New humanities prize honors Cornell friendships

Jay Branegan ’72 and Joe Connolly ’72 had the kind of college friendship that doesn’t end at graduation. They were fraternity brothers, traveled Europe by Eurail one summer and lived together their senior year in college and again after college when they both worked in Chicago.


Two people in front of a wide landscape

Jay Branegan ’72 (left) and Joe Connolly ’72

“We were good friends sophomore year, but best friends after that summer in Europe,” Branegan said. The relationship continued throughout their lives, with one flying off to visit the other in their newest city and the pair staying in touch through letters.

So, when Connolly died suddenly last June, Branegan knew he wanted to honor his friend in some way at Cornell. He worked with Connolly’s friends and family around the world to develop the Joseph E. Connolly ’72 Memorial Prizes, which will be awarded to students starting in the spring of 2022. The prizes support students who want to look at the intersection of religion, politics and society.

“I’m convinced that Joe’s enduring interest in politics and religion led him years later to become, as he put it, ‘the only Irish Catholic in the world lecturing about Quranic banking,'” said Branegan, adding that Connolly majored in government and history and wrote his thesis on the role of conservative Christians in U.S. politics. “Because the role of religion in our politics and society has become more apparent – and more controversial – in the years since he wrote his thesis, I thought it would be great to have a prize at Cornell in his memory to encourage undergrads to study it.”

Although Connolly went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School and have a career in banking and international business, Branegan said Connolly continued to remain curious about everything from politics to religion to language to history. He was a voracious reader who spent the last 20 years of his life teaching in London, Paris, Egypt and the U.S.

Connolly was also on the advisory board of Scholar Rescue, which supports scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries; was a trustee and director of the board of the Association of MBA Schools; and was a commissioner within the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“He was a very smart guy who made friends wherever he went,” said Branegan, who had a globe-trotting career as a journalist himself. “Many have written or called with stories and anecdotes about Joe, reminders of what a special individual he was.” Contributions to the prizes have come from Connolly’s friends, associates and his family, including his 10 nieces and nephews.

“He was the kind of uncle who would give the kids a list of words they had to learn over the summer, then quiz them about using them in a sentence,” said Judy Dinneen, Connolly’s sister. “And they would actually do it for him because he was their beloved uncle.”

All of his nieces and nephews say they learned “so much about so much” from their uncle.

“Joe had such a thirst for living, learning and teaching,” she said. “Known as ‘Oncle Joe’ (oncle is French for uncle) to his nieces and nephews, as well as numerous friends, his love of family and generous spirit was always evident. The tributes our family have received span the globe, Joe truly touched so many hearts and minds. One family friend summed it up, ‘Joe was an interesting man, with brains to burn, full of fun, energy, and life.’ “

The prizes, which will be administered by Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, support imaginative, wide-ranging undergraduate research in the humanities relating to religion, religious beliefs and religious practices in the broadest sense. Two prizes of $500 each will be awarded for essays by students at the freshman, sophomore or junior levels. Two prizes of $1,500 each will be awarded to seniors for a senior honors thesis or capstone project related to these themes. Undergraduates from all colleges will be eligible to apply and applications will be due in April of 2022.

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