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Cornell prep school days

  Charles Milhauser  

Between 1853 and 1921, Cornell sheltered a prestigious academy, originally called Preparatory Department, then Academy (1895), and finally High School (1916). The academy was a major source of revenue, ensured a steady flow of students into the college (90 percent in 1860; 58 percent in 1915), and offered a spectrum of subcollegiate programs to a diverse population, many of whom did not desire a bachelor’s degree or could not afford one.

The minimum age for admission was 13, but in earlier years there was a “subpreparatory” for those as young as 9. Students could earn a diploma in three years—four after 1908. Besides a traditional high school curriculum (actually two, one requiring Greek and Latin, the other only Latin), Cornell offered separate programs in teaching, business, art, music, and “Oratory and Physical Culture.” The genius of this system was that students who declared for one track could take courses in any of the others, and many who doubted being “college material” overcame their anxiety. Advanced placements were common, and qualified students could take college-level classes while completing their academy diploma or certificate requirements.

Academy and college students used the same buildings until 1916, when Cornell purchased Guild Hall for the high school. All Cornell students attended chapel together and shared the same professors; however, the lowest grades were usually taught by instructors, often recent Cornell graduates. Later there were separate literary societies, but otherwise the two mixed freely—sometimes too freely in the opinion of the faculty.

The first student ever to be dismissed from Cornell was a “prep.” College men delighted in teasing prep women, which may account for prep Gertie Roberts in 1874 defending herself by chasing college junior Winfield Scott Doron with a broom down a corridor in College Hall. The same year William Lee, a senior prep, became angry during a talk by college freshman Ernest Smith at an Adelphian literary society meeting. Lee pulled a gun from his back pocket while proclaiming, “I’m mad, I’m dog mad.” He fired. The shot grazed Smith’s arm, but Smith continued talking, pausing only to say, “It hurts some, but not much.”

History gives us few glimpses into the lives of preps, which makes the story of Flora Brackin the more interesting. In 1871, she enrolled in the scientific course (Latin but no Greek). Flora was funloving and mischievous, the Miss Congeniality of her day, progressing in quick succession through four of the highest offices in the Philomathean literary society. In October, she and her sister and two male students, one a college senior, were publicly disciplined in chapel. Their misdeed was not recorded, but any “boisterousness” or “girlsterousness” would have brought a reprimand. In May, Flora and college senior Edgar Truman Brackett, grandson of Brackett House builder William Brackett and later a New York state senator, were charged with “disorderly conduct.” Flora’s father was summoned from Omaha to remove her from Cornell; however, “on her earnest promise of good conduct,” the faculty allowed her to return in the fall. At her father’s request, she was not allowed to leave her boarding hall (Old Sem) without permission. President King disciplined her again in February 1873, but she proved incorrigible, and in November her father was requested to take her home. She taught in Omaha until her marriage in the spring of 1877, when she moved to Laramie, Wyo. There, in 1878, she died giving birth to a child that did not survive.

Women sit on the steps of Guild Hall, which housed the Cornell High School from 1916 to 1921. Today Guild is an apartment building.

















Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus. He may be reached at or 100 Intracoastal Place, Apt. 307, Tequesta, FL 33469.






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