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.

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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

150 Notable Books: American Bird Songs (on vinyl, not paper!)

As part of CUP’s150th anniversary, current and former staff compiled a list of 150 of our most notable books. But one of the entries on this list is not a book at all—and is all the more significant for its differences. In 1942, Comstock Publishing began a partnership with the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell to produce our first record album—American Bird Songs. This unusual publication is in fact a set of six 78-rpm records that marked innovations in both scholarly publishing and ornithological study.

This may not have been the first record album to be issued by a university press—I confess I have not researched the matter exhaustively—but it is highly unlikely that there were any earlier university press–issued wildlife recordings. The debut of this album was also the first step in creating a new imprint at the press: the Cornell Records Division. Over the next two decades, Cornell Records and the Lab of Ornithology produced twelve albums of recordings of songbirds from the United States, Mexico, and Africa; frogs and toads; and insects. American Bird Songs included familiar blue jays and mourning doves, water birds like loons and whistling swans, marsh birds like bitterns and Wilson’s snipe, and a wide variety of warblers. Thousands of copies of this album were purchased by amateur bird lovers and professional ornithologists alike—and for students at camps and schools.

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These recordings showcased the emerging field of wildlife recording, which was virtually invented at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology. In the late 1920s, Professor Arthur Allen produced the first recordings of birds made in the wild in North America. He worked with Peter Paul Kellogg, a graduate student, to develop the technologies to produce better recordings, including Kellogg’s concept of the first portable (under twenty pounds!) tape recorder for fieldwork. Peter Keane, an undergraduate student, came up with the concept of using a parabolic dish to isolate the sound of a particular bird. Albert R. Brand, a former stockbroker who became an adult student at Cornell, funded much of the early recording work and produced the first album of bird songs.

The Lab of Ornithology’s sound recording collection now includes tens of thousands of wildlife sounds and the lab continues its technological innovations. Cornell University Press and Comstock Publishing are proud to have played an early role in sharing their work with the world.


About the author of this blog post: Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time, she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.

150 Notable Books: American Bird Songs (on vinyl, not paper!)

The Gospel According to John Cleese

A friend of mine once put forward the theory that art and religion developed to pay homage to, or to pray for, good hunting. He’d been talking about the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux—the idea being that hunting was so central to these folks’ survival that they didn’t just choose, but were compelled, to create the art that today evokes in us so deep a sense of wonder. Of course, if this art sprang from such an elemental well, so too would have the engineering of weapons for the hunt: the triangles of pointed rock, the straight charcoal lines of spears arcing toward their prey. Art and design; geometry and engineering. Sounds something like what we do at Cornell.

And then there is John Cleese, Cornell’s longtime professor-at-large. Since 1999, he’s been visiting, lecturing, listening, and making us laugh. He has been our most surprising tutor, our unexpected long-term guest. Yet as well-known as he is, many Cleese fans (and even Cornellians) have no idea what he’s about outside of his day job. Professor at Large, a new collection of Cleese’s public talks at Cornell, presents a portrait of a mind at work. His topics are wide-ranging, from psychology to religion to screenwriting. But over and over, what reappears in different contexts is a fascination with the creative process, and (usefully) his interest in how to get there, as well as pitfalls to avoid, on the path to the “relaxed, attentive, open, and inquiring states of mind,” that allow creativity to flourish.

As it turns out, Professor at Large is, on one hand, a kind of how-to book for students of creativity. One could unearth a decent cache of listicle points from its pages, if need be. (My favorite, which happens to be from the screenwriter William Goldman: “Read it five or six times, each time with a different color pen.”) It’s also an argument shouted against prevailing winds. Cleese pays due respect to “the practical workaday thinking” that “relies on the application of reason and logic to known data.” However, he warns against a common bias toward “fast, purposeful, logical thinking,” not only in how we pursue success in business and academics, but also in our search for personal happiness.

(Listicle point: Get a cat. “The nice thing about cats is when they grow up, they don’t blame you for everything.”)

The quiet, open space, both physical and metaphorical, that Cleese defines as necessary for creative production will be familiar to practitioners of meditation, to solitary wanderers, and to those seeking to understand with humility the sacred writings of their chosen religion. It (surprisingly) comes as no surprise that much of Professor at Large has to do with religion and mysticism. Cleese makes it clear that they are not necessarily synonyms and are frequently at odds. He is against the certitude of doctrine because of what it stifles: the same openness of mind that summons up creative insight. One might call his writing the Gospel According to Brian, which in fact is the subject of an essay that’s both amusing and profound.

My friend told me that the Neanderthals buried their dead with amulets of sharpened stone. The better to hunt in the afterlife, he said. I’m no scholar, and I don’t know if it’s true, but it makes a good story.

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About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Kim is marketing designer for Cornell University Press, where she continues to look on the bright side of life.

*Original source of featured image: Empire

 

The Gospel According to John Cleese