Waiters' Derby event at Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1938

The Waiters’ Derby at the 13th Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1938. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

100 Years of Hospitality Education on the Hill: Fascinating Facts

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By Joe Wilensky

As a Cornellian, you’re well aware that East Hill is home to one of the finest hospitality education programs on the planet. But did you know that the Statler is one of the state’s top-rated hotels?

Or that alums launched two iconic fast-food firms? Or that the Hotel School was name-checked in a hit movie?

The University traces its august history in hospitality education to the early 1900s—an era of enormous growth in the industry—when a group of hoteliers entreated Cornell administrators to develop a program to train hotel managers.

The first class in hotel management at Cornell in the fall of 1922
The first Hotelies. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Applications opened in spring 1922, and the program launched that fall—housed in the College of Agriculture, within what was then the Department of Home Economics.

The inaugural class boasted 21 students under a single professor: Howard Meek, then just 29, who later became the school’s founding dean.

Meat-cutting class in the 1950s
Where’s the beef? A meat-cutting class in the 1950s. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Required classes included accounting, economics, engineering, culinary arts, nutrition, food preparation, and housekeeping.

Hotel Administration became a school within the College of Home Economics in 1950 and an independent school four years later.

In fall 2021, following a $50 million gift from Peter Nolan ’80, MBA ’82, and Stephanie Perry Nolan ’84, it was renamed in honor of its benefactors.

Throughout 2022, the Nolan School has been celebrating 100 years of hospitality education on the Hill. As the year winds down, Cornellians offers 20 amazingly true facts about the school and its alumni:

It was the first!

That pioneering fall 1922 undergraduate program gave Cornell bragging rights as the first university in the U.S. to offer a college degree in hospitality—as well as the first in the world to offer an undergraduate hospitality management degree program.

Its students run a famous hospitality conference!

It’s called Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC), and the first—which a prof had proposed as a student-operated “hotel for a day”—was held in Risley Hall in 1926. That event welcomed 350 guests (and netted a profit of $5.62). The tradition is still going strong, with the 98th conference set for April 2023.

Students set tables to prepare for Hotel Ezra Cornell in 2007
Prepping for Hotel Ezra Cornell in 2007. (Cornell University)

Cornell’s most generous benefactor is an alum!

For years, Charles “Chuck” Feeney ’56 (co-founder of Duty Free Shoppers) donated to his alma mater anonymously, only allowing his generosity to be publicly acknowledged in the late 1990s. By then, his Atlantic Philanthropies had given nearly $1 billion. In 2021, in honor of his 90th birthday, East Avenue—which runs by the Statler Hotel and Statler Hall—was renamed Feeney Way.

It won the heart of a legendary hotelier!

Ellsworth M. Statler initially scoffed at university programs in hotel management—but changed his mind after attending the second-ever HEC, where he sampled a dish so delectable that he went to the kitchen and demanded the recipe. Through the Statler Foundation, he and his wife, Alice, became two of the school’s biggest benefactors.

Neal Becker, Dean Howard Meek, Cornell President Edmund Day, and Alice Statler at the cornerstone laying of Statler Hall in 1949
Alice Statler helps lay the cornerstone for Statler Hall in 1949. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

It gets a shout-out in Dirty Dancing!

In the 1987 hit movie, the owner of Kellerman’s—the Borscht Belt resort where the film is set—proudly notes that his grandson, Neil, attends the “Cornell School of Hotel Management.” Neil later leads the staff in the seasonal closing anthem, set to the same tune as the Cornell “Alma Mater.”

It had its own version of the Parisian Waiters’ Race!

For many years, a highlight of HEC was the Waiters’ Derby: students—sporting white chef’s caps, coats, and aprons—sprinted 440 yards across campus, carrying bowls and pitchers of water on a tray. In April 2022, Hotelies revived the tradition as part of the 100th anniversary kickoff, running down Ho Plaza while carrying trays of soup.

The Waiters’ Derby, revived.

Burger King and Arby’s were founded by its alumni!

James McLamore ’47 and David Edgerton ’48 each owned Miami-based franchises of what was then the “Insta-Burger King” chain; they purchased the company in 1953, reimagining the business into the fast-food giant we know today. Forrest “Fuzzy” Raffel ’43 launched Arby’s with his (non-Cornellian) sibling. The name, in fact, is a homonym of “RB,” for “Raffel Brothers.”

It once sent invites by carrier pigeon!

For the 10th HEC in 1935, six avian messengers were released from the entrance of Willard Straight Hall (where the event was then located), each carrying a personal invitation for a prominent hotelier in NYC. Aided by a tail wind, they arrived at their destinations some 35 minutes ahead of schedule.

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There used to be a Statler Inn!

East Hill’s Statler Hotel is not the original; it was preceded by the Statler Inn, which opened in 1950 as a 36-room hospitality management “laboratory” and practice hotel. Today’s 153-room Statler Hotel was built on its site in 1988. Ithaca’s only AAA Four Diamond property, it also claims the title of New York State’s greenest hotel.

The Statler Inn front desk, ca. 1950
Mid-century style: The Statler Inn front desk in 1950. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Its students and alumni have their own moniker!

“Hotelie” was originally spelled “Hotelee”—and, in the early years, it was reportedly somewhat derogatory. But by the 1950s, buoyed by the school’s high standing, students had begun reclaiming the label. For many decades, it has been a term of pride and belonging. Just ask Lynn Weidberg Morgan ’89, whose New York license plate proudly proclaims—with historic accuracy—“HOTELEE.”

It’s home to a legendarily popular class!

The first accredited wine appreciation course at a U.S. university was offered to Hotel School juniors and seniors in fall 1953. The now-iconic Introduction to Wines was offered university wide starting in 1972, and since then only three profs have helmed it: Vance Christian ’61, MS ’65; Stephen Mutkoski ’67, PhD ’76; and now senior lecturer Cheryl Stanley ’00—Mutkoski’s former TA.

Vance Christian teaches Intro to Wines course
Christian teaching Intro to Wines to a packed auditorium. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Its alums include a star on the gridiron—and on TV!

As a Big Red running back, Ed Marinaro ’72 was three-time All-American and a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, then played six years with the Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, and Seattle Seahawks (including two Super Bowl appearances). He later became an actor—most notably on TV’s “Hill Street Blues,” playing Officer Joe Coffey from 1981–86.

It has its own wine collection!

Wines for both the Intro to Wines and Beverage Management courses are supplied by the school’s collection. Thousands of bottles strong and covering eight decades of production, they’re housed in a cellar in Statler Hall’s basement and in a renowned wine library in the school’s Beverage Management Center.

It also has a massive menu collection!

Oscar Tschirky, who served as maître d’hôtel at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC from 1893–1943, collected thousands of menus during his lifetime; after his death, they were donated to the Hotel School’s library. Many more have since been added by Cornellians and others. The collection now numbers well over 10,000, dating from the 1850s to the present day.

To graduate, its students have to run a restaurant!

The required Restaurant Management course is a longtime rite of passage. It culminates in each student team overseeing an evening in which paying customers—often friends, family, and faculty—sup on a menu they’ve designed, with classmates staffing the kitchen and dining room. The current incarnation of their eatery is called "Establishment."

Student teams prepare orders during the Establishment (restaurant management) course in 2015
Preparing dinner orders during a student team's “management night” in 2015. (Cornell University)

It has its own alumni society!

Early grads formed a group called the Coffee Hounds, a predecessor to the Cornell Society of Hotelmen (now known, in more inclusive fashion, as the Cornell Hotel Society). Its first overseas chapter, in Japan, was formed in 1953.

It has worldwide reach!

The Nolan School boasts global partnerships and dual degree programs, including several in China. When it launched its first-ever massive online open course (MOOC), Introduction to Global Hospitality Management, in 2015, more than 15,500 people registered.

Staying in its hotel is a Reunion rite of passage!

Thanks to its central location and amenities, the Statler is a highly coveted spot on Reunion Weekend. Lodging there is an honor reserved for the most senior alumni, typically classes marking their 60th and beyond.

Statler Hotel, view from Feeney Way
The Statler Hotel, seen from Feeney Way. (Cornell University)

A required course has endured for nearly a century!

In 1928, Dean Meek developed a Friday afternoon lecture series and coffee hour where students could meet top hoteliers. Dubbed Lectures on Hotel Management, it was renamed in catchier style for subsequent deans (“Brownies with Beck,” “Cookies with Clark,” “Donuts with Dittman,” “Bakery with Butler,” “Java with Johnson”). Today, it’s called the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series—but is affectionately known as “Hotelie Friday.”

And … its buildings share their name with a classic Muppet!

Remember the curmudgeonly-but-lovable critics from “The Muppet Show” who spout one-liners at Kermit and company? They’re called Statler and Waldorf, and they’re named after legendary NYC hotels: the Statler (later the Hotel Pennsylvania) and the Waldorf-Astoria.

Top: The Waiters’ Derby at the 13th Hotel Ezra Cornell in 1938. (Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Published December 8, 2022


  1. Jarett F. Wait, Class of 1980

    Surprised the world class real estate undergraduate and graduate programs wasn’t highlighted. There was also no mention of the Hotel School being a launching pad for startups and entrepreneurship ( John Zimmer). I believe the school had the academic rigor of Wharton but also sprinkles in leadership, communication skills ( written, verbal), leadership, and operational skills.

    • mark sherwin, Class of 1980

      Honorary Hotelie (Hotelee) J.F. Wait!!!

    • Roger Levine, Class of 1981

      Jarrett is a Hotelie through association and honored to be his brother.

    • Charley Clark, Class of 1977

      Well said Jarett! I am still realizing that fact even today.

  2. Terry McKeegan Davis

    Wonderful article! My sister Kathleen McKeegan was ‘63 and her first job was at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC. I am surprised that more wasn’t written about the role of Dean Robert Beck in the growth of the School of Hotel Administration.

  3. William, Class of 1979

    Thank you for your reflection on the Hotel School. The program teaches the importance of service, a concept sometimes lost in business education. While graduates may not stay in the industry, the service values learned as a “hotelie” have a positive impact on many aspects of life.

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