ITHACA, NY – Around 1,000 people from the Cornell community came to Bailey on Thursday to remember President Elizabeth Garret, who passed away last week.
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During the memorial, several of Garrett’s colleagues who had worked with her intimately both before and during her unfortunately brief time at Cornell offered heartfelt eulogies.
Destined for greatness
First to speak was Robert Harrison, Chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees. Harrison described the loss of Garrett as “institutionally unprecedented and profound, both for Cornell and for many of us personally.”
He said that he had gotten condolences and remembrances from people whose lives had been touched by Garrett from all across the country and the world.
Harrison reflected on on his first meeting with Garrett during the search process for Cornell’s next president.
“When she walked into the room the energy level soared. First, there was that huge dazzling smile. Second, there was a handshake, and personal greeting of all 22 of us — by name,” Harrison recalled.
“She then turned two hours of Q&A into a virtuoso demonstration of deep familiarity with Cornell, a strong grasp of issues facing higher ed and an appreciation of the interests and backgrounds of the members of the search committee,” he continued. “It felt like she was interviewing us. We were all wowed.”
Harrison said that Garrett embraced the spirit of Cornell with gusto, reading books by faculty members and always digging for more information about the university. She also became fond of wearing clothes and accessories in that distinctive “Cornellian Red.”
Harrison concluded his remarks saying, “Beth Garrett never gave up. She impacted all of us. She was a close friend and a remarkable human being, destined for greatness, whose life was cut tragically short… I believe her energy and spirit will continue to guide from far above Cayuga’s waters.
“She breathed life into everything around her”
Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO of EY, a professional services company, spoke third.
Weinberger said that he had known Garrett for 25 years.
He shared a memory of a time he was giving a speech and was being introduced by Garrett, just prior to her assuming the presidency.
“Standing in the wings, I caught myself smiling as I noticed her incredible excitement, her anticipation, her pride, her optimism and complete awe as she was preparing to become president of this incredible University, Cornell,” he said.
“I realized her introduction clearly just upstaged my entire speech. She was always perfect. I used to get incredibly frustrated, to be honest. But over time, I got used it. It’s one of the many things over 25 years that I came to love about Beth,” he said.
Weinberger spoke on how selfless and giving Garrett was, always willing to take a call to help with a problem and always thoughtful enough to remember birthday’s of her colleagues and their children.
“There are some people in this world who suck the oxygen out of the room when they enter it, and there are some who breathe life into it. Beth breathed life into everything around her.”
“There’s a great road ahead for Cornell”
The fourth to speak was Dr. Orli Eringin, a physician at Cornell Weill Medicine who provided medical care for Garrett both before and during her cancer treatment.
Eringin highlighted how committed Garrett was to Cornell. Quoting Garrett’s oncologist, she said, “She fought with enormous courage and grit, to have more time simply so she could work in service of the university. As her illness progressed, she worked through suffering and the rigors of treatment.”
She continued: “Every moment that she felt well, and many when she did not, she continued to have meetings, travel and give her amazing speeches. Those of who knew were awestruck by her perseverance and resilience despite the pain and trauma.”
Eringin related a story that highlighted another of Garrett’s virtues: humility. She explained how she was talking with Garrett shortly after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Knowing that Garrett was a preeminent legal scholar, she talked with her about President Obama’s odds of getting his nomination confirmed.
Garret matter-of-factly said no. After patiently explaining why that was the case, Garrett very casually explained to me that she had gotten a handwritten note from the week before from [Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, wishing her good health, and sympathizing with her after her devastating illness too.
“I was absolutely awestruck by Beth’s humility,” Eringin said.
On the last night, when Garret and her husband knew it was the end, Eringin came to their home to help ease Garrett’s pain, and got one final message from the president to deliver back to Cornell.
“She pulled me close and gave me a message to give all of you in the Cornell Community. She said please, Orli, tell them that I think they’re great, that there are important things in store for them. I am so proud of everyone and I know that they’ll be fine. There’s a great road ahead for Cornell.”
“A force of nature”
The final speaker was Cornell’s Provost and Acting President Michael Kotlikoff.
Kotlikoff spoke of how Garrett inspired those around her to think more boldly and how she wanted to be a role model for those who cherish teaching, writing, public service and even academic administration.
He said that Garrett felt the importance of her being the first female preisdent at Cornell, as she believed that it was important for people of all genders to see women in strong positions of responsibility, so as to further the notion that gender has no bearing on great leadership.
Kotlikoff explained that Garrett’s diagnosis came long before its official announcement. He said that it wasn’t long after Garrett assumed the presidency in July 2015 that she was diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer.
“I think it’s important for everyone in our community to know that Beth was experiencing symptoms of her illness and undergoing difficult treatments for much of the time when she was with us,” Kotlikoff said. “But our president was a force of nature who refused to surrender to her disease. Refused to allow it to define her. She was convinced that she would beat it.”
Kotlikoff explained that while some Cornellians might wish that they had known earlier, so they could’ve offered support and grieved with Garrett, that was not what Garrett wanted.
“She told me: ‘Mike, I don’t want to be the president with cancer,’” Kotlikoff said.
Kotlikoff finished by saying, “We are grateful for what she accomplished, humbled by her courage, moved and motivated by her vision. Let us continue to the journey together while acknowledging the promise lost. Let us remember her and the ways in which she touched us. That stunning smile and her passion for scholarship and for the academy. Let us affirm Beth’s aspirations for Cornell, and honor her by our commitment to them.”
The memorial service was bookended by musical performances from Cornell’s Chorus and Glee Club, who closed the service by singing “Amazing Grace” and Cornell’s Alma Mater.
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