Founder’s Day History
This article was written in 2 installments by Rocco Cetera. It first appeared in the CUAA October and November 2012 Newsletters
Founder’s Day 2012
What is Founder’s Day? This is a simple question, but it is one that we members of the Cooper Union Alumni Association examine every year as we make preparations to celebrate Founder’s Day. Founder’s Day is the day that the entire Cooper Community celebrates the life and achievements of Peter Cooper and the school that he founded. The official day falls on Peter Cooper’s Birthday, February 12th, however, Founder’s Day celebrations occur over a period of several days. Activities usually include a school holiday, visits to Peter Cooper’s grave site, the annual wreath laying celebration in Cooper Square, and a Founder’s Day gala.
Reviewing reports of past Founders Day Celebrations, one can tell that the evening dinner party has always been a major event in the Founder’s Day festivities. A search through early annual reports of the Cooper Union Alumni Association from the 1890s show records of an early Founder’s Day gathering at Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan. An article in the New York Times relates the story of Andrew Carnegie, who before his remarks on Founder’s Day in 1909, poked fun of attendees (Cooper’s daughter sitting beside him) that smoked and drank liquor at the party.
In recent years, the Founder’s Day evening dinner party has focused on celebrating the achievements of alumni who have excelled in their professions as well as those who have given their time and talent to the school and to the Alumni Association. Four awards are given: Gano Dunn in Engineering, Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Art, John Hejduk in Architecture, and Alumnus of the Year. The evening celebration, which includes the presentation of these awards, has been held in many famous New York City locations such as Luchow’s, Windows on the World, Governors Island, and of course in the Great Hall. Founder’s Day Celebrations have also been held by our Regional Groups in Florida, Chicago and other locations. This year’s New York event will be on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at Guastavino’s. You can view pictures of last year’s event by clicking here or take a walk down memory lane with photos from Founder’s Days of the past.
It is hard to imagine Peter Cooper attending fancy parties, but I recently learned that the Founders Day Party tradition may have begun while Mr. Cooper himself was still alive. On his eightieth birthday, in 1871, twelve years after founding our Alma Mater and five years before running for President, a large celebration was held in his honor. True to his reputation, Mr. Cooper took the occasion of his birthday to give the school “$150,000 to establish in connection with the institute a valuable lending and research library.” ($150,000 of 1871 dollars would be worth:$2,830,188.68 in 2012). Great dignitaries from the City of New York, trustees, administrators, students and alumni attended. In recognition of the occasion, the students produced a portrait of Peter Cooper and presented it to him on that day. That portrait sits in the lobby of the Foundation Building to this day (at the entrance to the library).
Reviewing reports of old Founders Day Celebrations, one can tell that the evening dinner party has always been a major event in the Founder’s Day festivities. Annual Reports of the Cooper Union Alumni Association from the 1890s show records of an early Founder’s Day gathering at Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan. An article in The New York Times relates the story of Andrew Carnegie, who before his remarks, on Founder’s Day in 1909, poked fun of attendees (Cooper’s daughter sitting beside him) that smoked and drank liquor at the party. Carnegie, who nine years earlier gave a grant to the school, which was matched by the Cooper-Hewitt family to make the school debt free, said of Peter Cooper that night:
“He was the man who had the first thought, and he thought, as I have thought, that in encouraging and aiding education wealth can be employed to great good. Of course, it was easy for me to think now, but it was he who was the originator of the idea.” Click to read full article