s) sent two children to Cornell; one of them, Jean McNeilly Balster ’42, sent three of her children to the Hilltop. “Cornell continued to be a large part of my mother’s life,” writes Jean’s daughter, Lynn Balster Liontos ’65, “especially during her three children’s sojourns at Cornell. She went to so many of the Cornell events then, never losing an opportunity to further her own education.”

Among the events she attended was the 1962 King Chapel lecture by Martin Luther King Jr. In a Cornell archives photo of King, Jean McNeilly Balster is standing next to him.

The majority of alumni we heard from in response to a request in the spring Cornell Report descended from women educated at Cornell in the 19th century. Although the education of women was not widespread at that time, Cornell was exceptional in being the first college west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights and privileges as men.

The Balsters descend from a girl who attended the Cornell Academy preparatory school in 1879-81. Her father, a widowed farmer in Center Junction, Iowa, believed so strongly in education for his daughters that he moved them off the farm to Mount Vernon. Because first-generation Cornellians tend to pass on to the second and third generations of their family an appreciation for education, his decision established a tradition that enriched the lives of five generations of Cornellians, including Lynn, Jean, Gladys, and the family pictured on this issue’s cover.

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