Syracuse, N.Y. – When Carrier Corporation and Syracuse University struck a deal four decades ago to put the air conditioner maker’s name on the school’s new sports stadium, some college students had other ideas.
They wanted to name the football stadium after Ernie Davis, SU’s star halfback and the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.
One of the leaders of the movement was Kathy Courtney, a student government vice president who, in her time at Syracuse, had already fought for and won lower prices at the campus bookstore and changes to students’ meal plans.
But by spring of 1979, the $2.75 million deal was sealed. The soft-top stadium would be the Carrier Dome.
Carrier “rightfully bought the name,” Kathy Courtney – now Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul – told the Daily Orange student newspaper that February.
Yet she and others didn’t give up. Larry Beer, a friend and fellow student government representative, remembers the day when Hochul and another student leader went to Carrier’s corporate office in what are now the Equitable Towers in downtown Syracuse.
They went to meet with Mel Holm, who was both Carrier’s CEO and SU’s chair of the Board of Trustees. The students were hoping for a Carrier-Davis compromise.
“As idealistic students, we wanted the Dome to be named after one of our football legends, and particularly an African American,” said Beer, who now lives in Las Vegas. “There was a lot of good will around his name. He was a more appropriate namesake for the Dome than the Carrier Corporation.”
Hochul came back disappointed, Beer said. But she didn’t dwell on the loss, he added.
“It was more like, ‘Let’s move onto the next challenge,’” he said.
Kathleen Courtney Hochul, a Democrat, is now facing what could be the biggest moment of her political career.
She’s next in line to take over as governor of New York, should Andrew Cuomo resign. She would also become the temporary governor if state lawmakers vote to impeach Cuomo and send him to trial over allegations of harassment at work. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing and said he will not resign.
Hochul, a Buffalo native, would be the first female governor in New York. She’d also be the first governor from Upstate New York since Nathan L. Miller, a Republican who was elected in 1920.
Hochul’s time at Syracuse shaped her political future, even before she enrolled. While still in high school, she and her father visited the campus, according to her biography posted by SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Her father told her the campus seemed like a place “where someone could become a congressperson.”
Three decades later she would do just that.
Hochul, 62, declined an interview for this story through a spokesman. As other Democrats have called for Cuomo to step aside, she’s remained silent on the turmoil while continuing to talk virtually to teachers, tourism groups and chambers of commerce about the governor’s plans for 2021.
As a student at Syracuse University, Hochul often spoke out, friends and colleagues from that time said.
Once on campus, Hochul’s political strategies were less radical and more reasoned, her friends from then said. She didn’t just point out problems. She pushed then-Chancellor Mel Eggers to produce specific solutions.
“Some students can be enthusiastic,” said Frank Slazer, who also served on the Student Association government body with her. “I think Kathy kept it grounded, staying very focused with getting the university to work with the students.”
Hochul described the strategy this way in a February 1979 Daily Orange story: “If we ran into one wall with one administrator, we moved up to another one.”
One of their biggest obstacles involved the bookstore.
Beer said the students compared SU’s textbook prices with other similar schools and found them higher. In these pre-ATM times, the students also wanted the bookstore to cash students’ checks. And they wanted secure lockers at the store’s entrance, instead of the open cubby holes where they were supposed to leave their backpacks when shopping.
Hochul and the student government led a boycott of the store beginning in spring 1978. The bookstore director responded by laying off student workers.
“This goes to prove the bookstore is an inhuman institution,” Hochul said in an April 1978 Daily Orange story. In another story, she said she personally stayed out of the bookstore for a full year.
By that fall, secure lockers were installed. The bookstore lowered prices slightly, maybe by 5% to 7%, Slazer recalled. Eggers even created a bookstore advisory board, which Hochul called a step in the right direction.
“It was kind of the hallmark of her tenure,” Slazer said.
Hochul had other successes too. She led a push for the university to divest in South African investments to protest the country’s Apartheid system of racism. (The effort was successful, Hochul’s office says now.)
She also worked to move freshmen student orientation from mid-summer to the days right before fall classes began. And she got the school to stop charging students for some uneaten meals on their food plans.
“I don’t remember her as being all that much of a party animal,” Beer said. “I might have seen her drink a beer a handful of times. She was more studious than some of the rest of us.”
In spring 1979, the Daily Orange staff graded student leaders on campus. They awarded Kathy Courtney an “A,” listing the campus changes as evidence for the grade.
“All these were results of Courtney’s work,” wrote editor-in-chief Thomas Coffey, who is now at The New York Times.
While at SU, Hochul lived at Haven Hall her first two years, her spokesman Bryan Lesswing confirmed. She lived off-campus her junior year. As a senior, she spent the fall semester in England; that spring, she lived at SkyTop Apartments.
Hochul graduated in 1980, the semester before the Dome opened. She went on to law school at Catholic University and before working for then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former Rep. John LaFalce. She married William Hochul, who became the top federal prosecutor in Western New York.
They moved to Hamburg, where Hochul served on the town board for 14 years. During that time, she fought for the New York State Thruway to remove some toll booths in Western New York.
Coincidentally, Slazer’s aunt lived in Hamburg at the time.
“Kathy would come campaigning,” Slazer said, knocking on this aunt’s door. “My aunt was appreciative about how diligent she was in asking for votes.”
Hochul then served at Erie County Clerk from 2007 to 2011. She won a special election to Congress in 2011 and served until 2013. Before Cuomo picked her to be his running mate in 2014, she worked as group vice president for strategic relationships at Buffalo-based M&T Bank.
During a virtual SU alumni event last December, Hochul said that pre-Covid-19, she would visit campus as often as once a month to talk with Chancellor Kent Syverud and others on campus.
But as recently as 2011, she told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that despite remaining an Orange fan, she’d never been inside the Carrier Dome.
Instead of naming the Dome after Davis four decades ago, SU created a room in the Carrier Dome in his name. It’s a move Hochul has said she liked. It wasn’t until 2009 the school renamed the turf the Ernie Davis Legends Field.
When asked about Hochul’s interest in the Dome’s name, Beer said he didn’t remember Hochul as a big football fan. “I think she was more of a fan of equity,” he said.
Hochul did finally go to the Dome in 2015, her office confirmed. She stood with Floyd Little to honor veterans on Ernie Davis’s field.
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