Hall of Fame on BCC Campus Loses Its Guardian Spirit
With a distinctive and resonant voice, an irrepressible Irish sense of humor, and a compulsive concern for factual accuracy, Ralph Rourke was known as “Mr. Hall of Fame” to the Bronx Community College campus, site of the grand Stanford White-designed pantheon of great Americans.
Rourke, who directed Hall of Fame for Great Americans activities since 1987, died in August at 80. BCC President Carolyn G. Williams said, “Ralph innately loved history and had a knack for capitalizing on the teachable moment whenever he talked about his beloved Hall of Fame.”
A media specialist at New York University for many years, Rourke helped create “Sunrise Semester,” televised educational programming offered for college credit. On his retirement, he joined BCC as a media consultant. Visitors often found the history in his stories spellbinding as he guided tours of the national shrine to America’s achievers. He never forgot the Hall was on a college campus: “I tell visitors, particularly young students, that achievement is what education is all about,” he once said. It was his mission, he said, “to introduce the sons and daughters of new immigrants to their adopted heritage.”
The Hall of Fame, dedicated in May 1901 on the then-NYU campus, is in the Beaux-Arts style, along with Language and Philosophy Halls and Gould Memorial Library. The 98 bronze portrait busts placed in the 630-foot colonnade were produced by masters of the National Sculptural Society. Among the famed are the predictables (Washington, Lincoln) and the more unusual, like the Wright brothers, the horticulturalist Luther Burbank, and Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first woman to become a professional astronomer in the nation. The most recent arrival, in 1992, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
In spite of Rourke’s passionate publicity for the Hall, it’s likely that the only mention most Americans may have heard about it is in this lyric by CCNY grad Yip Harburg for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz:
In 2001, Rourke and BCC Professor Michael Scanlon collaborated with C-SPAN to create a ten-minute video tour of the Hall of Fame for national broadcast. Visit www.cuny.edu/news and click “video news lab” for streaming excerpts.