A tribute to my Cornell professor, Richard Polenberg

By: Tom Allon,  Author
December 1, 2020

Sad news arrived on Thanksgiving morning that my beloved professor and lifelong friend, Dick Polenberg, passed away last night after a long, valiant struggle with Alzheimer’s that robbed us in his final years of his beautiful, analytic mind.

I first laid eyes on Professor Polenberg as a wide-eyed freshman at Cornell in the spring of 1981, just months after my generation of liberal students experienced the shock and disappointment of a sweeping Ronald Reagan victory in the 1980 presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter.

In the dark days of the past four years, I have tried to comfort my children that when I was their age, our country went through a period of disappointment with Reagan, but that we emerged a stronger nation in the 1990s with a new era of leadership with Bill Clinton-Al Gore.

But in 1981, sitting in the fourth row at cavernous Bailey Hall, I watched the masterful Professor Polenberg pace the stage for about one hour telling compelling stories from American history in the mid-20th century. His lectures were so interesting and so fluid that it was hard to take proper notes and absorb his unique storytelling powers at the same time.

Alger Hiss. The Rosenbergs. Roy Cohn. JFK. Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights victories.

This parade of American history leapt off the stage and in his mellifluous style, Polenberg riveted over 1000 students in the auditorium. My friend David and I used to try to arrive 15 minutes early to class so we could snag a good seat in the first five rows, rather than be relegated to the Bailey balcony. I was more motivated to get close to the stage in his class than I was when Grateful Dead tickets went on sale at Willard Straight later that semester.

Like so many freshman at Cornell, I started to doubt my academic abilities that semester. What passed for easy “A’s” in high school came under more rigorous scrutiny at Cornell and “B’s” and “B+,s” started littering my academic record.

But when I handed in a paper in Polenberg’s class, a review of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” in the voice of RFK, a brilliant assignment, I received the academic recognition every insecure freshman craved. In a lecture class of so many students, grading was done by the graduate teaching assistants. But when I got my paper back, in addition to my TA’s high grade and praise, were these simple but deeply meaningful words from Professor Polenberg that I’ll never forget: “Sarah showed me your paper and I’m glad she did. You really captured RFK’s voice in this assignment.”

I felt like I was levitating when I walked out of class. A Professor I had come to idolize like so many of my fellow classmates, had actually read my paper and liked it.

Maybe I did belong at Cornell.

Historian Richard Polenberg at his Last Lecture