NR My first question is_ please tell us how and when you first by runout


									                        CORNING COMMUNITY COLLEGE
              INTERVIEW: Dr. William Thompson, Professor of English, Retired
                          INTERVIEWED BY: Neal Robbins
                                    March 9, 2006

NR: My first question is, please tell us how and when you first became associated with Corning
Community College and how long you were associated with it.

WT: I think the best thing to do is to say that I was teaching at Keuka College for Women at that
time. Then, in 1959, I started work at Corning Community College by invitation of then-
president, first president Bill Perry. He thought it was time to expand his faculty. He started
with six and, when I came in 1959, we increased to 16 faculty members at that particular point.
However, we also expanded in students as well, so it worked out very nicely. I think it was
about 35 years of teaching. It doesn‟t seem possible when I look back upon it. The last six years
were very enjoyable because I was waiting for my child bride. I retired at 55 and she wanted to
retire at the same age, so I said, “OK, I‟ll teach one course a semester for security.” It happened
to be in my favorite, television production.

NR: I didn‟t know they had television production. Did you start that?

WT: Yes. I sort of say they built me a television studio. Now, that‟s not quite true. They were
going to anyway but I went to my boss and I said, “OK, I‟ve got a deal. For six years I will take
care of the television programming and you don‟t have to hire anyone and it will be part-time.”
And he said, “Wonderful.”

NR: That‟s a good story. Who were some of the colleagues or contemporaries with whom you
worked at the college and what do you remember best about what their contribution was to the

WT: Well, I think probably one specifically, who is still there, by the way, that‟s Walter Smith.
He and I vied for honors, at one point, in being the senior professor after the original six no
longer were there. I happened to have in my pocket at the time a letter from the president and
that was dated in May. That said that this is a letter of intent for a faculty member at Corning
Community College. He didn‟t but, of course, he has remained. I can no longer say that.

NR: Who else do you remember from those early years?

WT: Well, I think bringing to mind is another one, Herb Gross. He was the first math professor
and I think of him specifically because Bill Perry had a penchant for selecting his faculty. What
he would do, in this particular case, he went to MIT and hired Herb.

NR: Who came to Corning and stayed for quite a while?

WT: Yes, that‟s true. Another one, Jack Martin, who, well, they weren‟t bosses really. He was
in the English department at the same time I was. He then became director of the library. Well,
of course, when he was there as a faculty member, he was the one who conducted the ceremonies
at commencement. As soon as he stepped down, or up as the case may be, to become director of
the library, that fell upon my shoulders. So, for many years and through many weird and
interesting experiences, I was marshal at commencement. One time Bill Dolan came up to me
and he said, “Bill, we have a problem.” Oh? I had many problems. But he said, “This fellow
wants to graduate with his dog because his dog lived with him, slept with him, ate with him and
went to every class.” So, of course, he deserved to graduate with him. So I went to the young
gentleman in question and I said, “Can you guarantee your dog is going to be perfect?” He did
and we did.

NR: That‟s a good story. Were there any other incidents at graduation that you recall?

WT: No. There were some that were pre-graduation. You know, during the '60s, we even had a
committee for disturbance, just in case something went wrong. In this instance, a student was
lacking. He failed a course and that was just enough so that his grade point average was not
acceptable. But he accomplished the course that the dean said he had to accomplish. In writing
it was. So the dean said, “We can‟t graduate him." So we went to the lawyers. The lawyers
said, “Look, the letter is a contract. The dean said that if he passes that course regardless, he
graduates. I wouldn‟t take it to court because you‟re going to lose.” So we actually graduated a
student with less than grade point average.

NR: That‟s a great story and, when it‟s published, why probably Corning will be shut down.
Serve you right! (Laughs).

WT: We went by legal advice and I‟m sure that we would have lost. And the dean never wrote a
letter after that.

NR: My next question is, were there ever any town/gown problems or problems in the
relationship with college sponsors?

WT: There was one problem. It started with a unique beginning because it originated with the
community and concerned a very fine president, Bob Frederick. And, of course, it had to be
acted upon by the trustees and, of course, they just said immediately, “No way. We support Bob
all the way," etc., etc. It died a natural death. But it could have, you know, created a problem.

NR: This question isn‟t on my list but curiosity comes in. Where is Bob Frederick now?

WT: That is a very good question. I don‟t know even if he is with us still. He retired in the
Edison area after he left teaching here but, as I say, I‟m not exactly sure. I will certainly look
that up. By the way, I‟m doing the 50th anniversary publication for the college, its history.

NR: Some of our readers, when they read that statement, will want to know how they can get a
copy. Can you tell us?

WT: I thought probably it was gathering dust someplace and talking to President Bud Amann, he
said, “Oh no. I gave that to all the entering faculty members.” It is sort of required reading so
they know a little bit about what went on.

NR: So anyone who really wants one can contact the college and probably find one.

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WT: Sure. They‟re probably in the bookstore I would imagine.

NR: My next question I know the answer to but I‟m going to ask it anyway, except in a different
way because of the uniqueness of Corning in this matter. Corning was the very last of the
community colleges in SUNY to have collective bargaining and, rather than ask you when that
happened, which I know was just recently, why do you feel that collective bargaining did not
come to the campus sooner?

WT: There was no need to. I will give you an example. In the second year of the college, the
director of the library was not Jack because he was still teaching. The immediate response from
the trustees was “What? Is that what we‟re paying them?” And, the very next year, they
increased by a certain percentage every single faculty member‟s salary because we were being
paid such a pittance and they were just in shock about that. In the early days, but even later, the
whole feeling there was of camaraderie. The faculty chairperson sat in on the Board of Trustees
meeting in later years. As faculty chair, I was privileged for that and it was very interesting to
attend those meetings. I was also on the President‟s Council, you know, his little group that
would meet for input and then feed that back to the faculty.

NR: That‟s a very interesting part of the Corning story. How did the college work to develop the
campus? I understand they had a temporary building in an old school. Tell us something about
the development of the campus from your point of view.

WT: Since I came the second year of the college, I was in on all of this. We were in a
condemned building. Well, that sounds bad. It was condemned for use as an elementary school
but old School #3 was given to us by the Corning school district, which sponsored CCC. I have
that date someplace here. I think it was 1965 until we went up on the campus, up on the hill.
That was another thing, too. You talk about any resentment. Well, I think, sort of laughingly,
there may have been some feeling. They called it “The Little Harvard on the Hill.” You know
what I mean, because we were on the highest point of land there overlooking everything. It
looked like a ski resort. Our new campus, in fact, was given The New York State Council on the
Arts award for that year. You know, all that changed by a tragedy. Hurricane Agnes came in
1972 and, of course, wiped out a lot of downtown Corning and so, suddenly, we became the
center post for the whole area. They moved everything up there and used that as their command
post. We had families living in the commons there on campus during that time. We really did
quite a lot for the community at that point. And, after that point, no one ever chastised us or
made fun of us for being up on the hill.

NR: That‟s the first time I‟ve heard that part of the story.

NR: Was there much damage in the town?

WT: Oh, yes. I lived near the campus at that point. I recall standing on my roof and looking
down into the valley and all I could see was water. If you go to the Glass Center even today
there is the high water mark where the flood waters were. It did not destroy a single artifact but
there were these things floating in their frames. It was rough!

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NR: I was at Genesee Community College in ‟72 and that part of the story doesn‟t come to my

WT: You had to live through it.

NR: Had to live there to really experience it. Your campus was one of the few with a separate
library, was it not?

WT: And that was also an interesting situation when you think about it. When the campus was
built, 50 percent of the cost of the campus was borne by the foundation of Corning Glass Works.
The land on which the campus was built, the same Arthur Houghton owned that land. In fact, he
had a home up there. He gave that to the college to build on and his home became, the one that
he had actually built for his daughter, that home became the president‟s home. Up until the time
that Bud Amann was there, that was the president‟s home, through three presidents.

NR: It is not now?

WT: Well, the site is, yes. But they built a beautiful home up there for the president. It is more
of a community. In other words, it is used a lot for community events and things of that nature.
They have conferences and things there at the home and the reason why it can be so beautiful is
because it did not cost as much simply because it was all done by the members of the college.
They had workmen, they had craftsmen, they had carpenters. Everyone pitched in. They
literally built it with the help from the college.

NR: That‟s the president‟s house?

WT: The current president‟s home.

NR: Oh, I know what I wanted to ask. You mentioned Mr. Houghton, was it? I have heard quite
a bit about him but I‟m not really clear who he was.

WT: OK, the library. Now they are all tying in together. Arthur Houghton was the president of
Steuben, which was part of the Corning Glass Works but the fine glass of the Glass Works. He
lived in New York but loved Corning and had a home there. That, as I say, became the college
center of the Finger Lakes eventually. But, he was an avid reader and he had, in his own
personal library, many hundreds of volumes and some priceless volumes. He wanted to give
these to the college but, of course, there was no place to put them. So, the college said, “When
we go up on the hill, we‟re going to build a separate library and we‟re going to call it Houghton
Library, in your honor, sir, if you don‟t mind.” He was delighted and that‟s what they did. The
state architect said, “You can‟t do that. The libraries are an addendum. We usually build them
on to the classrooms.” That‟s when Jack Martin was the director of the library. He went to
Albany and he said, “Gentlemen, do you realize what you are doing?” And they said, “What is
that?” He said, “All we are asking for is a separate building for our library in honor of Arthur
Houghton. Arthur Houghton who, by the way, is giving the land for the college. Oh, and by the
way it is the college foundation which is offering 50% of the cost.” He said, “Do you realize this

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marvelous amount of private and public gifts? It will never happen again in history but it‟s
happening at Corning. Do you want to jeopardize that because you want to put the library onto
an existing building instead of accepting these gifts?” We got the separate building.

NR: Good story. I have a friend who was a faculty member there and she told me, apropos of
being up on the hill, that sometimes in the winter it was exciting to get back down the hill. Do
you remember any times like that?

WT: Oh, yes. There was a ski slope of some kind. Usually we had very good cooperation
between the town and the campus. Our guys were out there sanding the roads and what have you
so, if you could make it to Corning and make it to the bottom of the hill, you could probably
make it up and down. But a couple of times, it was a little bit hairy. Yes, you‟re right. One
time, by the way, we had a surprise snowstorm. So, what happened was, the campus was filled
with snow and we had to declare a snow day only because we had no one there to plow us out.

NR: Because why?

WT: Because our staff was off at a meeting in Syracuse to learn how to better landscape our
campus. They were talking spring and we were in the middle of winter.

NR: I see. Well, that can happen, I guess. Tell me something that you remember about your
student body, where they came from, what their average ages were or any unusual students. Did
you have any foreign students who came? What can you tell us about the students?

WT: All of the above. They came mostly from our service area but some came from quite a long
distance and there are a few foreign students that I can remember.

NR: Oh, yes?

WT: Over there soccer is second nature but, you know, at Corning Community College, it was a
while taking hold. That was one instance. There were other students, too. Oh, by the way, of
course you realize Major Eileen Collins, the astronaut, was a graduate of Corning Community

NR: No, I didn‟t know that.

WT: She was the one that said, “You know, I was only sort of a so-so student in high school but
I was really excited when I got to Corning Community College. From that time on, I loved to
learn.” The first president of the student council was Gary Griffin. I had him in class and they
did something for that student body because they were really gung ho education. They had been
through the wars. They wanted an education so I think they changed the attitudes of some of our
so-called sophomoric students who were there sort of, you know, “la la la la.” I think, because of
that kind of competition, we had a better student body.

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NR: This you have sort of spoken to, but I have a question. What do you think the impact of
Corning Community College has been on the community and what were the biggest
accomplishments as far as the community is concerned, or disappointments?

WT: There were times when there were ups and downs, financially speaking. I think that is one
reason, as you know, the school board first supported us. They always supported us but
financially they had to give up on the college because they had their own financial problems and,
fortunately at that time, we just got into the area of Corning Community College being one of the
first regionally sponsored schools so that took a big load off from Corning City School District.
As far as what they did for the community, when we were in the financial bind, Don Hangen was
president then. He pointed out specifically (he was great on statistics) and he proved that,
student for student, the cost was very reasonable.

NR: That‟s very interesting. Can you think of any other outstanding speakers who came to the

WT: Very early, in fact I can remember sitting in the library, which at that time was in Houghton
House on the original campus downtown, and listening enthralled to Robert Frost. He spoke that
night there at the large auditorium at Corning Glass Works to an overflowing crowd. Even in his
fragile years, he had to be practically led from place to place but, once he got into his poetry, he
became a giant.

NR: I‟m sure you remember his talk at the Kennedy inauguration when he had written some new
part. He really had trouble with that.

WT: I remember the wind blowing.

NR: The wind blowing, the sun was in his eyes and he was trying to read this special part and
then, when he got to his own poem, why, the whole scene changed. That was a beautiful,
beautiful picture. You were very fortunate to get him there.

WT: Oh, we were. But we had so many people. Vincent Price was the one that really, I admire
him anyway for his many facets. He was best known probably by some of the staff for
Hollywood Squares but I think for his art collection and just his own demeanor. He was one of
the speakers who is well remembered.

NR: How about personnel searches. Did you participate in any of those?

WT: I did and I was very pleased with each. Of course, I‟m thinking of the three presidents
under whom I worked, and Bill Perry wished me well after. But then, the second president, Bob
Frederick, who actually came with a background in SUNY, he was a liberalizing influence and I
think sometimes that rubbed some people the wrong way. I saw it as keeping things really
together during the „60s when the major part of the change happened, especially in the technical

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NR: Don Hangen was one of the first college presidents, of community colleges, in New York
anyway, to have a computer on his desk. Did you hear it that way too?

WT: Well, it‟s a little exaggeration but, yes. But he was the one I say really pushed us, some of
us, a little bit slower than others. When I think of doing my dissertation practically by hand on
an electric typewriter and all the corrections I had to make on it. Then I did the history of the
college. At that particular time I was on mainframe and, oh, it was all the difference in the

NR: I had the same experience. I think I have covered my questions. What other questions
should I have asked? What should I have asked that I didn‟t?

WT: Not what you should have asked, but I was just thinking of some of the programs we had.

NR: Yes, that‟s good.

WT: Like the ACE program. That originated there. That‟s “Accelerating College Education.”
That went in at high schools so that students could actually take part of their college curriculum
while they were still in high school. PACE, the Public Assistance Comprehensive Employers.
We had our first graduate in that and it was a marvelous, prideful moment because he had been
on welfare and these were people in the community, the first 100, who had come from the rolls
and it was a trial thing. It could have fallen flat on its face but it did marvelously. Out of those
100, most of them went on to be very productive and they would never have had a chance
otherwise if it hadn‟t been for that program. I think, during our whole history, we did firsts all
the way down the line. As you said, we were the first that did not need any kind of unionization.

NR: Any more great speakers?

WT: Michael Crichton was one of our speakers but he wasn‟t the most popular. Ann Marie
Martin. Now, you and I probably are not soap opera aficionados, right?

NR: That‟s correct.

WT: Ann Marie Martin was a biggie in Guiding Light or one of those, I don‟t remember which
one. I don‟t know these soap operas. But when Michael Crichton came on campus with his
girlfriend, Ann Marie Martin, in tow, the students could care less about Michael Crichton. But
Ann Marie Martin was on campus. Oh dear, that was a big thing – “Ann Marie Martin is on our
campus!” He was a tall, lanky son of a gun. He was great. He was the one that talked to our
students and I think interested some people to go into writing.

NR: I get the feeling that there are good athletic programs at Corning but they were not promoted
as much as in some of the colleges.

WT: Now, that‟s not true. In basketball especially, we did go into the city and do a little bit of
recruiting. I think basketball in particular was always a big thing. We never had football. We
had basketball. That was a biggie. And we had soccer.

                                            Page 7 of 9
NR: Did you have women‟s teams as well?

WT: Oh, yes. We had softball teams and we had a champion women‟s softball team.

NR: I worked in SUNY Central starting in 1975 and I don‟t remember problems at Corning and
the community college office. Was there much of a relationship with SUNY or did you feel sort
of like you were on your own?

WT: Oh, no. There was a very good association. Remember when Hamilton was the chancellor
at that time?

NR: Well, he was a little before my time.

WT: Oh, that‟s right. Tom Hamilton, yes it would have been before your time. He was the one
that said we would probably, at some point, have coordinate campuses, upper and lower division,
and they might be on the same ---. Because, Bill Perry, one of the things that he said when he
came on, he said, “Well, probably we will have some kind of four-year institution by the time
you are here for 10 years.” That never took place. When Hamilton recommended that, I think it
was not coincidental that, about a year later, after he recommended that he was out. It did not sit
well with the other campuses.

NR: Well, I think I heard Chancellor Tom Hamilton, one of the biggest things that hurt him was
that he called for some consultants to come in as to what should be done about the university
centers. The consultants said, “You should have one research campus for the whole state so that
you can have a place like Michigan.” The trustees, of course, who represented Long Island,
Buffalo, etc., etc., not only didn‟t accept the recommendations of the consultants, they got a new
chancellor who agreed with them on that particular score and we kept four university centers.

WT: Now Corning Community College, our board of trustees was very autonomous but it wasn‟t
to say that they divorced themselves from the State. It was only that they felt that they knew
what the community needed. At no time did they feel that they were being second guessed or
being bothered.

NR: By either the governor or the sponsor. Was there ever any political impact on the selection
of trustees that you know of?

WT: Not in a sense. In the early days especially, no. I think there may have been a couple in
later years and probably more recently that politics entered into it, unfortunately. But there were
enough on the board so that I don‟t think the boards ever went political. I don‟t mean by national
politics but I mean politically locally. My own father was in education all his life. He was an
engineer but he was a local school board president in Painted Post for about 22 years, twenty of
those as president, then went on to become New York State School Board Association president.
He loved education. I think two things he really was most proud of was the day that I received
my doctorate in education from Syracuse University and the day that I signed my contract at
Corning Community College. Those were the two highlights in his life.

                                            Page 8 of 9
NR: Was yours one of the first television courses in community colleges?

WT: I believe it was. The funny thing is, as I say, Bill Perry chose this accolade. In fact, I was
teaching at Keuka College and he called me on the phone one time and we had just met. We
were judging speaking contests. You know, when you‟re judging speaking contests, you have
one person who is a professional and the others are just leaders in their community. So as the
president of Corning Community College, he was there and knew nothing about, well he did
know speech. And so, it was afterwards, the principal had me in his office and he said, “What do
you think about this Corning Community College?” Remember, I was there representing Keuka.
He said, “That‟s not going to work out too well for you.” And I said, “Oh no, I see that as a real
plus. I foresee the time when graduates of Corning Community College will come to Keuka
College in droves.”

NR: Well, that‟s back to the beginning and probably a good place to stop. Do you have anything
else you want to add to this?

WT: Well, could I use some words from Don Hangen, as he sort of summarizes things?

NR: Certainly.

WT: In his decade of service, he made this comment, “There is some attitude, a sense of pride, a
sense of accomplishment on the part of faculty and staff. I don‟t see this on other campuses. It‟s
an attitude of excellence, Corning Community College faculty and staff, a consolidation of the
college‟s sense of purpose, a continual striving for quality in its programs.” And the Middle
States report received by the colleges at that point noted the same and said, “There is something
very special here. Liberal arts is at the core of all programs.” I think that sums up my feelings.

NR: And I thank you for a fine interview.

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