Cornell’s Founding Fathers: Andrew Dickson White

29 06 2009
Continuing the Founding Fathers entries, we’ll stop at the other man who helped the university go from a pipe dream to a stone and mortar reality, the illustrious Andrew Dickson White. Once again, the primary source is Bishop’s History of Cornell, with the page numbers in parentheses.

In terms of upbringing and character, White was quite much Cornell’s opposite. White was born in 1832 in Homer, which is also in Cortland County (30). The family moved to Syracuse when he was seven, and his father was a prominent banker. He rejected his Episcopalian upbringing, so his father tried to rectify that by sending him to a church school, Geneva College (now Hobart and William Smith), where he was a sophomore at the age of 16. Since the school was esssentially a bunch of drunken partiers (31), he left after one year (try to imagine studying for an exam while your classmates had barricaded themselves in a room and were attacking the president’s house. It was really that bad).  Although, I find it odd that the entire college had 37 students, and he still joined a fraternity (Sigma Phi). Frats were different animals in those days. Anyways, his father wanted him to go back, but when he showed up, he promptly left school and hid with a former teacher of his while he studied up for Yale’s entrance exams. At this point, old Horace White was furious, and said he would’ve rather received news of his son’s death. Well, A.D. passed the exams with flying colors, and entered Yale as a sophomore, spending a few happy years there, being a member of Skull and Bones and Alpha Sigma Phi (which was a class society back then, before it became a social fraternity — although, he was a tremendous asset to both fraternities as they established themselves at Cornell). After graduation, he hung out in Europe for a couple years, attending German and French schools and becoming all worldly and multifaceted. He arrived back in New Haven in 1856, where he obtained an M.A. and almost became professor, were it not for his anti-church sentiment. He was accepted as a professor at the progressive University of Michigan in 1857 (35), and married Mary Outwater of Syracuse that same year (38). After Horace White died (leaving him $300,000, an astonishing sum in 1860) and the Civil War broke out, White took a long leave of absence and came back to Syracuse in 1862 (41). Being politically inoffensive yet well known in Syracuse, he was nominated for and elected to the State Senate in 1863, hardly 31 years old. Here he met Ezra Cornell.

Skipping the university and focusing on White, he served as university president from 1866 to 1885. During and after that time, he served as ambassador to Germany, minister to Russia, and comissioner to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He was suggested for the Republican presidential nomination in 1884, and for vice-president in 1900. White passed away in November 1918 at the age of 86.

A.D. White’s oddities are so quirky to provide juicy details to any biography about him.

-For one, he was quite short, about 5 feet 5 inches. He was really sensitive about his height, and likely wore elevator shoes (he never admitted it) (43).

-White loved the ideals behind a great university, loved designing buildings and promoting Cornell qualities in print and in speeches—but he hated running the day-to-day affairs. Such work bored him. For a guy know to be excitable, nervous and emotional, routine affairs were not in line with his interests.

-He often dreamed of being an architect or journalist (his architectural designs were based off of  his adored Oxford, which he would’ve made sweet love to in a hypotheical world). He felt that red brick made a building look cheap, hence his distaste for Lincoln and Morse. This is why they were built when he was abroad. [5]

-He only really considered three men his social equals – Goldwin Smith, Willard Fiske, and W.C. Russel (the vice-president of Cornell in the 1870s and 1880s) (45). He hated to be overshadowed and outdone (47), and while he was a sucker for flattery, he would dwell on criticism for days at a time.

-He was known for being very high-minded. One student publication (47) in the 1870s referred to him as “Andy Deity White”. Friends and accquaintances would mockingly refer to him as “You Majesty” and “Saint Andrew”. This high-mindedness was probably why he hated pranks.

-His wife hated Ithaca. Prior to 1874, he used to go up to Syracuse on the weekends. In those days, that involved a steamer on the lake during the warmer season, or in winter a buggy trip to Cortland to catch a train. This was no fun in the CNY blizzards. (100)

-He threatened to resign many times: in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1873, 1879 and 1883. Even when he didn’t resign, he was abroad so often that trustees and staff were begging for him to come back and actually do this job (200).

-Although he was an avid rower at Yale, he never watched Cornell sports matches. He never saw a football, baseball or basketball game (he considered football barbaric), and only saw a Cornell crew race five years after he left the presidency (48).

-He loved animals. He expelled a student in the 1880s for killing a chipmunk with a cane (49). He would allow squirrels to run through his library, even when they chewed on his books.

-His commisioner job in Santo Domingo was because he had to decide whether or not the U.S. should annex the Dominican Republic and make it into a “refuge for colored people” (103). We’re going to assume that his progressive nature, and the fact that the Dominican Rep, was never made into a second Liberia, to mean that he recommended a “no”.

-White’s ultimate grudge came from where he felt he wasn’t given enough credit. When Charles Adams took over as president, he gave an 86-minute inaugural speech, of which 12 were dedicated to White. He was gravely offended because he felt his work was ignored (he expected Adams, a former student of his at Michigan, to glorify him). (258)

-A.D. White met Leo Tolstoy while working in Russia. Tolstoy shared his fascination with Mormonism with White, who then also became fascinated, and amassed a collection of Mormon literature second only to that of LDS and Brigham Young U. itself. This was possible beause the Mormon faith was founded near Rochester, hardly an hour drive from Ithaca, so he raided local collections. [2,3]

 He was a great man, of course. But White would’ve been the old guy to tell lone, rambling stories that would put people to sleep, full of his own pomp and circumstance and still trying to share his ideals with anyone who had two ears and half a heart to pay attention. He was rather needy and attention seeking, and begrudged those whom he felt didn’t give him proper credit.

Our founders are only human.









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