Local History Spotlight

Volume 7: Cornell Off Campus

The Impact of Cornellians on Tompkins County, 1865-2015
Tompkins County Public Library Celebrates the Sesquecentennial of Cornell University
An exhibit at the Tompkins County Public Library
Ithaca, New York
April 22-July 31, 2015


Just as the Tompkins County Public Library celebrated its founding in 1864 by Ezra Cornell in 2014, the Library wished to honor Cornell's much larger gift to the community with an exhibit in 2015 to commemorate the university's sesquicentennial. While the inspiration for this exhibit was the signing of Cornell University's Charter by New York Governor Reuben Fenton on April 27, 1865, the exhibit isn't about the university or what has taken place on campus since that date. Instead, it is an attempt to illustrate the impact the institution has had on Tompkins County as demonstrated by its most significant local contribution, its people.

Fifteen individuals associated with Cornell were selected to represent its past and present, one for each decade of its existence. Finding fifteen Cornellians —students, alumni, faculty, and staff members— who have had an impact on this community was easy; the difficult part was winnowing the list to such a small number.

There was never any debate as to who the first Cornellian would be, Ezra Cornell himself, but the others took more thought and judicious selection. Some are obvious, a few are less so, but each one has had an undeniable impact on this community.

The epitaph of the architect Sir Christopher Wren is a fitting summary of the work of local architect William H. Miller in Tompkins County: "if you seek his monument, look around." Miller's buildings are everywhere, on campus and off, in Ithaca, Groton, Dryden, and in nearby Elmira and Oswego. Miller was also one of two people included in the exhibit who attended Cornell but never received a degree. The other was Belle Sherman, who took classes at Cornell after receiving her B.S. from another college, and in 1911 earned a short course diploma from Cornell after her retirement from teaching at Ithaca High School. A spirit of philanthropy is a common attribute of these fifteen Cornellians, exemplified by Belle Sherman's will, which endowed a free bed at the Ithaca City Hospital to be used for any teacher in the Ithaca public schools, or "by any meritorious high school pupil... or by any self supporting woman of Ithaca."

Belle Sherman is one of seven women featured in the exhibit, one of the few who date to early in the university's history. Martha Van Rensselaer is another, a high school graduate who arrived in Ithaca in 1900 to teach extension courses to New York's farm wives, a small cog in the expanding wheel of the university's College of Agriculture. While teaching, Van Rensselaer became a student herself, receiving her A.B. from Cornell in 1911. She would join forces with Professor Flora Rose to found an entire college at the university, a notable example of another recurring theme in the exhibit: how the actions of seemingly "average" people, plus extraordinary perseverance and a dash of being in the right place at the right time, have changed our community for the better.

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Cornell Off Campus

  • Download exhibit catalog (PDF)
  • Entries include:
    • Ezra Cornell
    • William H. Miller
    • Mary Isabelle Sherman
    • Martha Van Rensselaer
    • Everett F. Morse
    • Robert H. Treman
    • Howard E. Babcock
    • Romeyn Berry
    • Laura Bryant
    • Katherine Van Winkle Palmer
    • Connie Cook
    • Beverly J. Martin
    • Ilma Levine
    • Stuart Stein
    • Svante Myrick
Page last modified Jan 27, 2016