A silver shovel that Mayor Fiorello La
Guardia used to break ground at Brooklyn College’s Midwood campus
in 1935 now stands erect in the center of the college library,
like a statue commemorating the beginning of a celebrated legacy.
The college that the three-term mayor funded with the hope that it would yield keen and curious minds for Brooklyn is now host to a public display of history and precious memorabilia in honor of its 75th anniversary. "A Fierce Determination: 75 Years of Excellence" features more than 200 pieces celebrating the institution’s rich tradition, complete with artifacts from notable alumni and events.
"The exhibit is supposed to show how the college has evolved, as well as to highlight the achievements of the college over time," Brooklyn College Archivist Anthony Cucchiara told GO Brooklyn. "Even though the college has changed quite a bit, our goals remain pretty much the same now as they were when the college started. Brooklyn College has always been about providing fine public education to the children of immigrants."
Some of those children have gone on to become well-known figures after their tutelage at Brooklyn College, including acclaimed and controversial defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, authors William Alfred and Irwin Shaw, Nobel Prize winner Stanley Cohen, actor Jimmy Smits and comedian Sam Levinson, who all have artifacts in the exhibit.
"A Fierce Determination" chronicles the history of the college, beginning with a letter in 1926 from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce calling for the creation of a CUNY branch in Brooklyn. The Board of Higher Education was established that same year, and the plan for Brooklyn College was set in motion.
The original site of the college was in Downtown Brooklyn, and it remained there until 1937, when construction of a permanent home was completed on 40 acres of land in Midwood that had previously been a golf course. La Guardia secured the land and, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s help, began raising money to fund the new campus. The two men held a groundbreaking ceremony at the Midwood site in October 1935, and the shovel that La Guardia used during the event can be seen at the exhibit.
"A Fierce Determination" also features buttons, fliers, newspapers and pictures created by students and faculty, chronicling the events and overall attitude of the Midwood campus over the years. Memorabilia from the anti-war movements during World War II and the Vietnam War, as well as pictures of riots and protests from the civil rights-era represent the profound political involvement and enthusiasm for U.S. isolationism that has been present on the campus almost since its inception, a trend that Cucchiara believes still exists at the college today.
"Students here are very intellectually stimulated and in charge, and have been for a long time," Cucchiara said. "A well-informed citizenry is the basis for sound democracy. Students - a lot of the time - are distracted today. A lot is going on and we want them to know that there is more than iPods and J. Lo out there in the world."
A number of panels in the exhibit display images and information about events like the Brooklyn College Country Fair, which was started in 1938 by Dean Adele Bildersee to raise money for the Brooklyn College Graduate Scholarship Fund’s cash-starved students. The fair was a significant event for the urban campus - and the neighborhood - and was an annual affair for decades before being discontinued in the late 1980s.
Letters are also on display documenting the 1952 dismissal of Harry Slochower, one of the original professors at the college, due to his refusal to answer Brooklyn College President Harry Gideonse’s questions during a "McCarthy-like" inquisition of the faculty can be seen, Cucchiara said. The Western Union telegram from students congratulating Slochower after he was reinstated at the college by the Supreme Court in 1956, is there as well.
The exhibit also features the bell from the USS Brooklyn, a World War II Naval ship that received four battle stars. The bell was obtained by the college’s Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, a chapter for World War II veterans who received their education on the GI Bill.
An olive-green robe worn by actor Smits in 1980, his senior year, during a production of "Othello," is encased in glass. Smits, 50, is an Emmy-winning actor who has starred in the television series "L.A. Law," "NYPD Blue" and "The West Wing" as well as in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park productions, on Broadway ("Anna in the Tropics") and George Lucas’ latest "Star Wars" installment.
Dershowitz, the attorney and law professor who has been both blessed with great success and mired in tremendous controversy because of such high-profile clientele as Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson - and perhaps most famously the overturned conviction of Claus von Bulow, accused of murdering his Newport socialite wife, Sunny, which was depicted in the film "Reversal of Fortune" - is another alum well-represented in the exhibit. Some of Dershowitz’s college and professional writing is on display, including one of his books, "Taking Liberties: A Decade of Hard Cases, Bad Laws and Bum Raps."
"If it wasn’t for Brooklyn College, Alan Dershowitz would not be a notable figure today," Cucchiara claimed. "A lot of first-generation American children, like him, would have gone into their father’s business had they not had the opportunity to go to school in Brooklyn, which was local and cheap. Dershowitz would have been a dry goods store owner, just like his dad."
As pleased as Cucchiara is with all of the objects in the exhibit, there’s one that was a particular delight to acquire, he said.
"The La Guardia shovel is a very interesting piece," said Cucchiara. "I had been looking for it for years, ever since I saw it in the video of the groundbreaking ceremony. Then one day, a man named George Goodman called and said he had it. It apparently was given to George’s father, who was La Guardia’s neighbor, when La Guardia moved into Gracie Mansion. It had been in the family ever since, and he decided that it would be better if we had it.
"I’m glad we do."
"A Fierce Determination: 75 Years
of Excellence" will be on display until Dec. 31 at Brooklyn
College’s library (located at the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand
avenues and Ocean Avenue and Avenue H in Midwood). A portion
of the exhibit is on display now at Brooklyn Borough Hall (209
Joralemon St. at Court Street in Brooklyn Heights) until Aug.
19, when it will return to the library.
The exhibit is free, and is open during the library’s summer hours: Monday and Thursday from 9 am to 6 pm, and on Tuesday and Wednesday from 9 am to 9 pm. The traveling component at Borough Hall is open 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday, and is also free. For more information, call the Brooklyn College library at (718) 951-5346 or Borough Hall at (718) 802-3700, or visit the web sites at www.brookl