Feature

Is Less than Perfect Enough?

“I felt like a complete failure at life. It was bad, and I didn't tell anybody for a really long time.”

— Amy Hagan Ketteran ’97

For years, Amy Hagan Ketteran ’97 seemed to have everything all figured out. A successful muralist and business owner, she was making money doing work she loved, and she was teaching others to do the same. She was president of an international arts organization. She and her husband Mark Ketteran ’97 had a young child and another on the way.

And then the 2008 recession hit. Work dried up. Their credit card bills mounted, and the pair could no longer afford to pay their mortgage. Their electricity got shut off. They struggled just to buy food. “I felt like a complete failure at life,” Amy Ketteran says. “It was bad, and I didn’t tell anybody for a really long time.”

If the struggles that the Ketterans faced would have been difficult for anyone, Amy says that her Grinnell degree made the sting of their circumstances especially sharp. “I was supposed to be smart,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t living up to what I should have done with my education.”

Grinnellians are bright, idealistic, and motivated to succeed. But they are not invincible. A poor decision, a health crisis, a divorce, or a series of unlucky breaks can derail Grinnellians with even the most promising paths ahead of them.

Facing real failures — setbacks that require us to recalibrate our expectations of ourselves or even the trajectory of our lives — can be heartbreakingly painful and disappointing. But they can also make us more empathetic, open us up to the generosity of others, and give us the opportunity to help others struggling with similar issues.

For Amy Ketteran, who is now working as a day care provider and whose family is still digging out from those rough years, a turning point came in 2014. After a frustrating morning, she posted about her struggles for the first time on Everyday Class Notes, a 4,000-alumni-strong Facebook group. “It felt weird, but I knew if I didn’t get it out, I would explode. I needed to talk to someone, and the only people I was going to see that day were under 6 years old.”

She returned to the post a few hours later to find hundreds of supportive responses. “People cared,” she says. “They were there, they were listening, and some of them said, ‘Yeah, my life’s not that great, either.’ I was crying. It made me feel not so by myself.”

Telling the stories and mining the lessons from our darkest moments — or simply the stretches that will never merit a classnote — won’t guarantee that we’ll make our way to some better-than-imagined future. But they can be a welcome counterbalance to the endless stream of upbeat Facebook posts and perfectly filtered Instagram photos that make everyone else’s lives seem flawless. And sharing our setbacks can remind anyone who is struggling that even in a sea of Grinnell success stories, they are not alone.

Climbing the wrong mountain

By all outward appearances, Christine Newkirk ’02 was a Grinnell success story. A strong student at Grinnell, she was thrilled when her adviser helped her line up a top-notch grad school and research opportunity in anthropology that included free tuition, a generous stipend, and the chance to do research in Brazil over several summers with funding from the National Science Foundation. “It was such a huge vote of confidence,” she says of her adviser’s support.

There was just one problem: She wasn’t particularly invested in the topic, cognitive anthropology. Still, it seemed to be the next obvious step in the trajectory of her career, which she assumed would include getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.

And Newkirk had always been good at meeting others’ expectations. “I was really driven to do well and get good grades,” she says. “But that didn’t always include thinking about my own opinions and ideas.”

The focus and drive she had honed to perfection at Grinnell weren’t enough to propel her all the way to a Ph.D. on a topic she didn’t love. She specifically remembers the moment it all came crashing down. On the night she arrived in Brazil for her third summer of research, she knew almost instantly that she’d made a terrible mistake. “I walked into the apartment, and I was bereft,” she recalls. “I just thought, ‘Oh, my God. What have I gotten myself into?’ ”

The next morning, after a run on the beach, she sat down on a wall that overlooked the ocean. As she looked out on the water, she understood with crystal clarity that she couldn’t do the research or the program she’d set out to do. “Even now,” she says, her voice breaking, “it’s still upsetting.”

After four years of grinding away at a topic she couldn’t connect with, Newkirk left her Ph.D. program. She worried that she had disappointed mentors who had believed in her, and she hated knowing she was no longer moving forward in the academic career she thought she wanted.

Since leaving the program, Newkirk has spent years working in nonprofits and mentoring teenagers through a variety of programs. In her role as a high school director at the Heart of Los Angeles, for example, she has particularly zeroed in on the high-achieving kids who seem more focused on garnering praise than finding a passion. “The advice I dispense to them is often about knowing yourself first and then figuring out how to apply yourself, rather than just being concerned about prestige and racking up accomplishment,” she says. “Don’t compare yourself to other people.”

Over the past few years, she has discovered what she is passionate about: education. Now, years later, Newkirk is applying to graduate schools in education, hoping to earn the Ph.D. that eluded her the first time around. She is now more certain in the direction she wants to go, but her previous experiences still weigh heavily on her. “You only live once, and you should go after what you want,” she says. “But the feeling of failure and shame still haunts me.”

Finding a home, and gratitude, in a quieter life

Many times, the lives we carve out for ourselves don’t match up with the grand plans Commencement speakers have dreamed up for us and veer far from even our own ideas of our lives’ trajectories after we graduate.

Alethea Drexler ’00 says she might not have had a clear vision of what awaited her after Grinnell, but she didn’t exactly envision her current life, in which she lives with her parents in a suburb just outside of Houston. She’s there for a complicated mix of reasons — among them, to support her aging parents and save on housing costs so she can live on her modest salary working in the historical archives of the Texas Medical Center. “I don’t have a job that will really support me in a big city. I don’t have a partner or family of my own,” she says. “All of the things that everyone seems to take for granted as cornerstones of life aren’t here.”

She knows she has many things to be grateful for: her health, a job she generally enjoys, parents she loves. Still, she sometimes wishes for a bigger life. “I should have pushed myself harder for my own sake and gotten that library degree, but I’ve lost the steam for it now,” she says. “It’s not as though I’m suffering, but my life is very quiet and small scale.”

Bill Turner ’87, meanwhile, admits he sometimes feels frustrated with his life, which looks little like what he had expected. After sailing through Grinnell and finishing his Ph.D. program almost effortlessly, complete with peer-reviewed and prize-winning papers, his ascent up the academic ladder seemed all but assured.

But after a series of one-year contracts and administrative positions at three universities, he stalled out. He went to law school and graduated, and found work on a legal history project he enjoyed. But it was short-lived. “The HIV that I had been ignoring for two years finally caught up to me, and I had to quit working,” he says. “I muddle along, and at the moment, I have one project I’m working on that may yet allow me to salvage a real life from the current mess. We shall see.”

And while he acknowledges that “we’re never supposed to admit failure,” he says he truly works at feeling gratitude for the good things in his life, including a stable family growing up, a strong education, and being gay, which he believes has allowed him to meet people and have experiences that would have been possible no other way.

A move from reaching up to reaching for each other

In the end, it may be perfectly Grinnellian to go off and change the world; but it is also perfectly Grinnellian to lead a messy, imperfect life. And if Grinnellians are known for their capacity for compassion, perhaps it is time to show some kindness to ourselves and to other Grinnellians. Sharing more honest stories about our own lives, messy and difficult as they are, is a start.

“It’s so hard, when you’re in the trenches, to see that there’s a way out,” says Amy Ketteran. “But if you can be honest about what’s happening to you, you never know who might be out there to help you out. Maybe they’ll just hold your hand for a minute. But sometimes that — just that — can make a difference.”

 

Comic Book Artists Studio Tour

Big Time Attic, the Minneapolis cartooning studio where Zander Cannon ’95 and Kevin Cannon ’02 (no relation) forged their business partnership and later launched solo careers, is a little like your favorite bookstore, toy store, and coffee shop combined. It exudes fun and promises delight.

The evolution of Big Time Attic

Zander and Kevin founded Big Time Attic in 2004 with a third partner. “We thought if we teamed up as this three-part company we could basically be stronger as a unit than individuals,” Kevin says. “That’s when we immediately landed animation jobs with Cartoon Network and a project with Target. And really big stuff kept coming.”

After the animation partner left in 2007, Zander and Kevin focused on illustration and storyboarding.

“For the first seven or eight years, we would work exclusively together on every project,” Kevin says. “I consider those the golden days. We’d be physically across from each other at the table, physically passing pages back and forth.”

Looking at the work later, Zander says he often couldn’t tell whose work was whose.

“It was really good to spend five or six years doing whatever came across, especially adapting to technology,” Zander says. “When I started, computers were barely even a part of it. Everything was done on paper. I was shipping artwork that’s irreplaceable all over creation, hoping it gets there, hoping it gets back.

“It was nice for us to take on jobs that we never knew what we were going to get so we could adapt to that technology, learn a new skill, learn a new program.”

“I think 90 percent of the skills that I have now I was basically forced to learn on the fly over the last 10 years,” Kevin says. “That’s what I love about the variety of client jobs. From designing a family fun center theme park or buttons or websites, I’m always pulling skills that I learned on one job and using them on another job.”

Over the years, they worked on many nonfiction books — about space, evolution, rhetoric.

“I like the [projects] that are like, ‘We’re going to try to explain in the simplest possible terms these vague concepts,’” Zander says. “Where you have to draw things that are noncorporeal.”

“Or don’t even exist,” Kevin adds. “I wish the books we make now were around when we were learning and growing up because they would have been so helpful.”

"There's essentially no money in this business so you should always follow your passion.

—Kevin Cannon ’02

The siren call of fiction

And then for fun, Kevin wrote an arctic adventure graphic novel, Far Arden, published in 2009.“It got nominated for awards and got a lot of critical attention,” Zander says. “Then I did a graphic novel basically in the same mold as Far Arden, called Heck. By the time that was finished, I felt like I really wanted to do fiction again. I hadn’t done fiction for years.”

Heck received critical attention too. After that, Zander says, “The fire went out of me for nonfiction.”

“There’s essentially no money in this business,” Kevin says, “so you should always follow your passion.”

Since fall 2014, Zander’s passion has been funneled into his own monthly comic book series, KAIJUMAX, about giant monsters in a maximum-security prison. “It’s for diehard fans of monster movies and prison movies. It’s so genre-based,” Zander says.

It takes him five or six weeks to create a comic. “I’m writing and penciling and inking and lettering and coloring. I’m writing the letters pages. Basically everything. I have one assistant on colors,” he says.

“I used to be a little more like let’s jump in and do page one. Now when I’m doing KAIJUMAX, I do it all visually before I write a word because that gives me the pacing of it, and I make sure there are no boring panels. They all have to communicate something visually.

“Only when I’m doing tightened up pencils do I actually do final dialogue. It helps too because it keeps me from being too wordy and lets me see what I have already explained through the visuals.”

The series has a six-issue season, similar to a TV season. “Then I get a break,” Zander says.

The first season “ends on sort of a cliffhanger, but basically that starts a new story,” Zander says. “I like each issue to have its own little episode and its own little arc and each season to have its own arc and really tell a story. I want to skip ahead in time for the second [season] so that it really starts fresh. If that’s the first issue you pick up, you’re not behind.”

With all the work involved in producing a monthly comic, he no longer takes on clients.

“All the stuff that I used to be doing I can’t do anymore,” Zander says.

Zander Cannon using a stylus on a touch screen to color a panel

Zander Cannon ’95 draws his comic book series, KAIJUMAX, entirely on the computer. “It has its quirks, like any other tool,” he says, “but I’d never be able to keep up if I did it on paper.”

An approach to nonfiction comics

“I’m the opposite,” Kevin says. “I think my career has gone more down the path of client-driven. Small projects. Big projects. And very diverse projects from mugs for Starbucks in Seattle all the way to doing large graphic novels.”

In 2014 Kevin co-wrote The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy, published in 2015 by Hill and Wang. His co-author, philosopher Michael Patton, supplied a prose document that provided the chief narrative conceit of a river and the basic points of view of the major philosophers.

“Experts are too wordy,” Zander says. “When you’re writing comics, you can’t make those word balloons longer than a Tweet. We’ll be able to do a better job at coming up with metaphors and narrative structure.”

“I took the master document and broke the whole thing down into an outline to try to tease out what the major elements were,” Kevin says. “I created a script out of it, which was actually kind of easy after doing 1,000 pages of personal graphic novel stuff. At a certain point, you get into the rhythm. I could see a joke clearly goes here. Here’s a good page break.

“Visuals all came later. It’s all white guys. How do you make them distinct? I really wanted to push the caricature aspect of each of the philosophers so when people heard Descartes, they saw this guy with this mustache and this flowing hair.”

How comics have changed

“There are essentially no rules in the comic book industry anymore,” Kevin says, “which is exciting. On one hand, it’s a very Wild West atmosphere, but it’s also a little frightening too to people like us who grew up with this track to become a comic book artist, and now we just have to wing it for the rest of our lives.”

“Twenty years ago you could be a letterer,” Zander says. “You could be an inker. You can’t be that anymore. You have to be a creative person with a lot of abilities or you have to be a graphic designer. You can’t be a drone anymore in comics because computers have taken all that away in a good way.

“It increases my appreciation for pen and paper but only for the things that pen and paper really provide,” Zander says. “If I was going to draw something with a pen, I wouldn’t make it neat. I hand-letter the book even on the screen. I like keeping a little bit of that wiggle.”

When they were kids

“I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, like Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield,” Kevin says. “Doing the cartoon for The Scarlet & Black was my way of feeling out that process. I had so much freedom, I realized I could never do this professionally.” He drew Johnny Cavalier all four years at Grinnell, in addition to trying other gag strips. Kevin also contributed to The Grinnell Magazine for nine years.

“From about 12 on, I wanted to be a comic book artist,” Zander says. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and did cover illustrations. “Some knucklehead would turn in seven inches instead of 11 so I’d have to fill in.”

At Grinnell, Zander majored in English and worked in theatre. “Theatre was where I felt you were doing art with a purpose,” he says. “Pip Gordon [former assistant professor of theatre] was the tech director and was essentially my adviser. She was really sharp about the use of art in narrative and set design and costume design.”

Kevin majored in art, specifically painting. “I thought the Grinnell art department was great for getting the classical art foundation. I had a great friend in Bobbie McKibbin [professor of art], who was my adviser. She paid attention to what we were interested in. Next class she’d have a stack of books of famous artists so we were constantly inspired.”

Making art and making a living

“There’s a constant struggle between doing what’s asked of you, doing what you think is important, and doing what you want to do, what you need to do as a creative person,” Zander says. “You’re writing stuff that’s meant to sell. Trying to reconcile that commercial aspect of what sells with the things that are in your mind, that preoccupy you, that you want to get out in a piece of art, and hiding them, in my case, in a silly genre story, I don’t think that anything really prepares you for that.”

“I’ll definitely have periods where I feel sort of a void,” Kevin says, “where I’m constantly doing projects that other people tell me to do. It helps me pay rent, but there’s nothing coming from inside. I’m not telling my stories. It’s always good to have a balance. You have to make time to tell your own personal stories.”

“On the flip side, I think there’s a lot of people who only want to tell what’s inside them,” Zander adds. “I feel like those people wash out pretty quick. You can’t throw yourself 100 percent into everything. They ask for a logo. Give ’em a logo. Don’t give ’em a $20 million ad campaign. Save your care for something that deserves it.”

The Other Cannon

Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon on couch at Big Time AtticLearn more about Zander and Kevin Cannon, Comic Book Artists.

The Other Cannon! cartoon panel

Before entering Grinnell College I had never published any drawings or even met a real-life cartoonist. The comics world was a strange and unfamiliar universe to me. That is, until I met... The Other Cannon! An As True As I Can Remember It(tm) Historical Account by Kevin Cannon ’02

[panel] Kevin, bearded and wearing a plaid shirt and G cap, strolling past Gates/Rawson tower. Text: It all started in the fall of 1998 when I tried my hand at drawing political cartoons for the Scarlet & Black...

[panel] Younger Kevin hand-drawing a cartoon at desk. Kevin: Kids are gonna love this Starr Report joke!

[panel] Xander Jacobs ’96 leans around the corner of a building and catches Kevin's attention. Text: Okay, so my first strips weren't exactly a hit, but they caught the eye of a recent graduate... Xander: PSST!! Are you Zanders's brother? Kevin: Who???

[panel] Xander grins at a surprised Kevin. Xander: You know... Zander Cannon, the greatest cartoonist who ever went to Grinnell! Kevin: Never heard of him!

[panel] Kevin dashes to Burling Library. Text: So who was this strange peron who had the same last name as me, went to the same college (class of ’95), and wrote cartoons for the same paper?? I was intrigued. Kevin: To the microfilm room!!

[panel]Kevin looking at microfilm of old Booperman comics by Zander Cannon. Text: Turns out this other Cannon was pretty darn talented. Kevin: Hot dog!

[panel] Kevin types a message on an old Macintosh computer, with pictures posted on the wall behind him. Text: Using a relatively new form of communication called "electronic mail," I contact the elder cannon to ask a burning question: Are we related?

[panel] Star struck Kevin, with liberal stars in his eyes, meets Zander. Text: Three summers later, after a little begging on my part, Zander hired me as his intern. Finally, on a warm day on 10th & Nicollet in Minneapolis, we got to meet in person... Zander: So, kid, you ready to make some comics?

[panel] Bearded Kevin and Zander sharing a table while drawing cartoons. So that's how I met the great Zander Cannon. We would go on to work together for the next fifteen years.

Kevin: Turns out we're not technically related... but we may as well be.

END!

 

The Essence of Inquiry

Student research opportunities at Grinnell are abundant and diverse. In 2014–15, 40 percent of students completed a Mentored Advanced Project or MAP — a distinctive Grinnell program that provides exposure to research methods, collaboration with faculty, and deep career insights. It’s one reason why Grinnell ranks seventh among all private and public national institutions for graduating students who go on to earn Ph.D.s.

Translating new knowledge

Queenster Nartey ’16 earned “outstanding presentation” honors at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Seattle last November.

“There were huge research institutions represented in divisions like neuroscience, math, cell biology, microbiology,” Nartey says. “The judges that came to hear about my research were like, ‘This all took place at Grinnell?’ Yep, this happened at a small, rural liberal arts college in Iowa. They were really amazed.”

Queenster Nartey '16 and Shannon Hinsa-Leasure in the labNartey, a biological chemistry major, shared findings from her MAP that could have major implications for health care environments where harmful bacteria pose a threat.

“Hospital-acquired infections are a big concern,” Nartey says. “If a doctor touches a door handle and then examines a patient who has an incision still healing, that’s a way for bacteria to enter into the bloodstream and spread to different organs.

“Copper is an anti-microbial agent; it kills bacteria by disrupting the outer membrane and degrading the DNA,“ Nartey explains. “For this research we were hoping that with copper on surfaces like door handles, light switches, IV poles, and keyboards, we could minimize bacterial growth and hospital-acquired infections.”

Nartey collected samples for analysis at Grinnell Regional Medical Center. The hospital is partnering in the study by implementing copper alloy surfaces on high-touch areas in patient rooms and examination areas.

Petrie dish with bateriaComparing samples to those from her stainless steel control, Nartey documented a significant decrease in bacterial growth for the copper alloys. She is continuing her MAP this semester to test further for resistant bacteria and to sequence for genus and species.

“Being pre-med, it’s wonderful being part of this translational research where I see the direct impact of the results right away,” Nartey says.

Nartey’s MAP, mentored by Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, exemplifies faculty-directed research that leverages partnerships and funding for capstone-type opportunities. Nartey says having published papers as an undergraduate will help facilitate her access into a fellowship position after graduation and eventual application into an M.D./Ph.D. program.

“Queenster has become an invaluable member of our hospital research team,” Hinsa-Leasure says. “Her attention to detail and mastery of laboratory techniques have allowed us to expand on our initial studies and gather enough data to tell a complete story. I appreciate her strong interpersonal skills that have allowed her to work effortlessly with all types of care providers at the hospital and her vision for where to move the project next.”

Tying it all together

Josie Bircher ’16, a biochemistry and math double major, is using her math skills to help advance chemistry professor Mark Levandoski‘s studies on receptors in the brain linked to nicotine addiction.

Josie Bircher '16 and a laptop displaying mathematical modeling

Bircher says mathematical approaches are gaining favor in biology and biochemistry due to computing power that provides fast results on multiple simultaneous calculations. Her research could ultimately help lead to drug therapies that effectively treat nicotine addiction.

“The whole point of mathematical modeling is to generate predictive power,” Bircher explains. “If a model matches with experimental data when the receptor is in the presence of one drug, then we can predict how this receptor might act in the presence of another drug, or in the presence of a different amount of drug. We can use the model to then make predictions for other cases to get a general idea of how the receptor works.”

Bircher’s work expands on what students did in previous years, and she values the continuity that’s built into system. “I relied heavily on what people had done in the past and the final papers they wrote, so those really help in continuing the process.” Bircher says. “It’s a huge benefit of the structure of the MAP.”

Each MAP proposal is “essentially proof that you’ve put a lot of work into it and that the project is well thought out,” Bircher says. “It’s also a justification of the research question, how it’s relevant to previous work, what you plan to contribute to the field, and how it relates to your previous studies, because the MAP is supposed to be a culmination of all of your prior coursework in an advanced level.”

Bircher attributes the success of her current MAP to what she has learned in her math classes and sees the research process as intrinsically valuable regardless of what a student might choose as a career direction.

“As I’m planning on being a researcher, it’s been perfectly aligned with what I want to do in the future, but I think that your final goal doesn’t have to be research to do a MAP and to be involved in the research process,” Bircher says. “I think it really helps tie together everything you do in classes, and experiencing this type of research firsthand instead of just reading about it is largely beneficial.”

Levandoski says the value of research to an undergraduate education cannot be overstated, even beyond the fact that students involved in research often become full collaborators, conference presenters, and publication co-authors in the process.

“By its integrative nature, a research experience affords students some opportunities for growth that are rarely possible in regular coursework,” Levandoski says. “Students gain independence and confidence as they work to figure things out for themselves, drawing on their previous experiences.

“Some of my most rewarding interactions with research students have come from observing their ‘Eureka!’ moments — not about the science itself, but about the discovery of their passion for it. You can’t put that in a textbook or a syllabus.”

Collaborating in the field

Two summers ago, Rebecca Rasmussen ’16 and Edward Hsieh ’16 helped find what turned out to be the largest supercolony of ants ever recorded in North America. By “large,” we mean from Iowa to the Appalachian Mountains.

The success of that project earned them both an invitation from Jackie Brown, professor of biology, to do a MAP in summer 2015 on Big Island, Hawaii.

Both students accepted, and by mid-May they were planning preliminary field studies to help Brown and Idelle Cooper ’01, assistant professor of biology at James Madison University in Virginia, find out why some female damselflies are red and others are green.

“I was looking at a behavioral biology aspect because we wanted to see if the females were evolving this color dimorphism because of sexual selection,” Rasmussen says. For two months, she and other researchers stalked damselflies at various sites near Naalehu, the southernmost town in the United States.

“Our main hypothesis was ecological selection, so I was testing the alternative,” Rasmussen says. Her findings indicated that sexual selection was minimal. “What we saw goes along with what Professor Brown and Professor Cooper have been positing, which is promising for their research,” she says.

Hsieh tested for chemical properties related to the color morphs. “In the ant project I looked at their particular hydrocarbons, and in this one I looked at antioxidant chemicals to see what potentially helped protect damselflies against UV radiation depending on the elevation,” Hsieh says.

Hsieh’s early findings contradicted expectations that red pigment signals protection from UV stress. He found that the redder the damselfly, the lower its antioxidant capability. “We have a couple of theories as to why that might be so,” Hsieh says. “It’s still pretty open-ended and we’re continuing to work on it.”

Brown, who along with Cooper received National Science Foundation funding for the damselfly project, says, “Working with Edward and Rebecca on two different projects has highlighted for me both their talents and the value of our research-based curriculum in preparing students for meaningful participation in research.

“Each has built on their particular experience with the ant project, but in a completely new setting,” Brown says. “We’ll be working hard together during their senior year to submit these results for publication.”

Rasmussen says the collaborative research processes have made her feel “more prepared for going to graduate school in biology, if that’s the route I decide to take. Going through the planning stage, executing it, and then summarizing it is, I think, applicable to any career field.”

As an undergraduate, Rasmussen says, it is satisfying to do work that adds knowledge to a field. “It is pretty exciting to find things that could seriously contribute or that turn out to be an unusual finding that is worth reporting,” she says.

“I was originally interested in doing biological field research,” Hsieh says of his MAP experience, “and these opportunities gave me a lot of experience in what I would expect to do if I were to continue in that vein.”

Even fieldwork has its perks, and because damselfly research is highly weather dependent, the research team used rainy days to seek out diversions that included Hawaii’s mix of Asian cuisine, volcanoes, and black sand beaches.

“One morning it was raining, so we went to a beautiful beach for snorkeling,” Hsieh says. “We swam with sea turtles, and then farther out we found a giant pod of 30-plus dolphins.

“We were swimming with dolphins,” Hsieh says. “It was one of the coolest experiences of my life. And it was on my 21st birthday. It was awesome.”

 

The Iowa Caucuses

While Grinnell College has a long and intentional history of encouraging participation and advocacy on public issues, the national significance of Iowa’s political party caucuses is relatively recent and quite accidental.

Grinnell’s involvement with public policy is as old as the College, dating back to abolitionist activities in the 1850s. The struggle against slavery developed into a tradition that continues to this day, having progressed through the Social Gospel Movement following the Civil War, the Progressive Era into the early 20th century, and the New Deal of the 1930s. In the latter instance, a number of Grinnellians served with distinction, including Chester Davis 1911 on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, Florence Kerr 1912, a Works Progress Administration executive, and Harry Hopkins 1912, a close adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a major architect of the New Deal’s many administrative and legislative measures.

During the 1960s, Grinnell’s Program for Practical Political Education (PPPE) flourished, sponsoring elaborate mock political conventions in Darby Gym and bringing to campus a long list of luminaries, including former Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. However, the loss of foundation funding, the disruptions of the Vietnam War, and the reduction of the voting age to 18 via the 26th Amendment in 1971 caused both resources and motivation for the PPPE to dwindle. Many students, no longer restricted to mock political activities, took advantage of their new opportunity and became directly involved in politics of real consequence.

Iowa’s Caucus

The Iowa political party caucus system, like the Grinnell tradition of public policy involvement, dates back to the mid-19th century when statehood was attained in 1846. The precinct caucuses continued through the years, lightly attended and little noticed beyond the state until 1972. In that year, the national Democratic Party established new rules to democratize its presidential nomination process. Those changes, plus state party regulations requiring at least 30 days between consecutive meetings at the precinct, county, district, and state levels, pushed each of those sessions backward until January 24 became the latest possible date for the Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses.

New Hampshire, traditionally the first state to hold a presidential primary, had already scheduled its 1972 elections for March 7, six weeks after the Iowa date. Precinct caucuses, only the first of four steps in choosing delegates to a national convention where a nominee for president is selected, seemed innocuous. New Hampshire took little notice and did not contest the earlier date of the Iowa event.

However, the national media, always eager for news on a presidential race, responded quickly when U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., did surprisingly well in the Iowa caucus, placing second behind supposed front-runner U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine. When McGovern went on to win the Democratic nomination, the stage was set for the Iowa caucus to become of great significance in subsequent presidential elections.

Iowa’s Rise to Prominence

The national importance of the Iowa Democratic Party’s precinct caucus caught the attention of their Republican opponents. Starting in 1976, the Republicans would thereafter hold their caucus on the same day as the Democrats, adding to Iowa’s impact on the selection of presidents.

A little known governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter also recognized the growing potential of the Iowa caucus. With the White House in mind and his term of office completed, Carter commenced his presidential campaign in Iowa nearly a year before the 1976 precinct caucuses.

Carter’s grassroots campaign across Iowa featured hundreds of personal appearances, including one at the Grinnell College Forum, and tens of thousands of handshakes. His standard introduction, “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be the next president of the United States,” was planted in the ears of thousands of Iowans.

Jimmy Carter’s lengthy person-to-person campaign in Iowa proved to be successful when he won 28 percent of the Iowa Democratic caucus vote, more than double that of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., and thereby moved from obscurity to a front-runner status. One year after the Iowa caucus of 1976, Carter became the 39th president of the United States.

The Republican campaign of 1976 added additional drama in the race for the White House when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford for the party nomination. Several Grinnellians entered the fray.

Bruce Weindruch ’78 and colleagues Jim Strickler ’78, Gregg Edwards ’80, and Jack Dane ’79 participated in the Republican caucus and supported Ford’s nomination. They also raised the issues of decriminalization of marijuana and divestment in South Africa. While Ford later won the party nomination, Weindruch and his partners had little luck at the caucus with their issue priorities.

“Policy discussions were dominated by the ‘right-to-life’ issue in the aftermath of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision,” Weindruch remembers. Reagan supporters came from out of state and pushed hard on that issue. It became a litmus test, a kind of ‘Are you with us or against us?’ sort of thing.”

Dane, in his freshman year at Grinnell, attended a precinct caucus in the living room of his parents’ farm home outside Iowa City. Four people attended: Jack, his mother, his father, and his sister. Jack was elected to the county convention by — no surprise — a unanimous vote.

From that beginning, Dane participated in the district and state party meetings, and later attended the Republican national convention in Kansas City as an invited, college-age activist. On the convention floor he carried a sign reading “Grinnell, Iowa, loves Jerry and Bob.” Dane originally had in mind Gerald Ford, the incumbent president, and Bob Ray, the governor of Iowa. In the meantime, however, the convention had selected U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., as Ford’s vice presidential running mate. Thus, the sign made sense in any case.

Network television cameras picked up the young Jack Dane with shoulder-length hair and wearing cutoff jeans. “Anyone who watched the convention had to wonder who the hell I was and what I was doing there,” recalls Dane, now an attorney in Davenport, Iowa.

Four decades later, Weindruch reflects on those days: “My experience as president of the Grinnell College Republicans and grass-roots involvement in Iowa county and state politics had a profound impact on me — only to be fully understood in hindsight many years later. I would describe it as the equivalent of a political ‘post-traumatic shock syndrome.’ ”

Strickler’s recollections on his Grinnell experience mirror the College’s traditional mission. “What I got out of this experience was the opportunity to discuss and argue political issues, to learn that political involvement is rewarding and enriching of one’s life, and to understand multiple perspectives on issues. I came to appreciate a variety of viewpoints and gained understanding on how people can disagree on issues.”

Edwards, another of the Weindruch group, was raised in New Jersey, where Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans. “We Republicans had to hustle hard in New Jersey,” Edwards remembers. “I found much the same at Grinnell College. You have to get used to losing a lot, and that toughened my hide.”

Edwards has kind words for Grinnell professors who didn’t always share his group’s political views: “They admired our pluck and treated us fairly.”

Edwards stayed in Iowa after graduating in 1980 to run for the state House of Representatives. Unfortunately, he again learned the trials of losing. If he had won, he might still live in Iowa, something he says, “I wouldn’t mind at all.”

Gatekeeper to the White House

The McGovern campaign in 1972 revealed the potential of the Iowa caucus in the presidential race, and Carter proved four years later the Iowa caucus could serve as a launch pad to the presidency. The lessons learned from those two campaigns were not lost on presidential candidates or the media as the 1980 presidential selection cycle began, a year when Iowa would become nationally recognized as the gatekeeper on the road to the White House.

All three major television networks established temporary studios in Des Moines in 1980. On Jan. 21, the evening of the caucus, the three news anchors — Walter Cronkite (CBS), John Chancellor (NBC), and Frank Reynolds (ABC) — journeyed to Iowa’s capital city to originate their evening news programs. Iowa, for the first time, surpassed New Hampshire for presidential campaign news stories.

Also in 1980, the Iowa Republican Party added a new feature to the presidential campaign that attracted even more media attention, a straw poll conducted five months prior to the caucus. Held on the Iowa State University campus in an atmosphere of half-carnival and half-convention, nine Republican candidates sought to get a jump on the party nomination. “The action begins in Iowa,” George H.W. Bush, winner of the straw poll, proclaimed with exuberance.

Bush followed his victory in Ames with the Carter strategy of “retail politics,” meeting face-to-face with as many voters as possible. He made dozens of stops across Iowa, including one in Grinnell where he was accompanied by his then-young sons, George, who would be elected president in 2000; and Jeb, who aspires to the same outcome in 2016.

Reagan, the Republican front-runner, largely bypassed the Iowa caucus, making only one stop in the state to deliver a quick speech at the Des Moines airport. When he lost to Bush, a lesson was learned by all presidential candidates: Pay attention to Iowa!

Reagan later won the Republican nomination for president, but his erstwhile opponent had made his mark in the Hawkeye State. Bush became Reagan’s vice president and later succeeded him in the Oval Office.

President Carter was challenged in the 1980 Democratic caucus by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., whose many visits to the state included speaking to a packed house in Darby Gym. Carter trounced Kennedy, 59 percent to 29 percent, in the caucus vote. The senator from Massachusetts continued his campaign, but never recovered from that devastating defeat.

Iowa’s presidential caucuses, now fully recognized as important national events, inspired greater local participation. In 1976, the Republican precinct caucus for the West Lucas Township of Johnson County attracted only Jack Dane and his family. Four years later, nearly 100 people crammed into the Danes’ living room to caucus.

The 2016 Election Approaches

While Grinnell’s tradition of equipping students to participate in public policy issues is firmly established, Iowa’s key role in presidential elections, although widely accepted, is still evolving.

States still jockey for position and influence in the selection of presidents, a century after presidential primaries were first established. Over the years, New Hampshire became accepted by other states, begrudgingly, as the lead-off primary. And then Iowa innocently slipped under the radar with its precinct caucuses that were knighted by the media into national prominence.

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole ’71, R-Okla., has a high regard for the Iowa caucus system, except for the Republican straw poll, calling it “stacked and packed” and “one of the worst inventions ever.” The poll lost much of its luster during the 2012 campaign when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won that event but placed only sixth in the caucus five months later and dropped out of the race. The last straw for the straw poll came when several high profile candidates in 2015 decided not to participate. The cancellation did not disappoint Cole.

Cole acknowledges the Iowa caucus is “very important” and “the first real test in the presidential race,” and calls the state’s voters “a sophisticated electorate.” The congressman says there is “some resentment” in Washington over Iowa’s special role in presidential elections, but he is comfortable with it, saying that Iowa, unlike many states, is politically competitive.

As the 2016 presidential election approaches, the significance of Iowa is very much in evidence. The day after announcing her bid for the presidency in the spring of 2015, Hillary Clinton headed for Iowa. The first official event in her campaign was not held in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, but in an auto tech classroom in Monticello, Iowa.

At last count nearly two dozen declared candidates for the presidency are appearing all over Iowa. Whether it’s Donald Trump addressing a crowd in Winterset in front of a mural of John Wayne; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., schmoozing with patrons of the Better Day Café in Storm Lake; or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, appearing at the “Field of Dreams” in Dyersville, they all come to Iowa.

The participation of Grinnellians in the 2016 presidential selection process is an absolute certainty. A tradition that started in the 19th century battling the evils of slavery in the abolitionist movement continues into the 21st with the confrontation of environmental and other issues. The Iowa caucuses will be held Feb. 1, 2016. Grinnellians will be there, continuing a legacy of seeking solutions to the major public policy issues of our time.

 

Making Marijuana Legal

When Brian Vicente ’99 graduated from law school, some of his professors told him that the field of marijuana policy would be career suicide. Instead, Vicente turned it into a career path. After building his nonprofit organization into a force for marijuana policy change, Vicente went on to co-author the law that would make Colorado the first geographic area in the world to legalize and regulate the possession, sale, production, and distribution of adult-use marijuana.

In November 2012, the Colorado law known as Amendment 64 passed by a 10 percent voter margin. Vicente not only was instrumental in crafting the language and co-chairing the Amendment 64 campaign, he led the 2013 campaign that shaped the law’s tax policy.

Calling itself “the marijuana law firm,” Vicente Sederberg LLC is the banner under which Vicente advocated for legalization and now advises marijuana industry clients. In this interview, Vicente talks about his trailblazing journey.

How did you, a psychology major at Grinnell, become interested in law and dedicated to the field of marijuana policy?

After Grinnell I moved to Colorado to be a snowboard bum and to figure things out. I knew I wanted a job that would allow me to provide a public service and have a positive influence. For me, that broke down into two segments: direct services or broader policy change. Law seemed like a logical way to impact policy, and I ended up getting a full ride to the University of Denver law school.

While there, I began to work on behalf of a medical marijuana patient and was able to assist folks in trying to shift the marijuana laws. That exposed me to individuals who were absolutely receiving medical benefit from using the substance. It led me to rethink all we’ve been taught about the drug war and that marijuana is a horrible substance. I began to think of it as a possible career path to advocate to change laws I thought were broken, so I founded a nonprofit organization called Sensible Colorado that tried to get funding to work on marijuana policy issues. I ran that organization for the first several years of my professional career and essentially became an expert on marijuana policy.

I started the law firm in 2010 to advocate for these policy shifts as well as to represent marijuana businesses. The nonprofit entity is still around, but it’s sort of a unique animal in that we accomplished our mission. In 2004 our mission was to legalize marijuana in Colorado, and in 2012 we actually accomplished that.

My priority now is to make sure that Colorado’s marijuana laws continue to be responsible in terms of their implementation. What we’ve done is remarkable in that we’ve shifted from 80 years of prohibition into this new era of regulating marijuana. Colorado is really the test case to see how that regulation is going to unfold, so a lot of my time is spent working with government entities and addressing any issues that come up with the legalization of marijuana.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your work, the social/legal issues or regulation/taxation details?

It’s all pretty interesting and intellectually stimulating. The challenge was that I essentially advocated for almost a decade to get us to the point where we are now, and I was running into opposition — from government, law enforcement, angry parents, what have you — that was resistant to change. We dealt with a lot of negativity. Ultimately, I think we presented a strong case to the voters that regulation was better than prohibition. Now, a lot of it is just ironing out the details, whether it’s taxation or whether local communities should allow these stores or not.

You have been called “the marijuana industry’s de facto spokesman.” Has that changed your life personally and professionally?

I wouldn’t say it has been a major change. When I graduated from law school and began working in marijuana policy, it was not considered a popular area to go into. Some people, including some of my professors, said it was career suicide and a mistake. But, for me, this is a social justice battle, and I felt like it was worth fighting. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work with a great team. We’ve developed really strong policies here, and part of that involves advising newly licensed marijuana businesses and making sure they are responsible actors. In terms of my speaking on behalf of the industry, it’s really about demonstrating that there is a responsible face to this industry and having sustainable businesses being community partners going forward.

Are you being approached to consult other regions of the country or the world where policies are being changed or about to be changed?

We are being asked, and that is one of the really interesting and gratifying things. Prior to Colorado’s vote, I think the idea of marijuana legalization was very abstract for people around the world. When Colorado stepped forward with legalization, regulation, sales, and the licensing of businesses, it became real and it sort of crystallized in people’s heads. We get contacted weekly by elected officials and others who are interested in visiting Colorado and learning about our experiences in passing and implementing the law. It’s very heartening. We’re certainly aware that the eyes of the world are on Colorado.

How did the law firm come to exist in its current form?

With Sensible Colorado I got grant funding to do policy work, represent medical marijuana patients, and things like that. I ran the nonprofit — and the law firm for the first couple of years when it was only myself — out of the basement of the house I rented. It was not a glorious time, but again, we were building. In 2010, there were several hundred [medical] marijuana businesses that were not licensed at the state level. Our state legislature had a decision to make that year: Are we going to license these businesses and set up a regulatory framework, or are we going to ban them?

So I got very active in the Capitol to push our legislature toward regulating the medical industry as opposed to banning it. At that point I partnered with a business law attorney, Christian Sederberg, and we carried forth together. For me, that moment in 2012 when we legalized marijuana represented an incredible and somewhat unprecedented coalescing of two things. You have massive social change — that is, the state deciding to legalize marijuana and begin unwinding the war on drugs — butting up against an opportunity for commerce. Colorado didn’t just decriminalize marijuana; we actually set up a licensing structure for people to sell and grow and produce marijuana. It is an interesting moment where those two exciting prongs are intersecting.

How does the state stand to benefit from legalization and regulation?

The way that we wrote Amendment 64 and the tax campaign that passed in 2013 is that the first $40 million of the excise tax goes to public school construction every year. Then there is a 15 percent sales tax additionally to fund the regulatory structure, as well as public education around marijuana. So we think there will be about $70 million of new tax revenue coming into the state coffers every year from these sales. That’s remarkable because marijuana had been sold for decades in Colorado, but that money was just going into the hands of the underground market. Now the state is collecting that money and using it for positive purposes.

How have government and law enforcement officials reacted to Amendment 64?

There has been acceptance in Colorado among law enforcement and government officials of this voter-approved change. Law enforcement certainly is not arresting people in large numbers for marijuana anymore, so I think we certainly have freed up law enforcement resources to focus on more serious crime.

For years the largest opponent of marijuana legalization was the government, federal and local. We did not have much support for the change that occurred in 2012 from government officials, but I will give them credit. Since we won by a 10 percent margin, every wing of our state government has decided to move forward thoughtfully and responsibly with implementing this law and fulfilling the will of the voters.

Our governor, John Hickenlooper, historically has not been a proponent of marijuana legalization, but to his credit, when this passed he committed to making it work and to push for banking solutions. He talked to the federal government about how to move it forward. It’s a very interesting legal shift. We have this dichotomy where marijuana is federally illegal but legal in certain states. Twenty-three states have medical marijuana, and four states (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska) now have legal marijuana for adult use with Colorado leading the way. It’s an interesting moment in time.

How did your Grinnell experience influence you?

To a certain extent my time at Grinnell was formative in terms of launching my professional career. I developed some critical thinking skills that led me to analyze policies, such as the drug war, and to think about solutions that maybe hadn’t been tried before, such as marijuana legalization, and to not be discouraged from moving forward with them. Also, Grinnell’s policy of self-governance had an impact on me and led me to think perhaps there are alternatives to some of the constraints on society and more positive ways to move forward.

Rock and Roll and Beyond

At 89, Georgia Dentel’s recall for conversations with people 50 years ago is clear and eloquent, much like her voice. From her easy chair at the Mayflower Community Health Center in Grinnell, she tells stories about performers and agents and concert promoters. The longer she talks, the stronger her voice becomes.

In 1960 when President Howard Bowen interviewed Dentel for the new position of activities counselor, he said, “I need activities. I need things happening for the students to do. I need to establish some sort of weekend activity, but I don’t know what that should be.”

“He didn’t know what kind of things he wanted,” Dentel says. She arrived on campus that fall not completely certain what her duties were. So she met with various students and formed a committee to oversee new ideas.

One of the early speakers was a local insurance man who talked about marriage. He got the best response, Dentel says.

“It emerged gradually that the only thing students wanted were concerts,” she says. “They wanted rock and roll.” There were a couple of bands in Iowa, but Dentel hated to bring them because they weren’t very good, she says.

“It occurred to me that the best bands of the country were at Fillmore East and Fillmore West,” Dentel says of the music venues in New York City and San Francisco, respectively. So she called Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter and artist manager who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. “I asked him if he had any bands that would make a trip to the Midwest for the Grinnell College homecoming. For the amount of money we could offer — it was very small — I can’t believe I had the nerve to ask him.

“He said, ‘No, I really don’t.’ But we talked a little while. I told him I wanted only the best. I didn’t want a lot of trashy stuff.

“He said, ‘I don’t have anybody right now, but there’s a band I’m thinking of bringing into the Fillmore. They’re playing in a club.’”

Even though Graham didn’t say so explicitly, Dentel could tell that the band wasn’t making much money, so the College could probably afford them.

“Just as we were about to hang up,” Dentel says, “I said, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s their name?’

Jefferson Airplane played for Grinnell’s homecoming dance, Oct. 22, 1966.

The early days

“Music was in my life always,” Dentel says. She played clarinet in the concert band and marching band at the University of Iowa, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English and history in 1948.

When she arrived at Grinnell in 1960, “music was largely out of a jukebox,” Dentel says. The jukebox was in the Student Union, a former Army barracks in about the same location as the Forum, which was then in the planning stages.

The Student Union was a “rickety wooden building,” says John Gleysteen ’63, “but to us a very lively place.” As chairman of the Student Union his junior year and social coordinator his senior year, Gleysteen worked closely with Dentel.

“She was very helpful to me in making suggestions of who to bring for what time,” Gleysteen says. “She obviously knew her field. We all had our ideas as to what we wanted to do. She didn’t make an effort to intercede and do things her way instead of our way. She was truly there to facilitate.”

Jack Spence ’64, concerts chair in 1963–64, agrees. “Georgia asked for suggestions and offered suggestions,” he says. “She played an entrepreneurial role and a mediator role. Her goal, I think, was having events spread throughout the year instead of one big concert. I can remember her sort of cajoling us. She’d say, ‘If we have such and such a group, we can afford this, but it means we’ll have fewer groups.’”

At that time, most colleges were giving one big dance per semester. For the 1963 Christmas Formal at Grinnell, Count Basie played, and for the 1964 Spring Formal, Louis Armstrong played.

Learning on the job

Dentel says, “There were some students who had wonderful record collections. Students knew more about the artists than I did, but I knew how to get in touch with them.”

Figuring out how to book artists was the main thing she had to learn. “When I was learning about this, it was really self-taught,” she says. “I became acquainted with a couple of bands playing in Cedar Rapids. This fellow turned out to be a pretty good source of people in Chicago, and it kind of gradually developed.”

When it came to negotiating about money, Dentel says, “I just had to work with what I had. Some of these bands became very, very expensive as time went on, but at first they were up against it as far as money was concerned.”

Gary Giddins ’70, concerts chair in 1967–68 and social coordinator for 1968–69, says, “What I discovered was any band that tours, they hate a night without a gig. Maybe they’re doing Chicago and St. Louis. We’d get bands for a decent price — Duke Ellington’s 15-piece band for $4,000, whereas a three-piece rock band was $12,000.

“Georgia really understood that jazz groups were getting a fraction that rock groups were getting and that my obligation was to provide something every month,” Giddins says. “Since I loved jazz, she made it very clear to me that I could probably do something every month — B.B. King, the Carter family, Doc Watson. Whereas if you have a rock band, you squander your whole thing on one night.

“Georgia knew every agent, and if she didn’t, she never questioned me — my taste or me. She gave me a lot of leeway that way. And then she’d take over as soon as I gave her the telephone number. She’d make the deal.”

Even when she was able to pull off something fabulous — like a Pete Seeger concert — she sometimes got pushback. “Some faculty didn’t like that Pete Seeger was on a weeknight,” she says. She’d tried to get Seeger “many, many times in the past. He was almost unreachable.” Darby Gym was packed that Tuesday, Oct. 21, 1969. Dentel says, “If the students wanted something, they could usually get it. Pressure on the administration would cause them to give in. I don’t think [students] really understood how much influence they had.”

Professional reputation

As a result of Dentel’s growing reputation among agents, they eventually started calling her. She recalls an agent calling to see if she was planning to bring Bruce Springsteen to campus.

“He’d mentioned him to me before,” Dentel says, “but I didn’t know who Springsteen was. I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ This was May that he called. He said, ‘If you want him, you should take him now because by fall he’s going to be out of your reach.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never booked two years out.’ He talked me into it.”

Brian Mann ’76 was social coordinator when Springsteen played at Grinnell on Sept. 20, 1975, a month after his album Born to Run was released. Springsteen was on the October covers of Time and Newsweek.

Mann says Springsteen’s people “did everything in their power to get out of the concert because they were playing these big venues then. So they started making all these demands. They started saying, ‘Well, the little gym you have us playing in can’t handle our light show.’ So Georgia worked it out to drain the power from the science building to support it. ‘We’re going to need a big spread of fruit.’ Done. ‘We’re going to need security.’ Done. So I’m sure the cost of the concert doubled. It was a major event. Georgia was amazing in navigating that. I’m told that the Springsteen people joked for years about the private party they played in Grinnell,” Mann says.

Job in jeopardy

In 1976, Dentel was at the top of her game. Even so, her position and four others — all but one held by women — were eliminated during an administrative reorganization instituted by President A. Richard Turner. The changes were to take effect the next fiscal year.

Waldo Walker, professor emeritus of biology, was Turner’s executive vice president then. “When Turner came to campus as a newly-appointed president,” Walker says, “he mentioned to me early on that he believed that the administration was too large, especially in regard to middle-administration positions, considering the financial stress which the budget was experiencing at that time.

“Georgia was having no problems,” Walker adds, “and as far as I could see she was doing a good job getting really big-name entertainers to come to Grinnell College. Her track record there was excellent.”

During an open forum in the South Lounge of the Forum Sept. 22, 1976, Turner told several hundred students that he would not reconsider his decision about eliminating Dentel’s position.

Dozens of students and alumni wrote Turner letters describing Dentel’s expertise and significant impact on campus. Turner sent a standard letter back, writing in part, “We are well aware of the quality of her work in the area of social programming and booking events for college performances. Unfortunately, the College is in a posture of budget reduction that forces us to reduce the number of middle level administration by three positions.”

Faculty members were also concerned. Joseph Wall ’41, professor of history, was on leave in 1976–77 and wrote to Turner: “Part of the difficulty for the faculty and students may lie in the fact that this plan was put into operation during the summer.” Students raised this point too.

Wall also addressed another sensitive issue — possible sexism. “The questions of principle that seem to be raised by this reorganization are centered around the issue of women administrative and staff personnel in very visible roles,” Wall wrote. “At a time when the faculty is being urged nationally and locally, legally and ethically, to make an all-out effort to bring highly qualified women to the teaching staff, the abrupt lopping off of three administrative and staff women naturally raises serious questions among the faculty and students.”

Turner replied, “I think the question, which I realize is not yours personally, as to whether the whole thing was rigged to get rid of women, is despicable.” For Turner, the move was about saving money. In his postscript to Wall, Turner wrote, “As you all too well know, there has not been any serious attempt to tighten up the administration in 15 years. The tendency has been to move people around and not face the issue.”

The uproar lasted until fall break, by which time Turner changed his mind. Dentel was offered a half-time position, which she eventually accepted.

D. A. Smith, professor emeritus of history and a great friend of Dentel’s, says, “They put her on half time, but she found it impossible to reduce her work hours accordingly.”

Dentel’s job was threatened again in 1984 — and again the issue was budgetary and again students protested vigorously. Smith believes a handful of trustees intervened on her behalf. Dentel doesn’t talk about these difficulties, however.

The voice on the phone

Dentel did not have a typical 8-to-5 job — even when it was full-time. She worked year-round because, she says, “I had to be available to bookers and managers.” She often worked late into the evening, making calls to booking agents to line up performers for concerts, much of which she did from home.

After the early 1970s, the students who worked closely with Dentel knew her only on the phone.

“She was sort of mysterious,” says Pat Irwin ’77, concerts co-chair 1976–77. He spoke with her on the phone frequently. “She was the expert. She knew the world, the business. She was the adult in the room.”

Dan Klatz ’84 recalls her great voice. “She was animated, engaging, thoughtful on the phone,” he says. “She clearly wanted to connect with people in meaningful ways.”

“She was always fun to talk to,” says Leif Larsen ’88, concerts chair during his senior year. “She had a good sense of humor. She was always interested in what was happening on campus.”

Smith says, “Probably Georgia’s greatest enjoyment in the whole job was working with students who found her a sympathetic person.” Dentel retired in 2001.

Giddins, who became a major jazz critic, says, “I got to talk with Duke Ellington and meet Louis Armstrong. So I got to learn about [jazz] from the musicians themselves.”

Irwin, who became a professional musician, says, “I think of her as one of the more impactful people in my experience at school. As important as it might have been to write a paper or research a project, for me, meeting musicians, making dates work, working with her was unforgettable.”