Nearly 10,500 Cornellian households viewed Virtual Reunion 2020 content, from the Class of 1937 to the Class of 2020. More than 30 percent of the alumni who tuned in were members of the Classes of 1950–79. These are Cornellians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, along with a handful of alumni in their 90s and 100s.
“We were a little concerned about technology being a barrier for some of our most senior alumni, but they proved us wrong,” says Kate Freyer, director of Reunion & Campus Alumni Engagement Events. “They made it on to Zoom, they got together, and their faces and their words reminded me why we do what we do. They embody the connections and community that were Virtual Reunion 2020.”
After Reunion, we reached out to some of our most enthusiastic and engaged senior alumni to get their feedback on the digital event and to see how they’re adjusting to life in the time of the pandemic.
From petanque to jigsaw puzzles, and from gardening to downsizing, these seniors are seizing the opportunity to dive into lifelong hobbies and to follow through on longstanding resolutions. Some are taking full advantage of the chance to indulge in world-class entertainment, streaming free online, while others are taking time to declutter, go on long walks, and spend time with loved ones.
We hope you will be inspired by their enthusiasm for living, willingness to overcome challenges, and enduring love for their alma mater.
What are you doing for fun?
Carol Sue “C.Sue” (Epstein) Hai ’60
“I’ve been having a lot of fun. From online happy hours with friends and family, to great online entertainment, to catching up on movies I missed and books I intended to read, my life has been so rewarding and stimulating. I’ve had all the time in the world to devote to my lifelong love of jigsaw puzzles. I’ve also been enjoying baking. This lemon cake was completely different and exciting to make, beautiful to look at, and delicious to eat.
The time I’ve been spending on my computer has been totally solid gold. My favorite arts event is the mid-May finals of the Lotte Lenya Competition, sponsored by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. Audience members line up outside the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, to see young performers from around the world compete for scholarships. This year, due to the pandemic, the foundation had to cancel the finals, but they filmed the semi-finals that were held in mid-March in New York City. The film, Down to 12: The 2020 Lotte Lenya Competition Finalists, features the semi-finalist performances and post-audition interviews. I got to sit at home and drink in these performances, which were amazing.
I’ve also enjoyed the webinars hosted by the American Repertory Theatre (ART). This theatre is the cocoon from which many, many shows hatch that are performed on Broadway. One example is the rock musical SIX, about the six wives of Henry the VIII. I watched a fascinating webinar featuring two professors of English literature and the composer of the score, who talked about the real women depicted in this show and in some of Shakespeare’s works.
I also attended a program hosted by the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, Massachusetts, called ‘Decluttering Mind and Heart.’ The idea was to create more space to have more peace. My house is my scrapbook, extending in all directions. I collect books—I brought 120 boxes of books with me to this house. All my books, travel treasures, and ephemera have meaning, but the thought of creating more space is making me look for what I can pare down.
I have an incredible Cornelliana archive, some of which I gave to the Cornell library, and some of which I plan to keep forever. One of my most treasured artifacts is a rare book from 1895, which was owned by David F Hoy (the Davy in “Give My Regards to Davy”). The book, A Tribute to Henry W Sage from the Women Graduates of Cornell University, features the names of all the women who graduated from Cornell from 1873 to 1895, and a selection of quotes from the graduates expressing what their Cornell education meant to them.
Sage gave the funds to build Sage Hall—where the business college is now—and which originally served as the women’s residence at Cornell. I lived there in my sophomore year in 1957–58. One of the quotes in the book made me stop and take a deep breath: ‘I find the discipline I received at the university of use in every hour of my life; in the training and education of my children and in my relations with other women, as well as in my own intellectual development since graduating.’ I loved this so much that I wrote in faint pencil in the margin, ‘this would be mine.’
Though I didn’t think it would be possible, I had a great time at Virtual Reunion. The friends I’ve talked to enjoyed the activities as much as I did. Michelle Vaeth’s moderation of Cornelliana Night was so uplifting; her enthusiasm with each introduction matched mine. There I was, doing what I never dreamt I’d do and loving every minute of it! The Glee Club montage at the end included the voices of members from around the world, pieced together to sound as if they were standing together on Bailey Hall’s stage. This was an Olympic-gold-medal-worthy moment and a spectacular technical achievement. This is what a great school does!
But I don’t want you to think I’m sitting at the computer viewing virtual offerings all the time and never seeing real sky or grass. Weather permitting, I try to walk at least a mile every day.”
You tuned in to Cornell’s Virtual Reunion 2020. Tell us about your experience.
Ben Williams ’50
“It was not my undergraduate experience in the College of Agriculture that generated my love for my alma mater. Shortly after I graduated from Cornell in 1950, I was drafted, and I served for two years. After the military, I worked at a in bank in Syracuse for about five years, until I got restless.
I saw an ad that the Cornell Placement Office had posted in their bulletin for an assistant to the President of Cornell. I fired off an application, and was hired by President Deane Malott. I spent five glorious years with him, from 1958–63. He was a hard task master, but he was fair and a great mentor. I loved my work, and that experience surely strengthened my affection for Cornell.
Mr. Malott and I had a wonderful friendship over the years. He lived just off campus, and I would visit him regularly. I remember he joked about the proliferation of the administration after he left. He said, ‘Back when you and I were running the university, we didn’t have all these VPs.’
When I came to work at Cornell in 1958, they asked me to be treasurer for the Class of 1950. I have served in that role for the past 50 years, except for a brief hiatus when I went to Liberia for a few years to administer the Cornell USAID contract.
I am also the 1950 Reunion Chair. All last year I worked with Alumni Affairs staff to put together our 70th Reunion plan. We had already selected our class gift and I had drafted my letter when the brakes were put on due to the pandemic.
It hasn’t been easy for any of us to get through this thing. I’m a very active, social person; I make a special effort to have something on my calendar every day so that I can see people and have social interchange. I play poker and bridge. Before the pandemic, I went on campus every chance I got for sporting and campus events. It’s been a real knockdown to be on lockdown.
Now, I make an effort to walk every day. Normally I go to the Y to use their stationary bike, rowing machine, and weights. Since the pandemic I’ve been walking 35–45 minutes twice a day. I try to think of something to do to be productive. I’ve been puttering at my house, and I’ve taken up reading. I’ve never been a particularly strong reader, and since the library closed, I’ve had to scrounge around to find good books. I like espionage and law, John Grisham-style books.
I love to travel and I’ve taken 21 trips with an outfit called Overseas Adventure Travel. In 2009 on a trip to Peru, there were two married couples, six single women, and me. One of the women, Marlene Pierson, took my fancy, and since then we’ve taken 18 trips together. She still lives in New Jersey, and I live in Ithaca. I don’t have a computer, and I’m computer illiterate, so my solution to attend Virtual Reunion was to go to her house.
Since my 60th Reunion in 2010, she and I have gone to every Reunion. We thoroughly enjoy the activities, the socializing, and interactions with alumni. I know a bunch of folks, having worked in Alumni Affairs at Cornell for several years. I thought Virtual Reunion was a delightful substitute for the on-campus Reunion experience. I was greatly, greatly impressed with what technology can do. I tuned into several of Corey Earle’s presentations, a few of the happy hours, and the Liberty Hyde Bailey lecture, and I found them to be very informative. Cornell did a marvelous job of putting together the program.”
How have your Cornell connections added value to your life?
Jamil Sopher ’65, MEng ’66
I didn’t particularly like engineering, but I liked Cornell—the people, the parties, and the place. College was the first time that I was master of my life, and I felt pretty good about it. I went on to Harvard Business School, and I thought that Harvard would be my big networking connection, but it turned out to be Cornell.
I served in the US Naval Reserve and I taught at the US Merchant Marine Academy in New York City. From there, I went to Wall Street and became a specialist in project finance. I was always very interested in the world at large, so I submitted an application to the World Bank. To my surprise, I got a call back.
When I showed up for my interview, I had never seen a person’s face drop the way this person’s did. I had applied to the Bank at a time when it did not require a photograph, and the only US nationals being recruited were minorities. I asked that we go ahead with the interview, since I was already there.
I was incredibly lucky. During the interview process, I met some people, and they hired me as a consultant. A few months later, one of them hired me into a regular staff job. This was the beginning of a career at the World Bank that has continued for 41 years. I still do some consulting for them.
I became the World Bank’s key person for electric power in South Asia, then later in East Asia. I remember when I first arrived in Bombay, I wanted to play some squash. I went to the Willingdon Club, where I met several alumni who were attending a Cornell Club meeting there. These people soon became my main network in Bombay. They introduced me to the Cornell Club in Delhi, and that became another network for me.
As a staff member with the World Bank, I rotated assignments every few years. My next assignment was in the Philippines. There I met another Cornellian, Cora de la Paz MBA ’65, the head of the Price Waterhouse office in Manila, and her husband, Pat de la Paz, who was the minister of energy.
One of my closest friends at the World Bank earned a masters of Industrial Engineering at Cornell, Claudio Fernandez-Riva MEng ’67.
Cornell has played a major role in my life. The Cornellians I met were either key counterparts or they knew some of the key people in the government administrations that I needed to bring on board to get my work done.
In 1998–99, I was elected Chairman of the World Bank Group Staff Association. I may be the only living Cornellian to have run a union without having set foot in the ILR school.
In 2015, I co-founded a company named Option 3 Ventures, which invests in small companies engaged in cybersecurity. I am still deeply engaged in many of the company’s activities.
As soon as the scope of this pandemic became clear to me, I realized that the world would be different in three years. I believe that cybersecurity is a sector that could grow as a result of the pandemic, because people will not come back into office environments the way they were before. Instead, we will be connecting digitally from our homes. The fact is that for every legitimate network, there are several more entities trying to infiltrate it and steal its data. Companies are going to need to invest in bolstering their cybersecurity in order to protect their data.
In retirement, I believe I have learned from my father’s mistakes. When you reach a certain age, you have to put all your effort into remaining relevant, or you become a pain in the ass to your kids. I felt I needed to find things that are interesting and invest my time and energy into these, to avoid being that.
What is helping you get through this time?
Frances Shloss ’45
Frances Shloss ’45 shares a story about her and her friends hiding in the rain gutter of White Hall so they could avoid the women’s curfew and keep working in the architecture studio.
“I’m very sorry about the pandemic, but it hasn’t affected me much at all. I’m 97 years old, I live alone and don’t go out much, and I don’t eat out. So, I haven’t found it to be a challenge.
I’ve been taking this time to clean out my files. I’m shredding stuff, enjoying every minute of it! I save everything—in fact, I’ve never thrown a single thing out since I moved to this apartment in 1956. Now I’m getting rid of papers from my appointments that were made 50 years ago. I also have files from the city council meetings that I’ve attended to complain about buildings I don’t like. I quit going in person last year, but now that the meetings are being broadcast, I can call in to ask questions, and agree or disagree.
I enjoy being alive. My advice is to be nice and be kind. I’m very active in my church, serving on several church committees. I tutored second graders at a school a couple of blocks from my house for 25 years. This is the first year I stopped. Before that, I tutored kids on my block, latch-key kids, whose parents were working. I’ve also played golf since I was 12 years old, and I love golf. When I retired from architecture, I sold golf clubs and had 300 accounts up and down the California coast.
Sometimes I wish the computer had never been invented. I don’t type, but I write perfect cursive. I took Latin and French in school in a time when that’s what you took if you wanted to go to college. For my 75th Reunion, my nephew from Baltimore helped me so I could Zoom in and be there with everyone. There were eight of us all together. I’m not sure, but I think we may have set a record!”
Note: According to Erin Kennedy in the Office of Alumni Affairs, 2020 was the first time in Cornell’s history that an alumni class celebrated their 75th Reunion virtually. “I watched with anticipation as the Zoom room filled with smiling faces,” Erin says. The Class of 1941 holds the 75th Reunion record, with ten classmates convening in 2016.