They called him a self-effacing Pennsylvania Dutchman. An understated, decisive businessman who knew how to get things done. A moral compass. A strategic leader who took the long view. A generous philanthropist. A stalwart keeper of the mission of the first American university. The consummate Cornellian.
The Memorial Room in Willard Straight Hall was packed March 22 with trustees, university leaders, students and family members who gathered to conjure, if only for a moment, the essence of the late Peter Meinig ’61, BME ’62.
Seven speakers, including Cornell President Martha E. Pollack, shared the many ways in which Meinig, who served as chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2011, had strengthened them, the university and the world. Photos showcasing Meinig’s Cornell years were projected throughout the reception.
Board Chairman Robert S. Harrison ’76, who succeeded Meinig in 2012, lauded Meinig’s strength of character and said he put a human face on the board of trustees.
“As anyone else who has ever worked with him knows, Pete was genuine, approachable and – incredibly – lacked ‘the ego gene,’” Harrison said. “He was understated and soft-spoken and respectful, but he knew what needed to be done at Cornell, and he knew how to do that on a grand scale.”
That included backing the $650 million Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell Medicine, digging into Cornell’s endowment following the 2008 financial crisis for five straight years to increase student financial aid, and winning the competition to build Cornell Tech, Harrison said.
“On a personal level, Pete was my mentor, my role model, my moral compass and my friend,” he said. “He was the one person I knew I could call in the most difficult times for unvarnished, apolitical, selfless advice.”
Cornell President Emeritus Hunter R. Rawlings III reflected on his close friendship with Meinig, whom he said was “devoted to service.”
“Pete was … a perfect leader, because he combined uncommonly good sense, good Pennsylvania sense, total loyalty to Cornell – and I mean total – and a humility [to say], ‘You know best,’” Rawlings said. “That’s how I remember Pete: someone you could look up to as a humble leader who cared more about others than himself.”
His legacy as a philanthropist includes support for the Meinig Family National Scholars. Salma Shitia ’18 talked about the “indescribable” importance of that scholarship on her college career. “It helped me discover my passion and dedication to humanitarian asylum,” said Shitia, who is establishing a program to help displaced persons whose education is interrupted by natural disaster or war to pursue education at Cornell.
Lance R. Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, shared thoughts on the key role Meinig, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, played in developing a strategic plan to place the College of Engineering among the best in the world. That included learning the art of fundraising from Meinig. Meinig, his wife, Nancy Meinig ’62, and their daughters gave a $50 million gift that established the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. “Not only was he generous, but he helped others discover their inner generosity,” Collins said.
Pollack said she would always be grateful to Meinig for his kindness as she began her time as Cornell’s president. She went on to list the many new facilities established during his tenure as chair: Duffield Hall, Weill Hall, the Physical Sciences Building and Milstein Hall. “The university is far stronger than it ever would have been without Pete’s leadership,” she said.
Pollack also read from a letter written by Cornell President Emeritus David Skorton, who could not attend. “He kept the big issues in view and, somehow, managed to balance an authentic desire to hear all opinions with the decisiveness honed as a successful businessman. The result was a superbly effective board and an outstanding university,” Skorton wrote.
Anne Meinig Smalling ’87, a trustee and one of three Meinig daughters, offered remarks on behalf of her family. “We’ve heard a lot today about the things Dad did to make Cornell better. ... The special thing about my dad is that if he were standing in the room right now, he would say Cornell made him better,” she said. “Going forward without him is hard. But the best way to honor Pete Meinig is if we can all do good in this world while at the same time thinking about the wonders the world gives us.”
To a standing ovation, Nancy Meinig came to the podium to speak last. “Again, my thanks for today. His Cornell family meant so much to him, and it does to all of us.”