Forever Linked

First students deepen ties to ILR as it evolves
Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Harriet Oxman ’48 remembers Jerry Alpern ’49 as the class comedian.

“He used to tell jokes and make everyone laugh,” she says. “He was a jolly, happy person.”

Of Oxman, Alpern says, “She was smart. Very smart.”

In a sense, little has changed — Alpern still tells jokes; Oxman is still smart.

At the school where they met, however, little has remained constant.

Oxman and Alpern are members of ILR’s first class. They have, literally, seen it all.

When they arrived on campus in 1945, classes were held in Quonset huts and “high technology” was a slide rule.

“In the Cost Accounting course, the engineers would all whip out their slide rules to do basic arithmetic,” Alpern says. “We counted on our fingers.”

“We were the orphans of the campus,” he recalls. “We didn’t have the facilities early on. But, we did have good faculty, and we had unity as a class.”

“Everybody knew each other. It was a harmonious group,” says Oxman.

Both Alpern and Oxman knew early on that they wanted to attend Cornell.

Alpern transferred from New York University at age 16, becoming “maybe the youngest member of my class.” Before attending NYU, he had applied, unsuccessfully, to the School of Hotel Administration.

Once on campus, Alpern pledged Sigma Alpha Mu, where his brother, Danny Alpern ’46, was a member. Both brothers lived at the fraternity when Jerry attended the Cascadilla School, an Ithaca prep school, as a teenager.

Danny, a College of Engineering student, had planned to transfer to the newly opened ILR after World War II military service. Tragically, though, he drowned off the Korean coast during U.S. Navy duty.

In his memory, their parents created the Daniel Alpern Memorial Scholarship, the school’s first scholarship, and the Daniel Alpern Memorial Prize, the school’s first prize for academic achievement. To date, 451 scholarships and 141 prizes have been awarded.

At least one prize recipient is well known to ILRies — Dave Lipsky ’61, the Anne Evans Estabrook Professor of Dispute Resolution, director of the Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution and former dean. Jerry Alpern says, “I used to kid him that he wouldn’t have become dean if he hadn’t won that award.”

Alpern was the first ILR student to be admitted to Cornell’s MBA program and to be dually enrolled in ILR and the business school. He earned his MBA in 1950.

After graduation, he worked for his father as personnel manager and assistant treasurer of the Pal Blade Co. in New York City. “My father was the one person who appreciated what those two degrees meant,” Alpern jokes.

At age 85, he continues to work as a business adviser and financial consultant.

Oxman, one of the few women in her class, transferred to the ILR School because of her interest in history and economics. “I thought the school would have good professors, and I was right,” she says. “They had top professors; every one of them was superb.”

Alpern agrees. “I’m indebted to the ILR School for the professors we had,” he says.

Both Oxman and Alpern say they were greatly influenced by Professors Maurice Neufeld and Jean McKelvey. Oxman also mentions Milton Konvitz, who wrote her a letter of recommendation to the Cornell Law School. Although thrilled to be accepted, she was unable to attend due to the serious illness of her father, a World War I veteran.

After graduation, Oxman spent 27 years in the New York City school system. She taught history, geography and economics, and served as a guidance counselor and assistant principal. When she was named principal of Erasmus Hall, in Brooklyn, she became the first woman principal of an academic high school in New York City.

“During the 10 years I was principal, I didn’t have many grievances,” she says. “But when I did get them, I won them all. I attribute that to my ILR education.”

Oxman has traveled extensively and written a book about her adventures, “Around the World With Harriet.” The ILR School will receive any profits from sales of the book.

“I was a good student, and the characteristics you acquire when you’re in school — they follow you in later years,” she says. “When I travel, I always take notes. And when I return home, I write them up.”

Oxman is traveling to Australia this fall and to Italy in the spring. She has two goals: to take an around-the-world cruise, and to live to 120 and become ILR’s oldest living alumna.

Despite the many years since graduation, Oxman and Alpern have remained connected to their alma mater.

Oxman served as a member of the Cornell Club, and interviewed New York City-area students applying for admission.

For her 60th class reunion, she endowed the directorship of the Catherwood Library. “I’ve always felt books were important,” she says. “At Cornell, I spent a lot of time at the library.”

Alpern’s familial connections to ILR and Cornell include his wife, Enid Levine HumEc ’47, daughter Susan Alpern Fisch A&S ’81 and son-in-law Richard Fisch ’79, MBA ’80.

A lifetime member of the Cornell University Council, Alpern has served on the Dean’s Advisory Council and as co-chairman of the ILR School Founders Fund Committee, chairman of anniversary committees, treasurer of the Class of 1949 and permanent chairman of the nominating committee for the Class of 1949. He received Cornell’s Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award in 2001.

In 1997, the Jerome Alpern Award was established to recognize professionals who provide service and support to ILR and whose career achievements are outside industrial and labor relations. The award is presented annually at the Groat and Alpern celebration in New York.

“I get a kick out of going to the dinner and meeting the awardees, who are very distinguished people,” he says. “I’m so proud to have their names forever linked with mine.”

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Visit the ILR Reflections website to read more stories about our alumni