Cornell community remembers English professor Lacey

MOUNT VERNON — Colleagues, students and alumni are remembering Cornell College English professor Stephen Lacey as a mentor, a “big-hearted man who loved people” and opened his home to students. Lacey, 56, died of progressive lung disease Monday, March 27, at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.

Cornell will hold a memorial service at 3 p.m. Saturday, May 6, in King Chapel.

“Though he was my colleague and dear friend, Stephen was also my teacher: In my 10 years at Cornell, I learned immense amounts about literature, his beloved England, and, probably most importantly, teaching from him,” said David Evans, associate professor and former chair of the English department. “He is a loss to Cornell that cannot be compensated, one of those legendary figures that represent small-college life at its best.”

Added English professor Rich Martin: “He defined what a college like Cornell was all about.”

Lacey, a 1965 Cornell graduate, returned to Mount Vernon in 1977 after teaching at the University of California-Santa Barbara and Howard University. At Cornell he introduced hundreds of students to Shakespeare in an intense combined course and play production.

“Stephen is one of the major reasons I came to Cornell,” said Gail Bransteitter, a junior from Denver. “As a high school senior I was able to sit in on an hour of his Literature of AIDS class. I encountered a wonderful man full of stories and passion. I thought if all the professors were half as good as he was, I was all set. I am so fortunate that Stephen was such a large part of my college career.

“I remember the times spent at his house just talking and gossiping. Stephen was articulate, eloquent, funny, sarcastic and, of course, passionate,” she said.

Dan Wilch, who grew up in Mount Vernon and graduated from Cornell in 1981 with a degree in English and history, said Lacey “captures what makes Cornell important to this day.”

“There are teachers, and then there are people who change lives. He was the latter,” said Wilch, a senior consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates in New York.

During his sophomore year, Wilch and his classmates spent an intense Saturday in a Lacey course discussing “Hamlet,” then joined their professor at his home to unwind. “Chaucer and Shakespeare can seem arcane, but he made them come alive,” said Wilch, who has received several recent e-mails and phone messages from classmates sharing their grief.

Hundreds of students have contacted Lacey’s close friend and colleague Diane Crowder, professor of French and women’s studies, who posted a page on the Cornell Web site with updates on Lacey’s condition since his hospitalization earlier this month. “He wasn’t just a teacher, he was a friend, mentor and guide, not just in their scholarly lives but in their personal lives,” said Crowder, who came to Cornell the same year as Lacey. She said he would want to be remembered as a “very, very big-hearted man who loved people.”

Memorial funds are being established to help support Cornell’s annual Shakespeare play production and a course on AIDS.