A chance meeting between the Cornell women’s rowing team and then President-elect Elizabeth Garrett established an instant connection for the students who met her, one that lasted through Garrett’s inauguration and her untimely death, and continues still.
On Oct. 1, the team will dedicate a new racing shell – the President Elizabeth Garrett – but the story began in April 2015.
The Cornell women’s rowing team was in the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport awaiting its flight home. The Big Red had just wrapped up the Clemson Invitational where it had bested Ivy League foe Penn to win the Class of ’89 Points Plaque for the seventh-straight season.
As the team passed the time, a murmur arose among the women – was that Cornell’s newly selected president, Elizabeth Garrett?
It didn’t take long to get the answer. On the plane, Garrett turned to assistant coach Paula Thoms and asked, “Are you the rowing team from Cornell?”
Garrett introduced herself, and she and Thoms chatted about Cornell and Big Red athletics. According to Liz Dennison, the Staley Head Coach of Women’s Rowing, Garrett’s enthusiasm and passion for Cornell were on full display when she joined the team in a rendition of the alma mater as the plane began its descent into the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.
“The team always sings the crew song and the alma mater when we are returning from a race,” says Dennison. “Typically, we’re on the bus and when Cayuga Lake or the boathouse comes into view, that’s when we start singing. She was really excited to witness the tradition and be a part of it.”
“After that, any time someone on the rowing team would meet her, she would enthusiastically talk about that moment on the plane when we started singing ‘Far Above Cayuga’s Waters,’” adds team member Caroline Crawford ’17.
That encounter – and the significance of seeing the first female president of Cornell inaugurated five months later – had a profound effect on the young women, and her death hit the members of the women’s rowing program particularly hard.
“Not only was she a role model to us as our university’s first female president but, like many groups on campus, our team felt as though we had a personal connection to her,” says Crawford.
“Those of us who had met her were huge fans,” says Meagan Perez ’17. “We were looking forward to having her come watch our home races … and I remember her being so excited to support our team.”
Dennison and the program wanted to find a way to honor Garrett in a lasting way. As fate would have it, the program was in the process of obtaining a new boat, and it was decided the shell would be named the President Elizabeth Garrett.
“There was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the idea of naming the shell after President Garrett,” says Dennison. “The alumni and the administration were very supportive of the idea and thought it was a great way to recognize her and what she was able to accomplish.”“A few of us organized a teamwide order for visors last spring with ‘EG13’ printed in blue on the side … and we donated a portion of the proceeds to the President Elizabeth Garrett Fund for Colon Cancer Research,” says Perez. “Members of all three programs raced in the visors for our championship races, and having a boat named after President Garrett will be very special to us every time we practice or race.”
Julie Greco is associate director of Athletics Communications.