|Vol. 16, No. 19
||Sept. 25 - Oct. 8, 2003
Hall of Fame at BCC Has Impressive History
By ROBERT WADDELL.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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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