Last Word: McLennan College Hall holds our stories

This essay is adapted from Thomas’ remarks at the Oct. 23, 2021, dedication of McLennan College Hall.

I was inspired to contribute to the renovation of McLennan College Hall because it is the embodiment of the careers that have been built here, the classes that have been taught, the research conducted, the students whose lives have been transformed. This building holds our stories. It holds my stories. 

Jan Thomas '80 and her father, Emeritus Professor the Rev. Richard Thomas.
Jan Thomas ’80 and her father, Emeritus Professor the Rev. Richard Thomas.

I grew up in College Hall. I don’t mean it was just where I spent lots of time while I was a student at Cornell, although it was that. My relationship with this building spans most of my life. I am the daughter of Richard “The Rev” Thomas, whose office was in this building for most of his 30-year career.   

In winter I would often stop by his office as I walked up and over Fifth Avenue on my way home from school. At the time, his office was in the basement next to the janitor’s closet. The door was always open (even if he wasn’t there) and the coffee urn always ready with hot water for tea, hot chocolate, or a cup of Nescafé.  

As I got older I typed my high school papers in his office. As a high school senior I took my first college class in this building, Intro to Sociology with Charlotte Vaughan. After the first test Charlotte called me into her office. I expected her to tell me it was a good first effort and give me suggestions for how I could do better next time. Instead, she told me that I had one of the highest scores in the class and that I should consider taking more sociology—at Cornell, of course. It seemed she had my path already planned. 

I will spare you the details of the next 15 years, my “exploration years,” but I did eventually graduate from Cornell, and I got a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in sociology (as Charlotte instructed). And, later, with my 6-month-old son, Eric, in tow, I returned to teach a few blocks in the sociology department. In 2013 I sat outside on the lawn behind the building and watched Eric graduate from Cornell. And now I return as a Trustee, wanting to preserve this building so others can create stories here. 

When you go inside this building, be mindful of not just how beautiful it looks but how it lives. Think of the people and relationships inside this building that make it uniquely Cornell in our memories. Let us recognize and remember all the students, the faculty, the staff who have inhabited this place and their role in creating our memories. We have all participated in “building” College Hall. Let us continue to preserve it, as McLennan College Hall, for those whose narratives are yet to be written. 

Cornell Trustee Jan Thomas ’80 is senior advisor for community relations at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.