Easily identified by their outfits purchased entirely from the Campus Store, their attendance at 8:00 a.m. classes and their inability to prepare for Ithaca weather, Cornell freshmen have wandered the hills of campus since the University’s start. In 1868, Cornell opened its doors to its first 412 students, the largest entering class of any American college up to that time. Among those first freshmen was David Starr Jordan, destined to become a noted ichthyologist and the first president of Stanford University. In contrast, the Class of 2010 accepted 6,927 students, the most selective class in Cornell history. With such a high-achieving class, it’s likely that one of you may be the next renowned Cornellian.
Freshmen at all institutions are invariably represented as naive and unsophisticated, entirely lacking the class and respectability that all upperclassmen possess, of course. An early Cornell story tells of the new student who, upon moving into his dorm room, would find an upperclassman removing the radiator from the wall. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
Freshman: “Excuse me. What you are doing with the radiator in my room?”
Upperclassman: “Why, I’m taking it down, of course. It belongs to me.”
Freshman: “But I won’t have any heat.”
Upperclassman: “I suppose not. You’ll need to buy a new one. They usually cost around 25 dollars.”
Freshman: “Gee, that’s awfully expensive.”
Upperclassman: “Actually, I’ll sell you this one for 10 dollars. That’ll save me the trouble of having to move it. I’d have offered it to you in the first place, but I didn’t want to pressure you.”
Freshman: “Really? Thanks a lot! I’ll take it!”
Fortunately for unsuspecting freshmen, the ol’ sell-the-radiator trick is no longer common, partly due to the fact that freshmen are comfortably housed together on North Campus away from the insidious influence of sinister upperclassmen. The scarcity of 19th century radiators may also be a factor.
Regardless, the freshman of the 21st century appears to be somewhat more respected than the freshman of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Years ago, “freshman rules” were vigorously enforced by vigilante sophomores. Rules included always wearing the freshman cap, never wearing any high school or prep school emblems, never smoking on campus, never walking on the grass and never entering various drinking establishments. Violation of these traditional rules often meant a shaved head or perhaps an unpleasant dunk in Beebe Lake.
The most famous rule violator was probably Fred Morelli of the Class of 1924. His refusal to wear the freshman beanie caused a campus-wide uproar. After numerous dunkings and reprimands by his peers, Morelli eventually had to be rescued by the president of the university in order to prevent serious injury from a mob. The unfortunate freshman chose to leave Cornell, although he returned and completed his degree in 1926. Alas, his penchant for trouble led him to a career as a gangster, and he was eventually gunned down in nearby Utica, NY.
Although these “freshman rules” had completely faded out by the 1960s, the modern day freshman can learn something from this unsung hero, Fred Morelli. His willingness to stand up for his own beliefs and to question outdated customs is typical of Cornell’s own history as an innovative and forward-thinking university. Ignoring his dubious career choice, Morelli should be seen as a champion of freshmen everywhere. It’s perhaps time that a freshman class at Cornell gave him the recognition he deserves.
Thankfully, safety is no longer an issue when venturing out in public without a beanie. The freshmen of today have little to worry about when compared to their predecessors. An occasional fraternal organization may impose a restriction or two on its new members, but the days of keeping neophytes off the grass are long gone.
Just as restrictions on freshmen have changed, so has the vocabulary of the typical new student. John Yawger Davis was a member of the Class of 1872 and attended the inauguration exercises when Cornell University first opened. Before his first day of classes, he expressed his enthusiasm by writing in his diary: “I think we will like it very much.” The Class of 2010 is somewhat more expressive in their excitement. Many of the soon-to-be freshmen have articulated their feelings using that beloved forum of college knowledge, CollegeConfidential.com.
These opinions of Cornell are along the lines of “freakin sweet,” “W000000t,” and “HOllllLLlllYYY CRAPP,” all phrases and spellings that would undoubtedly have left poor Mr. Davis incredibly confused, although he would surely be pleased to see his own enthusiasm reflected in Cornell’s incoming freshmen.
Cornell welcomes its new students with open arms, bombarding them with pamphlets and orientation events to ensure their comfort, enlightenment and satisfaction with their new home. And so, before I finish this column, I feel it is my responsibility to add at least one nugget of wisdom to the lengthy list that you have no doubt received from family, friends and teachers in the past few months. As an enthusiast and advocate of Cornell history, I encourage you to learn about your university. Cornell’s incredible past is unique from that of any other institution of higher learning. When it was founded as a coeducational nonsectarian university for any person and any study, it changed the face of collegiate education in the United States and in the world. Knowing and appreciating the place where you spend the next four years of your life will make it even more rewarding.
Welcome and best wishes to the Class of 2010. Live, learn, appreciate and enjoy. Vow to make Cornell and the world a better place.