Vol. 16, No. 19 Sept. 25 - Oct. 8, 2003


Hall of Fame at BCC Has Impressive History


On a tour of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the campus of Bronx Community College, one woman turned to her friend and said, "I think Lincoln is breathing," remembered Ralph Rourke, the director of the Bronx landmark, who died in August shortly after this interview (see sidebar).

It was because many of the 98 lifelike busts of accomplished Americans give off an air of reality in this pantheon of industry, creativity and wisdom, Rourke said. 

Some of America's most celebrated sculptors captured the character of their subjects, he added.

"The creators of the Hall of Fame wanted to create a pantheon, a reverence to education and American heroes. This is a mosque, a temple, a cathedral," Rourke said.

Dr. Henry Mitchell MacCracken, chancellor of New York University, and architect Stanford White, first envisioned the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. It was built on the then NYU uptown campus in the late 19th century. MacCracken and White had envisioned and built a high-domed rotunda library with a Roman-style colonnade honoring American achievement and vision. It was modeled on the pantheon of heroes in Rome. 

First dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1901, all of the inductees, from Benjamin Franklin to Susan B. Anthony to Edgar Allan Poe, were nominated, voted on and later installed. Before an American could be considered, he or she had to be dead for at least 25 years. And this hall of fame is the ancestor to all American halls of fame. "You talk about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is not a jukebox, but a wisdom bank," Rourke said. "You can get 200 years of history in 20 minutes. You have George Washington, the father of the country, to George Washington Carver, the father of peanut butter. Now that's the spread."

Attached to the colonnade is a former library with Tiffany windows, Italian marble and tiles. Rourke called the building a testament to the Greeks' thirst for knowledge, and Roman ideals of beauty and harmony married to distinct visions of American ingenuity. "The dome represents power, authority and dignity," he said. "When you come up the stairs of the library, you ascend into a world of intellectual opportunity and it's all here in the Bronx."

For certain, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans was created by 19th century minds and is mostly a celebration of dead white men. Despite the impressiveness of a colonnade with Thomas Jefferson, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison and Walt Whitman, there are only two African-Americans and only 11 women. 

"When it was created, most of America's achievers just happened to have white parents," Rourke said. "The African-American brilliance had not yet been respectfully recognized."

Looking down from one of the highest promontories in the Bronx, the Hall of Fame looks out onto the Harlem River and over to the Palisades. The view has given way to romantic outings.

When former borough president Fernando Ferrer was courting the woman who's now his wife, he took her on an inexpensive date to the Hall of Fame.  "It was a place I expected to get kissed," Ferrer said. 

As an NYU freshman in 1968, Ferrer remembers taking off his Class of '72 beanie and placing it on one of the Hall of Fame busts. He said a walk through the Hall of Fame was a history lesson that he never forgot.

Rourke recalled another cherished Hall of Fame moment, the time when the Daughters of the Confederacy honored the installation of the busts of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was engulfed in roses and you could hardly see his face but by Grant there was only one flower with a simple note: "Courtesy of the Daughters of the Confederacy."

The same week Rourke took over the Hall of Fame 15 years ago, the Daily News ran a story about the Hall of Fame with the headline, "Hall of Shame."

It had been closed for five years because of erosion to its foundation and air pollution that was seriously damaging the faces of the busts. Rourke would go on to raise enough money to oversee the restoration of the busts.

Before he died, Rourke looked forward to creating a folk museum under the colonnade which would honor more famous Americans. He wanted to install backlighting to the Tiffany glass to light up the rotunda. And there are still four great Americans waiting to have their busts enshrined -- Louis Brandeis, Clara Barton, Luther Burbank and Andrew Carnegie. 

"This is a precious permanent part of the Bronx, a veritable treasure," Rourke said.

Ralph Rourke Dies at 80
Ralph Rourke, longtime director of the landmark Hall of Fame for Great Americans on the campus of Bronx Community College (BCC), died on Aug. 28 at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. He was 80. 

Rourke died from complications from surgery, said Mary Ellen Lyons, his companion.With an irrepressible Irish sense of humor and a compulsive concern for factual accuracy, Rourke was widely known as "Mr. Hall of Fame." "Ralph Rourke innately loved history and had a knack for capitalizing on the teachable moment," said BCC President Carolyn Williams. "He will be sorely missed."

Rourke took his role very seriously, considering each group that he lead through 
American classical art, architecture, and history as unique. "I tell visitors, and particularly young students, that achievement is what education is all about," Rourke had said in a previous interview. 

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Rourke served in the U.S. Army Air Corps until1946. He graduated from Fordham University, managing the college's WFUV radio station. He later delivered news and music on WNAV in Annapolis. 

For the next 30 years, he helped produce the Emmy Award winning CBS Network feature, "Sunrise Semester," the first time college courses were presented on TV for credit. He took only a year off for retirement after this, accepting an invitation from BCC in 1987.

Rourke is survived by his son Michael, two grandchildren, and his companion Mary Ellen Lyons (the junior secretary in BCC's Social Science Department). 

A month before he died, Rourke was presented with a plaque by Assemblyman Denny Farrell of Inwood-Washington Heights where he lived, according to Lyons. Rourke also received an Irish Heritage Award and the BCC Foundation Scholarship Gala Award in June. 

Rourke was given a military funeral at Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island.This obituary was submitted by Bronx Community College.

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