Sept. 29, 2008

Like his pigeons, Bill Keeton comes home -- as West Campus house namesake

The life and work of the late Cornell biology professor William T. Keeton were honored Sept. 26 with the grand opening of the West Campus residence named in his memory. Keeton House is the fourth residence in the West Campus House System to open.

More than 100 former colleagues, alumni and house residents, along with Keeton's widow, Bobbie '59, the couple's children and grandchildren, gathered at the house's west lawn and dining hall. Keeton House Dean Jefferson Cowie hosted the event.

The West Campus House System has quickly become a "very, very important aspect of life at Cornell," said President David J. Skorton. "Each semester, each month even, when I think I've seen it all on West Campus, some other new thing happens that shows the incredible ingenuity of Cornellians," Skorton said.

Keeton taught at Cornell from 1958 until his death at age 47 in 1980. Widely regarded as an extraordinary teacher and accomplished scholar, Keeton is said to have revolutionized the teaching of biology in higher education. His research centered on avian orientation, including pigeon homing and navigation. Appropriately, the event included the release of three dozen homing pigeons.

"It was fitting tribute that a West Campus house was named in Keeton's honor," said Stephen T. Emlen, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Behavioral Ecology. "Bill transformed the field of orientation and navigation research, and Cornell really became a world center, buzzing with activity in that discipline," said Emlen, who was recruited to Cornell by Keeton.

Ann Sullivan '69 said Keeton's introductory biology course was one of the "most unforgettable courses" she took at Cornell. "Professor Keeton was a wonderful and inspiring teacher," said Sullivan. "He just gave his all to his students, including his passion, his enthusiasm [and] his ability to take complex ideas and make them understandable."

Son William S. Keeton '89 said, "There is a whole generation of students out there in the world" inspired by his father, and family members keep encountering alumni in "often the most unexpected places." Once, while sharing a cab in Beijing, he met one of his father's former students, who said, "'I will never forget Cornell, and I will never forget Professor Keeton,'" said Keeton. "Neither will we. Each generation of students living in this house will help keep the memory alive."