Class of 1970 shares tumultuous times, advice, with Class of 2020 

There are only two Cornell College graduating classes since 1853 likely to have heard these words as they prepared to leave the Hilltop: 

A baccalaureate sermon should be bright with promise for the future, but there is little that has happened during this past month to warrant any such brightness. These are sobering, if not depressing, times … The educational institutions in America have never been in a more precarious situation than they are today.

This is not the Class of 2020 message delivered during a global pandemic. This message came a half-century earlier, from The Rev. E. Spencer Parsons to the Class of 1970.

Mark Abbott '70
Some students, including Mark Abbott ’70, wore white strands in their tassels at Commencement to protest the Vietnam War. (Source: July-August 1970 Cornell College Alumnus)

On May 17, 1970, the graduates walked across the King Chapel lawn to collect their diplomas amid national strife that forced hundreds of colleges to close early. Two weeks earlier members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed anti-war protesters on the Kent State campus and triggered nationwide student strikes. 

Fred Burke ’70, a financial advisor based in Mount Vernon, Iowa, and the Rams’ most successful women’s tennis coach ever, still recalls Rev. Parsons’ message.

“My parents were very upset with the baccalaureate speech, and I was too, and all I remember was it was very doom and gloom about the world we were going out into. As I look back, probably that was supposed to be motivational but it didn’t ring true that way for the people in the audience,” he said.

Despite the turmoil surrounding their class, Sheryl Atkinson Stoll ’70 remembered that day like almost any graduating Cornellian—as one of life’s proudest moments, followed by the sorrow of leaving classmates and the campus that had been home for four years.

“It was a joyous day but also filled with sadness to be parting from so many dear friends that have turned out to be lifelong blessings no matter what paths we all took,” recalled Stoll, a Cornell Trustee and retired attorney. “My class of course was dealing with the war in Vietnam. During our four years, my classmates and I witnessed and supported many events and peaceful protests related to the civil rights movement, and so sadly, the assassination of the great leader Martin Luther King. I know that many graduates in 1970 hoped to go out into the world and make it a better place.”   

Image from the 1970 Royal Purple yearbook.
Image from the 1970 Royal Purple yearbook.

During their commencement ceremony, Class President Tom Shives ’70 read a strongly worded anti-war statement written by his “worldly-wise and insightful” roommate, Tim Willis ’70. And yet, equipped with a Cornell education, he remained hopeful. 

“Aside from the Vietnam war, the world in 1970 seemed mostly inviting and we were all generally optimistic, well-prepared with an excellent liberal arts education, and looking forward to a bright future,” said Shives, an emeritus professor of orthopedic surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Hope, advice for the Class of 2020

The Class of 1970 was supposed to be on campus for their 50th reunion this fall—just as the Class of 2020 was supposed to return for Homecoming and their in-person Commencement ceremony. As the novel coronavirus pandemic raged on, Homecoming became virtual and now both classes hope for 2021 in-person events. 

In the meantime, the Class of 1970 has some words of hope for the Class of 2020. 

“There is no question that your class is facing one of the most challenging times in American history. There is no question that a strong liberal arts education will help you navigate and solve the formidable issues facing our country and the world,” Shives said. “We wish you the very best.”

Corrie Root Grummon ’70, who designed clothing for over 30 years and now lives near Denver, Colorado, said that despite the unrest and discontentment with the war, she left campus with a sense of great optimism and hope for the future, and she wants the Class of 2020 to feel the same way.

“I would say to the graduates, be open to opportunities you may not have considered and stay connected to your Cornell friends,” she said. “In doing so, your life will be enriched.” 

California composer Lars Clutterham ’70 said that their turbulent era, including ongoing issues of racial equality that resulted in the 1968 takeover of Old Sem, shaped their class but didn’t stop their dreams. 

1970 Commencement program
1970 Commencement program (Cornell College Archives)

“My own personal feelings about the future as I graduated from Cornell were deeply and strongly positive. The primary reason was that I felt that I had received a marvelous education at Cornell, and I truly believed the future was mine for the taking,” he said.

Clutterham’s words for the Class of 2020: “My best advice for each of you is to look at your own strengths and your own marvelous potential as you complete your college career at Cornell—despite the circumstances—and recognize that the future is still before you, and that your own personal hopes and dreams can still be realized.”

In his charge to the graduates of the Class of 2020 during their Virtual Commencement, President Jonathan Brand noted the difficulty of their final two blocks and graduation amidst a pandemic and expressed hope in their future nonetheless. 

“You will be fine, we will get past this, you will find gainful employment, you will go to graduate school should that be in your plans for the future,” he told them, “and in the fullness of time we will be together once again on this Hilltop and you will again be face to face in the same room with people who matter the most in your lives.”