A Rare Maverick in the House

Author Thomas W. Jones stopped by Sage House a few weeks ago to sign copies of From Willard Straight to Wall Street—purchasing more than 500 books for friends and colleagues.  He inscribed a personal note in each book and paid to have them mailed.

This is who Tom Jones is. He diligently worked for eight hours to make sure his positive message for our country and the world would get to the people that mattered most to him. As he has done throughout his life, he was embracing the importance of the moment and his place in it.

Fifty years ago, Tom and a group of African-American students occupied Cornell University’s Willard Straight Hall with a cache of weapons. It was 1969 and one year and days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. A cross had been burned on campus (or near campus). African-Americans were dying in Vietnam. Cornell’s black studies curriculum wasn’t moving fast enough and the atrocities of slavery were being omitted from the classroom. These students felt intellectual oppression. During the days of the standoff on a radio show, Tom told the university, “Cornell has three hours to live.”

***

IMG_0161I first met Tom in September of 2015 at the Statler Hotel on Cornell’s campus. His manuscript had arrived at the Press from former Cornell President Hunter R. Rawlings via our editor-in-chief Peter Potter. He was attending a meeting of the Cornell Board of Trustees.

The manuscript needed work but I couldn’t get the story out of my head—the shear humanity of it. This was a story only a university press could tell.

With a rifle on his shoulder, he was prepared to die for the idea of black history and culture finding its rightful place in the curriculum. He had wished his ancestors had made more progress in the fight against slavery.

“Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person…The wheel of history…had turned; my generation were to be tasked with the obligation and destiny to finally draw the line and end our oppression in America.”

Those lines stuck with me. Tom had led an armed occupation of Willard Straight Hall in 1969 and had gone on to a successful career on Wall Street—where he rose to power and was exonerated twice from SEC investigations.

He watched the planes hit the buildings on September 11th and walked uptown out of the rubble, turning back to see a gaping hole of evil in the North Tower. He had no idea that those buildings were metaphor as he bore witness to the collapse of the banking industry at Citicorp eight years later.

“Every day something was happening in the late sixties—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention and Vietnam raging,” said Tom. “It was the same thing on Wall Street. Every day another scandal broke. In both cases, America was coming apart at the seams.”

Tom Jones is an American-made success story—he believes in education and hard work. His story transcends race and cliché. He enrolled in Cornell at sixteen and was elected freshman class president. He had joined ROTC also in his first year but quit because of the number of black men dying in Vietnam. The Straight occupation arose from a number of factors but at its core was an intellectual argument for dignity and respect in the academy.

He became the first black CEO and President of TIAA-CREFF and was handling the pensions of the professors he challenged. He was unceremoniously walked out of Citicorp just before its demise and hit rock bottom. The spiritual foundation cultivated throughout his life saved him.

***

I struggled to find the right methodology to provide feedback during that first meeting. Like the former revolutionary I was facing, I made a short list of demands for the manuscript. I went in with guns blazing as an editor and an author.

We had a title we both liked—”Rare Maverick”—but not much else. The financial story was largely told through press releases. That moniker was coined by a reporter.

Three full edits and two years later, I told Tom that we couldn’t move forward—that he wouldn’t want his story to be told this way. We suggested that a ghostwriter could do this.

Then Tom hired a miracle worker—Emily Sanders Hopkins. She was a friend of our managing editor Ange Romeo Hall. She became the medium between publisher and author—channeling the best parts of the story into an entertaining structure.

Emily filled in the manuscript with detail and atmosphere. Working with Emily changed Tom. The stories became so powerful in her hands that he now freely lets the emotions wash over him when recounting them.

The story for me became more about Tom’s transformation and his journey. From Willard Straight to Wall Street is the new title because it gives a sense of his life’s expansiveness—the skills he learned on the steps of the Straight prepared him for the trials of the financial industry. He was chosen to witness, to fight for his beliefs and to prevail.

This journey also turned Thomas W. Jones into a fine writer.

jones cover


Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.


Upcoming events

 

April 16, 2019 at 6pm: Conversation with the Author: Thomas W. Jones ’69

April 24, 2019 at 8pm: From Willard Straight to Wall Street and Back: An Evening with Tom Jones ’69


You can find more information on the 50th Anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Occupation of 1969, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Rare Maverick in the House

One Book at a Time

Gangs of Russia author Svetlana Stephenson wanted to become a sociologist after she read a collection of essays entitled American Sociology given to her by her father at the age of fifteen.

Growing up in Russia, she couldn’t obtain a degree in sociology from Moscow State University without having first worked in an industrial plant or for the party. So she studied history and later obtained a doctorate in sociology from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“I consider myself a historical sociologist,” she said. “This was the time of Gorbachev. I got a job at the Russian center for public opinion and I was lucky to have it.” Continue reading “One Book at a Time”

One Book at a Time

Let’s Change the World

Our goal for Giving Day is to raise $15,000 and open one of our new titles to the world. Your contribution will realize that dream.

 

Give the gift of reliable knowledge to everyone.

Cornell University Press has been publishing high-quality scholarship since 1869–rigorously edited and voraciously read all over the world in print and digital form.

Your gift on Cornell Giving Day (March 14th) will allow us to continue our experimentation with open access and give back to the world. We already have 150 open titles being accessed across the globe in 150 countries by thousands of people. With your support we’ll make it 151.

A Cornell book stimulates thinking otherwise. The more of our books that we open to the world the more we can change it through that stimulated thinking.

Our books help effect positive change in the world. Deadly River from our ILR Press imprint exposed the UN’s role in the cover up of the cholera epidemic in Haiti. The award-winning Violence as a Generative Force brought an unknown genocide in Bosnia into the light of day. Continue reading “Let’s Change the World”

Let’s Change the World

Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Last summer, Gerri Jones called to tell me that Cornell Professor at Large John Cleese would be coming to Ithaca in September for a week. She told me that she had scheduled me for a public talk with Cleese on September 11th at Bailey Hall that would become the last chapter of the book we were working on together.

Since joining this amazing Press in 2015, moments like this seemed to occur with some regularity. I attended a poetry workshop at Olin Library café with a former leader of the SDS at Cornell, a Nobel Laureate and an A.R. Ammons biographer. Today, I am surrounded by correspondence rejecting Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in verse and a ledger that holds the 1939 pencil-written royalty entries for the publication of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. I am also keenly aware at times of Cornell founder Henry Sage and his wife Susan who initially occupied the mansion where I work. Gerri Jones fit right in as part of an emerging entourage.

A small family of deer mingled outside my window looking in my direction as if waiting for an answer. Surely someone else would want the opportunity to have this conversation. Gerri confirmed that she had cleared it with the Provost’s office, and that the Provost would be introducing us both. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen.

cleese cover

More than one year after that call and the event that formed the final chapter of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, Gerri Jones passed away on August 10th, 2018. She was 68. She died from an infection in the hospital while being treated for leukemia.

This mystical and extraordinary woman who first alighted upon the second-floor landing of the Sage House during a folk concert never got to see her book get published. It was Gerri who brought one of the world’s most impressive and hilarious minds to Cornell over a span of seventeen years.

“Start thinking about a plan for the conversation,” she instructed me.

 

As it always was with Gerri, I knew what she meant. Avoid the cliched version of the Professor. Don’t spend a lot of time on Python—which I already knew anyway. If my words didn’t energize Gerri—she became bored and disinterested. She’d make a face. You had to elevate your game to be on the field with her. Those words reverberated in the weeks after the call. I dove into the Cleese canon of books, movies, and television shows. His mind came first. I read the manuscript of lectures and talks over and over.

While studying the Minister of Silly Walks, I recalled Gerri’s return to Sage House after the folk concert wearing knee-length boots and John Lennon shades. She carried a white shopping bag of Cleese talks and lectures on CDs. She told us about the never before published lecture entitled “The Sermon at Sage Chapel” that included a passage about “The Psychopaths for Christ.”

I received word of her passing and attended her funeral. She was supposed to be in remission now.

Through her friends, I came to discover that this whole episode was another glorious chapter in the amazing life of Gerri Jones. She could tilt the universe in any direction. She brought the Dalai Lama to Ithaca twice as the house mother to the Tibetan monks. She carried Kurt Cobain’s ashes back to Courtney Love after the monks had prepared them. She had even used one set as a door stop. She broke Reagan’s blockade of Nicaragua. She was the pride of Central Islip High on Long Island. To everyone there, she was simply “Ger.”

She loved Mardi Gras, dogs and Professor Cleese fiercely. They trusted each other and their chemistry was telepathic. She engineered a schedule that both challenged and protected him and left him with enough space to be creative. “I can’t read him,” he told Gerri during our second meeting after trying to discern the meaning of my facial expression. I can tell you that in that moment I felt absolute joy. My preparation for the talk had been rigorous and thorough. Professor Cleese had been talking about the brain and I leaned back in my chair and smiled. Yes, I had a little secret. I had known exactly what he was going to say before the words came out but I didn’t want to tell him that in the aftermath. Getting to know John Cleese is like learning how to play guitar. The chord structures are accessible, but they merely serve as a launch pad into an endless galaxy of improvisation.

I was ready for the public conversation and had enough confidence in his presence to suggest how the show was going to begin. After nearly falling off the chair with laughter, he agreed. Until now, Gerri was the only one I told this to in the hallway after we left Cleese that day. She and I have other secrets related to the book. Those we will keep. She swore me to it.

“We make a good team, don’t we?” She pinched my arm.

GERRI
Photo courtesy of Slade Kennedy.

 

About the author of this blog post: Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.

Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

Escher-good.jpg
Mapping the directions of John Cleese’s Escher-like mind. Drawing by Julia Smith.

By Dean Smith

In the fall of 2015, Cornell University Press hosted a folk concert in our offices at Sage House with author and Cornell history professor Richard Polenberg to celebrate Hear My Sad Story, his new book about the true stories of folk songs like “Casey Jones,” “Stagger Lee,” and “John Henry.” Sixty people showed up for the free event. Folk music enthusiasts jammed the foyer and sat knee-to-knee on the staircase all the way to the second floor. Polenberg played four songs on his acoustic guitar and the crowd sang along with him—a magical Ithaca moment—as the sunlight shafted in from all sides after a cold rain.

After the concert, I noticed three women at the top of the second-floor steps. We’d roped off access to the offices on the second and third floors. I asked if they wanted a tour of what had been Cornell benefactor Henry Sage’s mansion and the university infirmary for most of the twentieth century. I showed them our carved oak bats and owls, stained glass windows, and fireplace tile sequences featuring fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin. Our managing editor’s fireplace is adorned with Arthurian characters such as Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

At the end of the tour, one of the women, Gerri Jones, told me that Professor John Cleese would like a place like this. At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. Continue reading “Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book”

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

Director’s Cut: It’s a Wonderful Life of Books

cornell-guideI stopped into The Bookery on Tuesday after lunch at The Moosewood Café a few blocks down from our offices at The Sage House here in Ithaca. I discovered a book on Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud for $1.00 that I pulled from the discount rack. It referenced a friend of mine from my days in New York City. Ben Edwards lived in Chelsea and was a Broadway set designer. With his hickory-tinged Alabama accent, Ben would hold court over martinis with hints of ice skimming the surface in his brownstone telling stories about Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan and Gielgud.

I noticed another book as I reached for my wallet. On the table was the “Guide to the Campus of Cornell University” published in 1920. The Cornell Press was on hiatus at the time, reopening in 1933. The trim size and feel of the book resembles our recent title, “The Inauguration of Elizabeth Garrett.” The “Guide” was advertised for fifty cents during its time. In 2015, the price had risen to $15.00. I gladly paid it.

The book contains many entertaining passages about the town and the university. We learn that it took seven hours to reach Ithaca by train from New York City in 1920 in the section entitled, “General Directions for a Stranger.” During the winter an “automobile omnibus plies daily from Elmira to Ithaca.”

There’s a section on “The Infirmary.” The Sage House was once an infirmary that contained “rooms, offices, and rooms for convalescent cases.” There were 75 beds in the house and “the number can be doubled in an emergency.” This is good to know for expansion possibilities.

In the “Biographies” section, Henry Williams Sage receives more than a page of copy for his contributions to Cornell. At the inauguration of the university in 1868 with tears in his eyes he told John McGraw, “We are scoundrels to stand doing nothing while those men are killing themselves to establish this university.”

It’s Christmas Eve 2015, and the Sage House is bustling with activity. It feels like seventy degrees outside. Our editor Roger Haydon is busily preparing manuscripts that will bring accolades to the university in areas that Cornell is known for and others that it is not. Mahinder Kingra is plying metadata as though he is wrapping gold chocolate coins to stuff in stockings. Ange Romeo Hall is readying her desk for another 50 or more titles to be published this Spring. Betty Kim is waiting for me to finish writing this.

In today’s volatile publishing industry, these folks and many others are striving to ensure the long-term survival of the Press. It’s an honor to work with them.

Please support your university press and have a tremendous 2016 filled with exciting literary discoveries.

—Dean Smith, Director

Director’s Cut: It’s a Wonderful Life of Books

Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band

Never Forget the Voices by Dean J. Smith, Director, Cornell University Press

As I read Dr. Susan Ball’s memoir, Voices in the Band, about working in the trenches of the AIDS crisis, I remembered the searing lines from Henri Cole’s poem “Paper Dolls” that was published in The New Yorker in 1995: “Straight as candles/His legs exposed/The eroding candelabrum/That was his body.”

Ball’s account brings back the patients she cared for in all of their tragic beauty. You accompany her on daily rounds and inside the group therapy sessions where doctors were trying any technique possible to deal with a deadly contagion that had become a national health crisis. You learn that many hospitals and doctors didn’t want to deal with these patients. She arrived to find the shoddy work of medical residents who were afraid to touch them.

On some days, she’d had enough:  Continue reading “Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band”

Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band