The Gorges of Cornell University
- The Goods
- Published on Tuesday, 16 March 2010 13:30
Perhaps you have heard about the latest round of deaths at Cornell University. Unfortunately this year’s string of deaths are only the latest in a long tradition of suicides in Ithaca. Rob Fishman, a 2004 graduate of Scarsdale High School and a 2008 Cornell University graduate began to look into this Cornell phenomenon when he was a student at the Columbia Journalism School last year. Prompted by the reports of the three latest jumps at his Alma Mater, Rob has written this history of Cornell, the bridges and the unfortunate deaths. Now an employee at the Huffington Post, Rob first published the story there, and you can read the entire piece by clicking on the link at the end of this introductory section to the article.
It was hardly the weather for a suicide. Students had gathered at Collegetown Bagels — a popular watering hole on days like October 8, 2008, when the Ithaca sun makes an unseasonable appearance — and from the outdoor patio, you could make out the lofty spire of McGraw Tower, poised now to chime two o'clock. At one minute before the hour, a pair of students crossed the stone bridge to class, the college town behind them, Cornell University ahead, and the deep gorge ninety feet below.
Across the street, an elderly woman was coming the other way. A lanky man in a navy track jacket walked briskly a few paces behind, his face obscured by a white cap. Back in town, a sophomore was feeding a parking meter, when she saw something from the corner of her eye. The man had stepped onto the bridge's western parapet. "I can't look!" someone ahead exclaimed. Up on the bridge, the older woman turned to find anyone who had just seen what she'd seen.
By the time the dean of students, Kent Hubbell, arrived, a small crowd had gathered around the bridge. One man walking through the gorges had his camera handy, and snapped four pictures of the body, which, within thirty minutes or so, was removed by emergency workers. Soon the crowd cleared, and an hour later, the bridge reopened for traffic. "Life went on," remembered Hubbell. "It's amazing how quickly." As for the two witnesses on the bridge, they didn't even wait around to see what happened. "As soon as we heard someone calling 911," said one, "my friend and I continued to campus."
If people in Ithaca seem inured to suicide, that's because they are. For as long as anyone can remember, Cornell's gorges have furnished a wide open casket for those so inclined, and Ithaca, in turn, earned the unwanted distinction of "suicide capital of the combined Ivy League, Big Ten, Little Three, and Seven Sisters," as one local writer put it. Although commensurate with national averages, suicide at Cornell — or to borrow the local vernacular, "gorging out" — has become the stuff of myth. And sometimes reality, as this month, when the university lost three students — in February, Bradley Ginsburg, 18; three weeks later, William Sinclair, 19; and the very next day, Matthew Zika, 21 — in as many weeks to its precipitous gorges. The recent spate of suicides has cast a pall over the campus. "The cumulative effect of this loss of life is palpable in our community," said Susan H. Murphy, the university's vice president for student and academic affairs, in a video address. University staff, Murphy said, were knocking on student doors, and even stationed on the campus bridges.
But if suicide, as the adage goes, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, then confronting suicide is just the opposite. While the problem abides, the solutions — and the attention these tragedies occasion — inevitably wear thin. Thus, in the fall of 2008, the suicide of Jakub J. Janecka. That day, when police asked the university if Janecka, 33, was an enrolled student, they were told no, but that he was an alumnus, now ten years past his date of graduation. From the small town of Honesdale, Pa., Janecka had recently completed graduate studies in Washington D.C. But what brought him to Ithaca, if not the end he found, no one was quite sure. And why Janecka — or, for that matter, any of the young men — came to the gorges to meet that end is a question best answered from the beginning.