A Conversation with Rick Burton & Scott Pitoniak authors of “Forever Orange: The Story of Syracuse University”
SU Press: March 24th marks the sesquicentennial of Syracuse University. What in SU’s 150-year history do you think readers will find most fascinating and why?
Scott: Since its inception in 1870, SU was ahead of the curve, opening its doors to females, students of color and international students long before other institutions became inclusive. When I think of SU, I don’t think just of Jim Brown or Dick Clark or Bob Costas, but also of pioneering alumni such as Ruth Colvin, who founded literacy volunteers, and Belva Lockwood, the first woman to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and run a full campaign for president. I think of Dr. Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the first artificial heart, and literary giants such as Joyce Carol Oates, Shirley Jackson and George Saunders. I think of Hollywood and Broadway heavyweights, like Vanessa Williams, Aaron Sorkin and Detective Columbo himself – Peter Falk. And I think of SU’s strong ties to NASA, especially Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle pilot and commander. The list of extraordinary SU people in all walks of life goes on and on – so much so that Rick and I found it impossible to include everyone who deserved to be included, given the space and time constraints.
SU Press: How about faculty that left the greatest impact?
Rick: We showcased/featured approximately 20 in our “It’s Academic” chapter, but could have written about 200 – if not more.
SU Press: How has the university changed the most in its 150 years?
Rick: I’m not sure that it has. It’s bigger and more famous – a globally recognized ‘brand’ – but it still sits on its hill overlooking the Onondaga Valley and the city of Syracuse. It still attracts amazing students and faculty and it still generates world-class and world altering results. Scott and I may share a bias, a love for Syracuse, but there is no denying that the flag so many of us treasure means a great deal to a lot of us.
Scott: I agree with Rick. To paraphrase that great philosopher and wordsmith, Yogi Berra, “it’s changed, but it hasn’t.” It’s stayed true to its original mission statement espoused by founding father, Bishop Jesse Truesdale Peck. Undoubtedly inspired by the women’s suffragist movement at nearby Seneca Falls and the abolition of slavery brought about by the end of the Civil War just five years earlier, Peck called for admissions to be open to all persons, regardless of gender, skin color or religion. In his inaugural address, he said, “brains and heart shall have a fair chance.”
SU Press: What was the most rewarding part of writing this fascinating book?
Rick: I would say working with Scott and discovering the fine details on so many nuanced stories. We’ve all heard bits and pieces about someone famous or a notable event, but have rarely been able to find them in one setting with rich narrative and stunning photography.
Scott: I second Rick’s sentiments. It was wonderful working with him and getting to know him better as a person. As a former student and current journalist, I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about my alma mater. How wrong I was! This turned into a labor of love because I’m a history buff and because I’ll always be grateful for the lasting impact Syracuse has had on me. SU truly was a place where I blossomed as a person; a place that launched this five-decade-long story-telling career of mine. To be able to do a deep-dive, and tell the story of this place that’s profoundly influenced my life, Rick’s life and the lives of millions of others was amazing.
SU Press: How did you cover 150 years of history in one book?
Rick: To quote the Beatles, we turned left at Greenland. The more appropriate answer is that we only scratched the surface. SU is historically significant in so many ways and we approached our task of wanting to make the treasured moments, the alums, faculty and events come to life. But entire books could be written about any one of the subjects we touched upon. Let’s say it this way … we tried, with a historian’s eye (think of us as a giant Cyclops) … to make the history of the last 150 years come to life through the words and the actions of the people who created that history.
SU Press: What are your personal favorite parts of the book, images, stories?
Rick: Springsteen’s Born to Run album cover; the New York Yankees logo; F. Story Musgrave fixing the Hubble Telescope; Dr. King on the Mall in Washington D.C.; the six-overtime box score from a historic basketball game Syracuse easily could’ve lost; a story about the Jabberwocky; photos of M Street, etc. The list for each of us would be endless because each story we wrote helped comprise the mosaic we were intending. And each photo or graphic colored those stones so that someone could see Orange in the spectrum of hues presented.
Scott: I think the stories that resonated most for me were the essays about 44 alumni of note in the middle of the book. F. Story Musgrave’s story, in particular, struck a chord. He is one of the most significant astronauts of all-time, a true genius who earned five graduate degrees and also became a surgeon. What makes his story all the more remarkable is that he dropped out of high school to join the Armed Forces. At the end of his service, he applied to Syracuse. Because he didn’t have a high school diploma, several members of the admissions committee wanted to reject him. But one committee member advocated on Musgrave’s behalf, saw great potential in him, so Musgrave was accepted. His story speaks to the bigger story of how Syracuse has often taken chances on “marginal” students like Musgrave with remarkable results.
I also loved researching and writing about famous visitors, everyone from Presidents of the United States to Babe Ruth. One of my favorite stories is how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “auditioned” his I Have a Dream and I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speeches on the SU campus. Those speeches, along with Lyndon Johnson’s “Gulf of Tonkin” address during the dedication of Newhouse I, are reminders that history often happened here.
SU Press: Why should readers be interested in Forever Orange?
Rick: If they have a connection to Syracuse University, Forever Orange gives them a treasure trove of short stories, long features and images that will allow them to appreciate the breadth and diversity of our university. SU has really been an amazing place for the last 150 years and the very entities still survive in their original form from 1870. I think it’s safe to say that the mission envisioned at the beginning is one that still resonates today.Scott: Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious! That’s why they should read the book. 😉 In all seriousness, that funny-sounding, non-sensical, 14-syllable word popularized in the film Mary Poppins has Orange origins. While researching Forever Orange, I discovered the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word’s birth to a column written by SU student Helen Herman in the student newspaper in 1931. The word means “extremely good and wonderful.” We have hundreds of these “Wow! I didn’t know that!” revelations in this book, which we obviously hope readers will find extremely good and wonderful.