Joseph Heaney pushed into a crowd of Hofstra University students, straining to see the big cake.

The 3-foot-tall confection, crafted by the bakery featured in the Food Network show "Ace of Cakes," stood on a platform under a blue-and-yellow tent.

"Can you see it?" Heaney, 82, said to his wife, Anne.

Made to commemorate the university's 75th anniversary, it evoked a campus far bigger than the one he first came to in 1951, part of a surge of enrollment prompted by the GI Bill.

Back then, students attended classes in cramped Quonset huts near Mitchel Field, still in active use by the Air Force.

Heaney had served just shy of a year during World War II, and was about to become eligible for the Korean War draft.

"It was kind of like Afghanistan is now," he said. "People were getting sent over there. People didn't know why. It was a very strange thing."

He graduated in 1953 with a bachelor of business administration in accounting, and re-enlisted with the Marines.

Wearing a gold sash Thursday, he was among the guests of honor, the oldest alumnus to attend the convocation marking the beginning of a yearlong celebration.

The event began with an academic procession - faculty, administrators, a bagpiper and keynote speaker Ted Koppel stepping across the Unispan, a pedestrian walkway over Hempstead Turnpike.

In the John Cranford Adams Playhouse, Koppel good-humoredly thanked the university for inviting him "to speak here - this past Monday. The thought crossed my mind that you've had 75 years. I might not have been your first choice."

Nevertheless, he entertained.

Describing today's journalism as "a hallucinogenic barrage of images," the former anchor of ABC News' "Nightline" encouraged students to discover people television ignores.

"Study the humble," he said.

After the ceremony, everyone sang happy birthday for the cutting of the cake.

Geof Manthorne, 36, executive sous chef for Charm City Cakes, had driven from Baltimore earlier that day with his creation: a fondant Unispan flanked by a replica of the Donald and Joan Axinn Library. The cake contained 130 eggs, 30 pounds of fondant and 20 pounds of butter cream.

Slices in hand, the Heaneys stood on the lawn reflecting on Joseph's student days, his Marine service and his career with Northeast Airlines, later Delta.

"We've had a lot of adventures," he mused.

"I guess we have to say we're part of history," she said.

 

Hofstra history

 

Sept. 23, 1935 - Hofstra College, established as an extension of New York University, holds its first day of classes, on the Hempstead estate of lumber magnate William Hofstra and his wife Kate, with 159 day students and 631 evening students. Annual tuition: $375.

1939 - Hofstra graduates its first four-year class of 83 students. Separates from NYU.

1943 - An Air Force pilot crashes into Barnard Hall during takeoff from Mitchel Field.

1945 - World War II ends, enrollment increases 50 percent.

1948 - First honorary degree awarded to state parks commissioner Robert Moses.

1963 - Hofstra College becomes Hofstra University. Campus becomes accessible to the disabled, 27 years before Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act.

1965 - Martin Luther King, Jr. receives an honorary degree and is commencement speaker.

1970 - The law school opens.

1982 - Hofstra hosts its first presidential conference, on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

1995 - Hofstra's School of Communication is established.

1997 - Billy Joel receives an honorary degree and sings at commencement.

2006 - The Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency is created.

2008 - Hofstra hosts the third, and final, presidential debate.

2010 - Hofstra University School of Medicine, in partnership with North Shore-LIJ Health System begins accepting applications for its first class.

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