Remembered by Cornellians as the leader whose steady guidance saved the University from the upheaval of the 1970s, Dale Corson, the eighth president of Cornell, died in Ithaca Saturday morning at the age of 97 of congestive heart failure. Corson — who was days away from his 98th birthday — taught as a faculty member in the physics department before serving as the University’s president from 1969 to 1977.
Born on April 5, 1914, Corson “came from a generation of American scientists who grew up before World War II,” moving “from a small town in Kansas to a Ph.D. in Berkeley,” Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics, said.
“It’s a remarkable American story,” Gottfried said.
Decades later, Corson, hundreds of miles from his hometown of Pittsburg, Kan., became the University’s president amid turmoil: Cornell was still reeling from the aftermath of the 1969 Willard Straight Hall Takeover, when 80 African American students locked down the building, protesting the lack of minority rights on campus. It was an institution where student demonstrators interrupted commencement ceremonies in 1970.
Meanwhile, nationwide, demonstrations against the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia erupted on college campuses.
“Having someone who was accomplished, known to be a good academic, administrator and a very good person was just required at that particular time for the presidency,” said Joseph Thomas, dean of the Johnson School. Thomas described the atmosphere at Cornell during Corson’s tenure as “highly charged.”
Corson was an “extraordinary leader,” said Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations.
“At a time when there was such confrontation on campus … he basically calmed things down, brokered a settlement, and later, when he became president, provided the steadiness and calmness that was necessary,” Ehrenberg said.
In fact, faculty recalled, amid his many day-to-day duties as University president, Corson regularly took the time to sit down to hear others’ concerns.
“I was always impressed with his willingness to be available,” Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67 said.
Prof. Emeritus James Turner, Africana studies, who founded the Africana Studies and Research Center shortly before Corson’s term, agreed with Hubbell, recalling how “you came away from a conversation with him [and] you knew that he had listened, he had given you his point of view and he remained open for further discussion.”
“I remember him as a person of great character — exemplary character, as a matter of fact — and a good friend,” Turner added.
As tensions on campus reached fever pitch, Corson “came to the rescue of the University,” Gottfried said.
“He was a steady figure — not flashy, but very, very dependable and very honest,” Gottfried said, echoing comments made to The Sun in September 1969, when Prof. Richard Polenberg, history, described Corson as “a man of complete and total sincerity.”
That steadiness — which Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English, said “played a major role in bringing stability to Cornell” — was accompanied by a warmth that, years later, Prof. Michael Kelley, electrical and computer engineering, still remembers.
“We shook his hand; he said hello; someone introduced us; and, about a week later, I was walking across campus and he knew my name,” Kelley said, recalling meeting Corson at a University function for new professors. “I couldn’t believe it. He just really made sure that new faculty feel like a part of the University.”
Kelley, who, while studying physics as an undergraduate, used a textbook that Corson wrote, added that Corson “probably came within inches of the Nobel Prize” for his scientific endeavors.
Like Kelley, Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, said she came to know Corson “quite well” because there were few female faculty members at the University at the time.
“I certainly admired his leadership of the University in very difficult times,” Norton said, describing Corson as having “picked up the pieces” after crisis in the 1960s.
Even when Corson finished his term as president, he “was still very concerned and interested about what was happening at the University,” said Prof. Saul Teukolsky, physics and astronomy.
Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, who was a student during Corson’s presidency, echoed Teukolsky. She said she remembered Corson as being “very generous with his time and wise with his counsel” as she joined Cornell’s administration.
“We were so fortunate” for the time Corson gave to the University, said Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources. “We have lost a true leader and we are thinking of his family during this difficult time.”
As Cornellians looked back on Corson’s more than 30 years at the University — and even longer legacy in Ithaca — they thanked Corson for his commitment to the University. Former Dean of Faculty Prof. William Fry, plant pathology, called his death “the end of an era.”
“For me — and for many faculty — he was our hero,” Fry said. “He was a great scholar and certainly one of a kind. I, and many of us, will remember him fondly and miss him.”
Thomas, dean of the Johnson School, called Corson “a great human being” who “lots of us knew well up until the end.” He said Corson left behind a University with stronger faculty, research and teaching — “a base on which Frank Rhodes could bring it further.”
“He was intelligent, humorous and accomplished,” Thomas said. “We were lucky to have him to build Cornell.”
Jinjoo Lee, Erin Ellis, Manu Rathore and Caroline Flax contributed reporting to this story.