Athletes get plenty of attention on college campuses, said Jack Samuels, a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
The SUNY Cortland alumnus, Class of 1973, said it’s all well and good to have a sports hall of fame at the college.
“But we have done nothing to recognize student leaders … student activity boards, student government, African-American clubs, LGBTQ clubs. The work of students in those things is just as important,” said Samuels, who in 1970 to 1973 organized concerts at SUNY Cortland, independent of the administration — bringing in the Grateful Dead, The Association, Richie Havens, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys and many more.
Samuels, head of the “circulating fund” committee that did this work, and Sonia Socha, an activities director employed at the college in the 1970s, led an effort to raise money for a sculpture to reflect the artists who appeared at SUNY Cortland from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Many, like Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and Don McLean, were not big names yet.
“The Billy Joel concert cost $300,” Samuels said. “Two shows for $300!”
‘This really went bonkers’
Their Musical Legacy Commemorative Project hired artist and art instructor Scott Oldfield to create a sculpture highlighting the work. Oldfield made the metal sculpture of the red dragon mascot at the entrance of the SUNY Cortland stadium complex.
On Saturday, his two-story wall sculpture was unveiled on the ground floor of Corey Union. Some 50 copper and steel strips will light up and sync with background music and are the background to sculptures of an upright bass, trumpet, guitar, drum set, piano and microphone attached to the wall.
“I think it turned out pretty well. It’s still a work in progress,” Samuels said.
A banjo is planned as well as a list of the acts brought in during that era.
Oldfield’s brother-in law and sister use to live in famed metal rocker Ronnie James Dio’s house in Cortland and donated a mic found in the cellar, said college spokesman Fred Pierce. Oldfield switched out a mic he designed with Dio’s mic.
Memorabilia associated with musical acts at SUNY Cortland from 1960 to 1990 will be on display at the college library through October.
“This really went bonkers,” Samuels said. “It’s crazy what happened with it. My original thinking, ‘I am going to donate money. They are going to put up a sculpture.’ I forgot when you work with a university, you put up with five committees.”
Hollies and Don McLean
About 75 people attended the unveiling of the sculpture, many members of the circulating fund committee, student organizers responsible for funding, selecting talent and pulling off the concerts outside of the administration for a good 20 years. The $30,000 sculpture and accompanying exhibits were a year in the making.
Oldfield worked for 50 hours over three days installing the piece, running into glitches, including trying not to puncture the wall. When that could not happen, he had to come up with another way to attach the sculptures. Frying the mother board on the controller was another factor that he’s ironing out, so the lights on the bars will sync with the music.
It will feature three patterns based on three frequencies, Oldfield said.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Oldfield said. “I was really, really happy with how it turned out.” Bill Dickerson, class of ‘69, told how after one concert with Graham Nash and Allan Clarke of the Hollies, he got to go back to the hotel with the pair while the school newspaper did a story on them.
He said they got Don McLean in 1969. “We never heard of Don McLean. He was delayed, staying on Pete Seeger’s boat for two
days. He was hired for a coffee house show before 20 to 30 people while some 300 students were at a Saturday night major weekend concert in another part of the campus.
McLean thought he could kill that audience and wanted to perform there. Dickerson said, sorry, no can do. You were hired for the coffeehouse. McLean would record his “American Pie” in 1971. The song won a Grammy for song of the year.
“The opportunity that we students and student leaders had to interact with these entertainers was special,” Dickinson said.
‘We had it all here’
“Sometimes you have this vision,” Sochas said. “Jack and I got to talking and it became a reality … This gorgeous, gorgeous sculpture was a lot of work.”
“I was involved with the board of governors when I came to school here in 1968 and was involved through 1972,” said Don Rohel of Charlestown, W.Va., a member of the Class of ‘72 and member of the student-run group that organized events with college officials. “Jack was president of the board of governors, I was vice president.”
The special “musical circulating committee” was the organization arm behind the concerts, separate from the board of governors.
“He was the guy that kept me calm,” Samuels said. “It was challenging working with the administration and the Physical Education Department.”
Those entities resisted big concerts in their campus buildings, a phenomenon common across the country, Samuels emphasized.
Rohel’s career path changed from the experience, from being a social studies teacher to overseeing a college student center.
He thought the sculpture captured the depth of all the types of musical groups that came to SUNY Cortland.
“We had pop music, folk music. We had it all here, everything from Simon and Garfunkel to Grateful Dead and beyond.
“It was pretty amazing for someone who grew up (in Ithaca), not having gone to concerts.”