Recalling Garrett as a 'force of nature with a stunning smile'

President Elizabeth Garrett's photograph sits on an easel on the Bailey Hall stage.

At venerable Bailey Hall, where the walls echo a century of concerts and educational lectures, more than 1,000 Cornellians reflected on the life and legacy of President Elizabeth Garrett at a moving memorial gathering March 17.

Garrett died March 6 at age 52 after battling colon cancer.

In an hourlong ceremony at the packed auditorium, Robert S. Harrison ’76, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, explained how Garrett first made an impression on him: “When she walked into the room, the energy level soared.”

For the initial interview with Cornell’s Presidential Search Committee, Harrison said, Garrett “turned the two hours of Q-and-A into a virtuoso demonstration of deep familiarity with Cornell. ... It felt like she was interviewing us – a remarkably self-confident, substantive and impressive performance. We were all wowed.”

Harrison recalled that when he offered Garrett the presidency, “Beth accepted the offer and instantly became a proud Cornellian … She voraciously read books by Cornell faculty members … She regularly amazed everyone around her by how much she could pack into every single day. … True to style, she arrived in Ithaca completely prepared for the weather – with a Canada Goose coat.”

The Glee Club performs "Amazing Grace."

Garrett was infectiously optimistic, Harrison said, recalling her saying she would beat the cancer and be back soon. “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.”

Pausing, Harrison said, “This is an extraordinary loss for Cornell and for the world, but I believe that her energy and spirit will continue to guide us, from far above Cayuga’s waters. Farewell, Beth. We will miss you.”

‘Beth breathed life into everything around her’

Bailey Hall’s stage was simply adorned with Garrett’s photograph on an easel, a lectern, plants and choral group risers.

Among those attending the memorial were Garrett’s husband, Andrei Marmor, Cornell’s Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Philosophy and Law; Laura Gruntmeir, her sister; New York State Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul; Cornell President Emeritus Hunter Rawlings; Harold Tanner, chairman emeritus of the board of trustees; and Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida and former Cornell provost.

Provost and Acting President Michael Kotlikoff speaks at the memorial gathering for President Elizabeth Garrett.

The Cornell University Chorus began the afternoon’s program with “The Road Home,” a solemn, modern, stirring piece, followed by readings from Garrett’s speeches and messages by the leaders of Cornell’s shared governance groups, and personal reflections.

Graduate student trustee Annie O’Toole, J.D. ’16, a member of the Presidential Search Committee, spoke of Garrett’s lasting influence. “Her example reminds me that the greatest success is found when one follows one’s passions. Beth was driven. She may be the hardest working person I’ve ever met,” she said. “To me she was always the most prepared, the most engaged, most enthusiastic person in every room. She inspired me to put forth my best effort in every endeavor.”

Mark Weinberger, global chairman and CEO of EY, a longtime friend, said: “There are some people in this world that suck oxygen out of a room when they enter it. And there are some that breathe life into it. And Beth breathed life into everything around her.”

Weinberger described Garrett as brilliant, fearless, tenacious, passionate, kind, a role model and friend, whose “path led from Oklahoma City to the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court, from the United States Senate to the roles of the highest levels of government, academia and public policy. And it led her to become an educator and inspire students around the world. Teaching was really Beth’s DNA.”

Cornellians attend a reception on Bailey Plaza.

Remarking on Garrett’s energetic personality, Weinberger said: “Beth always seemed to be in a hurry. People always marveled at how tireless she was, how she worked while others were sleeping. … But it wasn’t just her incredible energy that made Beth amazing, it was what she did with it. … Beth so wanted to make a difference in this world, to have a lasting impact on others. And only now in hindsight do I realize why Beth was in such a hurry to do it. She somehow knew things in advance that others didn’t. In her way-too-short life, Beth Garrett made an indelible difference on so many lives.”

‘A great road ahead’

Dr. Orli R. Etingin, professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, attended Garrett during her illness.

Etingin spoke about how Garrett was “an awesome woman, a scholar, a true leader and a visionary.” But she was also down-to-earth and liked ordinary things, such as ice cream and watching the television show “Scandal.”

Throughout her treatment, Garrett kept her upbeat manner. “On the day she went home from the hospital, after five weeks, which turned out to be her last day, I asked Beth what she wanted to do most when she got home,” Etingin said. “Would she want to sit in her sunny spot in the living room or do something special? And she replied to me, she wanted to do her taxes,” as the audience gave an appreciative laugh. “And she said with her great dazzling, big grin, ‘Orli, you’ve forgotten, I’m a tax attorney.’”

Etingin concluded: “On that last night when Beth and Andrei knew it was the end, I came to their home to help her out of the pain. And she pulled me close and gave me a message to give all of you in the Cornell community. She said, ‘Please, Orli, please, tell them, be sure to 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.’”

‘Affirm Beth’s aspirations’

Michael Kotlikoff, provost and acting president, said: “Beth’s decisiveness and her high standards, combined with her professional achievements and her bold vision for Cornell, convinced me to say yes when I joined her in Day Hall. With her infectious enthusiasm and stunning smile, this connected and savvy Oklahoman was a great, great fit for Cornell – the down-to-earth and democratic Ivy. We quickly formed a special bond. … Very shortly we were finishing each other’s sentences.”

He continued: “We are grateful for what she accomplished, humbled by her courage, moved and motivated by her vision. Let us remember her by the ways in which she touched us: That stunning smile and that passion for scholarship, for the academy. Let us affirm Beth’s aspirations for Cornell and honor her by our commitment to them.”

The Glee Club performed “Amazing Grace” and then was joined by the Cornell Chorus for the singing of the alma mater.

Media Contact

Melissa Osgood