Feature

The Untold History of Great Grinnell Pranks

A desire to craft and carry off the perfect prank seems etched into Grinnellians’ DNA. 

Take, for example, the walrus incident.

In 1871, after one of the College’s two buildings burned to the ground, a casualty was a stuffed walrus, part of the school’s natural history collection. A faculty member believed the animal could be restored and kept it in a hallway of the remaining building for months. But as the decaying walrus grew increasingly fragrant, a group of students — led by sophomore Henry Carter Adams 1874, son of Grinnell co-founder Ephraim Adams — decided that the mammal needed to be disposed of after a proper send-off. They wrote a poem for the animal, buried it outside of the building, and shot off a cannon at midnight to honor it. (Why the school had a working cannon on campus remains murky.)

President George Magoun was furious about the shenanigans, and after delivering a long lecture to students in the chapel the following day, he suspended a freshman who was involved in the prank. (In true Grinnell fashion, the entire first-year class took action: They went on strike in support of their fellow student, who was later reinstated.)

To find out more about some of the great Grinnell pranks through time, we’ve combed through the College’s archives, interviewed alumni and administrators, and shared the playbooks of Grinnell’s greatest mischief-makers. 

The most spacious room on campus

The most spacious room on campus

In the 1996 documentary Grinnell Stories, Augusta “Gus” Towner Reid ’28 recalled a young student in Langan Hall who slept like a rock and was often the target of practical jokes because of it. 

One night while he slumbered, fellow floor members took everything from his room — dresser, lamp, the bed with him in it — out onto the lawn near Mears Cottage. They perfectly replicated his dorm room layout near the path students used when they returned home from that night’s dance. As couples gawked at the peacefully sleeping student, he was none the wiser. “Only when he woke up in the morning did he realize what had happened to him,” Reid recalled.

The president’s popularity ratings had never been higher

In 1976, Doug Dohrer ’76 helped orchestrate a prank that had a campuswide impact. He agreed to confess to his involvement with some apprehensiveness. “My bag is packed and my passport is up to date, just in case I have to flee,” he jokes. He shares his memory of events:

“One dark evening, knowing our beloved President A. Richard Turner was out of town, a group of students decided it was time for the annual springtime Skip Day. Gently letting ourselves into the president’s office, we borrowed some official stationery and wrote up a declaration announcing the cancellation of all classes for the following day, complete with music and games. We thoughtfully signed his name. 

Skip Day

“We made a few hundred copies and discreetly distributed them around campus at the library, the Pub, dorms, everywhere. In short order, we gleefully witnessed our fellow students pouring out of the dorms and the library to party like there was no tomorrow. 

“The running dogs and imperialist lackeys at the campus radio station tried to say it was bogus, but the horse was already out of the barn. Our revolution was complete.

“I can only hope that the statute of limitations has expired for this heinous crime.”

Greek scholars still can’t agree on a translation of “d’oh”

Greek scholars still can’t agree on a translation of “d’oh”Serving either as inspiration or intimidation, the names of some of Western civilization’s greats — Dante, Plato, Homer — are chiseled directly into the stone of Grinnell’s Carnegie Hall. But in 1997, some students decided that there was another Homer worth honoring: Homer Simpson. Students hung a giant image of the animated family man beneath the Homer name.

The reason behind the student-created campaign, according to a letter in The Scarlet & Black, was to raise awareness of “the division of labor and the exploitation of the proletariat” and to demand that the College observe Labor Day by giving its employees and students the day off.

The administration didn’t change the academic calendar, but they did acknowledge the effort: For the phonathon that followed, all volunteers got a T-shirt with a photo of the cartoon-covered building that said “Phone Homer.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Few people make better prank targets than earnest first-year students. At the beginning of one academic year in the early 1980s, all first-year students got official-looking invitations to a pizza party, ostensibly hosted by President George A. Drake ’56.

The only problem? Drake wasn’t in on the joke. Students began arriving at the president’s house, but Drake was out for a run. His wife Susan Ratcliff Drake ’58 delivered the bad news to the arriving crowds. 

Drake says the joke didn’t anger him — it inspired him. “It was a pretty good prank — and a great idea,” he says. “It made us realize we should do something like that.” To recover, the Drakes began hosting ice cream socials, which became a much-loved tradition for students.

Wait, it’s not “pranks and circumstance”?

Commencement Hackensack PrankGraduation often brings out the best in student ingenuity. As their final official acts as students, many Grinnellians decide they want to get the last laugh.

Drake, president of the College from 1979 to 1991, always arranged for a table to be placed on the stage next to the diplomas, just so he’d have a place to put all of the “gifts” he received from students as they shook hands with him at the ceremony. “One year, I shook hands with a student and it was a mannequin arm,” he says. “I just pulled it right out of the gown.” Another time, in the late 1980s, a student flipped a Hacky Sack into the air and waited for Drake to respond. “I hit the ball with the side of my foot and it bounced right back into his hands. I couldn’t have done that if I tried a hundred more times,” he says, still recalling the perfectly precise kick joyfully.

Word was that all the fish received honorary degrees

Great practical jokes are rarely the work of a single individual. Over the years, students have coordinated their efforts at graduation ceremonies. One year, graduating seniors assembled a massive puzzle of a photo of President Pamela A. Ferguson. Another year, during Drake’s presidency, seniors crossing the stage handed over dozens of individual marbles and finally, a marble raceway. 

Fish Tank PrankIn 1994, a prank made a particularly big splash. Scott Ihrig ’94 coordinated efforts to help students to create a fish-filled aquarium on the graduation stage. Students who were eager to participate each took individual elements up to the stage, Ihrig explains. “It started with a small black acting cube from the theatre that was placed downstage center, then the glass fish tank, then disposable cups filled with gravel, then the same cups with water, then the castle for the tank, then the fish,” he recalls. “Pam [Ferguson] took it in good stride, and it turned out to be a clue to my career path: I opened an event design and production company that creates live experiences for big corporations.”

But for Ihrig, the joy for him is not that he was the prank’s mastermind — but that he was just one part of a larger achievement. “I’m glad it was a group effort,” he says. “It took a whole class to make it happen.”

On the plus side, he never denied his god complex

Plenty of offbeat candidates have entered the race for president of the Student Government Association, including Tripod Bob, a beloved three-legged campus cat. But the most successful was David Kramer ’80, who in 1979 ran as a messiah — not for a yearlong post, but an eternal one.

In an S&B interview, Kramer-as-messiah campaigned on issues including the liquidation of the $60 million endowment to support free morphine for all students, support for coed bathrooms, and a promise that if plans moved forward to tear down Mears Cottage, he would personally “tear down the trustees.”

Kramer ultimately prevailed in a runoff vote, 357-240, over a more traditional student candidate. (“My prophets helped me immensely,” he said in a follow-up S&B interview, in reference to campaign pals Bob Weiss ’80 and Chuck Platter ’81.) As for the work of his presidency? With Mears still in use and coed bathrooms the norm, one might say his desire to have an everlasting impact wasn’t so far-fetched after all. 

 

Tips for Writing Comics

Zander: Inspiration’s a real thing. If I get it at home, I’ll try to write it out or sketch it out, but you can’t do a whole comic on inspiration alone.

Kevin: Unless you want to make the leap to go pro, it’s good to have a day job so you can just do the cartoons you want. There’s no pressure. You can experiment. You can fail. Failing is key number one.

Zander: Whenever you plan on doing one thing, do three. The first one you do is so lousy that immediately you think about going into the next one so you can fix all those mistakes.

Zander: Doing Web comics is so helpful to people, because the specifics of print are a little outdated and a little irrelevant to the skills. Let’s just do the panels, throw them up online, and see what people think.

Kevin: You put something online and things are either faved or not faved pretty quickly. It’s like you tap the vein of your audience faster and in a more immediate sense than print.

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

Legacy of Activism

Last fall, black students at dozens of colleges across the country protested against racial discrimination on their campuses, including demonstrations at Yale University, Claremont McKenna College, and Ithaca College. The most high-profile protests were held at the University of Missouri, which led to the ousting of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system.

As black youth organize via Black Lives Matter to speak out against police brutality, our nation finds itself amid a new civil rights movement. As it spreads, black student organizations have become lightning rods for controversy on college campuses, and Grinnell College has been no different.

In early 2015, racist slurs were posted anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak, specifically targeting black students on campus. In addition to calling for the disbanding of Grinnell College’s black student organization Concerned Black Students (CBS), messages harassed black student leaders by name. One post called a black student a “spear chucker”; another accused “blacks” of “ruining Grinnell.”

“The dominant narrative is that Grinnell is this great liberal place, that we’re all into social justice, that we’re a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Odom ’16, house monitor for the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center this past year. “But black students see the opposite side of this; we are often confronted with really conservative racist ideas projected on us. The school is radical until it comes to issues of race and black people.”

She adds: “I’ve had some of the best times in my life on this campus, but also some of the worst.”

As it has for almost 50 years, CBS serves as a home for black students during controversies big and small. It has also been a powerful vehicle for getting the administration and the Grinnell College community at large to consider a black perspective.

Origin story

Black students at Grinnell formed CBS in the fall of 1967 after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the college.

“We were just so inspired by Dr. King,” says Frank Thomas ’71, an administrator at the College for many years. “Plus, in ’67 there were a lot of things going on nationally — black student unions were forming in various colleges around the country, and there was a lot of unrest in various cities. So, the students at Grinnell, though not particularly ‘militant,’ still had concerns. We felt we needed to do something.”

Not much happened that fall, but the need to “do something” intensified in the spring of ’68 when King was assassinated in April. Before his assassination, multiple black students and faculty reported being verbally harassed and threatened with physical harm in town, according to The Scarlet & Black. Town-gown relations got so bad that a Grinnell College student, Lou Kelley ’68, was attacked and beaten up in his dorm room by a Grinnell townsperson. “The baddest black guy on campus was harassed and beaten up, so that was the impetus for us to decide, look, we’re really not safe around here,” Thomas says. King’s murder was the final straw, and black students got serious about organizing.

But things were relatively quiet until 1971, when black students chained the doors to Burling Library and locked themselves inside. The S&B reported that during the takeover, which lasted from 7:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., no white people, with the exception of a few administrators, including then-President Glenn Leggett, were admitted to the library. The chained doors were adorned with posters featuring such slogans as “Do You Deny Us As Black People The Right To Be Free?” and “We Are An American People Proud Of Our Blackness: We Want To Express Ourselves And Our Blackness In Our Academic Life On This Campus.”

Leggett met with a group of about 10 black CBS members in the president’s office, which was inside Burling at that time. CBS presented him with its “black manifesto,” a list of 10 demands designed to improve campus life for black students and faculty. Demands included boosting black student enrollment to “no less than 200” and establishing a larger black cultural center, a black library in Burling, and a black studies major.

“Campus opinion was widely split on the issue, ranging from full support to unspeakable bitterness and a parody ‘manifesto,’” stated the May 15, 1973, special commencement issue of The S&B. “CBS held meetings with students and trustees clarifying its position and undertook extensive negotiating sessions with the administration.”

Many goals of CBS’s “black manifesto” have not been realized — there still aren’t 200 black students on campus. Current students still contend the campus sees its share of racial unrest. So the question remains: What has been gained through CBS’s efforts?

Recruiting black students

Following the Burling takeover, Leggett, along with the trustees, agreed to establish a black studies major and an admissions board for black students. They also agreed to give black students space in the form of the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center, which has been affectionately called “The House” over the years.

However, the Black Admissions Board was doomed from the start. The faculty dissolved it in 1976 after the College received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare indicating that a separate black admissions board was “unacceptable.” Students were promised that the general admissions board would be sensitive to black needs, according to The S&B.

Over the years, Grinnell College has had varying levels of success in recruiting black students to campus, but it still isn’t known as a destination school. For example, it failed to rank on Essence magazine’s recent list of the 50 best colleges for African Americans, while similar private liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Wellesley, and Williams (all in Massachusetts) made the cut. According to Amherst, for example, black students composed 10 percent of first-year students this past year, the lowest it has been in the past few years. In comparison at Grinnell, average black enrollment has hovered at about 6 percent since 2003.

According to the latest figures from Grinnell’s Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research, during the 2015–16 academic year there were 96 African American students at Grinnell, who overall made up 5.6 percent of the student body. In 2014, the College for the first time reached a 100-student milestone. That may not seem like much, but Grinnell has never had a big black student population — in 1998, which had the lowest population of African American students in the past 25 years, there were only 35 black students.

“There were fewer than 30 of us when we formed CBS,” Thomas recalls. “As an organization, it was really important for us to be there to support current black students, but also to call for increased enrollment of black students.”

According to Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid, the College has made great strides toward increasing those numbers. On staff is a coordinator of multicultural recruitment, and each year the admission office revisits its goals and strategies for the enrollment of underrepresented students.

“We have a nationwide recruitment strategy with a special focus on [African American and Latino] populations,” he says. “Our outreach efforts include targeted school visits and building relationships with CBOs [community-based organizations]. And we underwrite the costs associated with trips to campus for underrepresented students to ensure that cost is not an impediment to the campus visit for domestic students of color who may be living in lower-income households.”

Those efforts have recently yielded an unprecedented number of applicants, Bagnoli says. This year almost 50 percent of the College’s domestic applicants identified as students of color. Additionally, domestic students of color currently make up almost 25 percent of the student body.

But Bagnoli admits that because of federal mandates that would discourage the College from identifying quotas, they address recruitment in terms of promoting broader diversity rather than focusing on how to specifically increase numbers of black students.

“We’re not just talking about [black students] as a group,” he said. “We’re talking about them as representative of various underrepresented students within that broader category. So, black students are often a part of our conversation. Latino students are often a part of our conversation, as well as first-generation college students and Pell-eligible students.”

Posse impact

Recently, Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington announced that the College was severing ties with the Posse Foundation. Grinnell had partnered with Posse since 2003, and it has been a significant source of black students for the College. In 2015, there were a total of 33 black Posse Scholars, making up 27 percent of black domestic students.

The Posse Foundation works to discover public high school students across racial groups with extraordinary academic and leadership potential, many of whom might be overlooked in a traditional college selection process. Once those Posse Scholars have been identified, they receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships to one of the organization’s partner schools.

“Posse has helped us to pursue our goals for diversity and student success and grow as a diverse institution,” Kington said in a statement. “Posse Scholars have brought great energy and student leadership to campus and given us a good sense of what close faculty-student mentoring can achieve. As we plan for the future we will seek to incorporate those ideas into our planning and engage Posse scholars and alumni in it.”

The decision caused a furor both on campus and in the alumni community. A letter signed by hundreds was sent to the administration asking for clarity on the memo announcing the decision.

“More troublingly for us, the memo provides very little insight into how the College will continue to recruit excellent students from urban areas and support these students. The memo alludes to a ‘more comprehensive approach to achieving our goals for diversity,’ but it fails to explain what this approach entails and does not specify the nature of the goals,” the letter read.

Bagnoli says he understands the frustration, but that the College is moving in the right direction in terms of getting more students of color on campus.

“When we entered into a relationship with the Posse Foundation, we were having a much more difficult time trying to attract the attention of underrepresented populations of all kinds,” he says. “Fast-forward to an applicant pool of over 7,300 students in 2016, when almost half of those domestic applicants are from students of color.”

He adds: “The Posse Foundation has provided Grinnell access to 20 finalists in two cities. We have loved getting to know the Posse finalists. They’re great people. But they now represent a small fraction of the total pool of underrepresented students who apply for admission. So, by virtue of an agreement that we reached over a decade ago, the seats we reserve for them are off-limits to a growing population of other talented applicants who don’t have the same opportunity to be considered for admission. Eventually, it leads to the question: Is there equity in the admission process? And it is increasingly difficult to answer that in the affirmative.”

Helping black students succeed

CBS has also done its share in helping to keep black students on campus once they’ve arrived. Grinnell formally tracks first- and second-year retention, which was 100 percent for black students in 2014. The most recent four-year graduation rates are 81 percent for black students, compared with 84 percent for white students.

For many of the more than 30 alumni interviewed for this story, being a member of CBS was key to thriving at Grinnell — and beyond.

“I joined CBS to expand my support network within the black community to better position myself for success in the classroom, in a predominately white community, [in] my profession of choice, and life after Grinnell,” says Darryl Dejuan Roberts ’98. “Being in CBS also provided a support system, which was essential to my survival at Grinnell, and it provided me with leadership opportunities, which gave me the confidence to participate in other campus organizations.”

For many students of color on campus, daily macro- and micro-aggressions can be an additional burden. These range from big assumptions that black students are only accepted to Grinnell because of affirmative action to smaller slights like comments about the texture of African American hair.

“If I listed all the micro- and macro-aggressions that I endured as a student, it’d be a long list,” says April Dobbins ’99. “It got to a point where it was literally making me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fond Grinnell memories, but to say that I fought to get to the other side of all the negative would be an accurate description.”

Dobbins did not originally join CBS. But being a black kid on a predominantly white campus took its toll.

“Honestly, I avoided CBS like the plague my first two years at Grinnell. It seemed like a really tight-knit group, and I didn’t want to try to get into their circle,” she says. “I came to Grinnell pretty exhausted from being bullied by other black kids all through high school for not being black enough. I was naive and I underestimated the need for CBS on campus. After being at Grinnell for two years, I came back from study abroad in London, and I just needed CBS. I needed a place where I didn’t have to explain my hair or certain struggles on campus. I needed a place [like The House] where I could watch Poetic Justice or something and not have to have a big dialogue. I found my spot there.”

Multiculturalism debates

For black students used to being both invisible and hypervisible on campus, becoming a part of CBS was a way to get their distinct voices heard. Over the years, black students tried to become a part of the conversation by advocating for a black perspective in the curriculum.

Starting in 1980, Grinnell began to offer “a special nonmajor program” in Afro-American studies. By the time the ’90s rolled around, though, the concentration suffered due to a lack of classes, faculty, and enrollment. At the same time, racial tension was ratcheted up on campus. It was then that students demanded that an African American Studies concentration be launched and a black faculty member be hired to helm it.

In 1995 student organizations of color, including Asian Students in Alliance (ASIA) and Student Organization of Latinas/os (SOL), lobbied the College for physical space in which to hold meetings and cultural events. While black students already had The House, CBS decided to lend its support to these groups.

Some white students were very unhappy about it. In 1995 The S&B published a column written by a student, a senior editor, claiming minority faculty were unqualified and that the College’s efforts to promote multiculturalism fostered reverse racism and segregation. “The College also pursues an ambitious affirmative action employment program at all levels of hiring with little regard to the quality of the candidate or actual cultural contributions he or she might make,” the column said, concluding: “Grinnell is degrading into a racial battleground. Minorities are arguing over who deserves houses and departments while the administration points pridefully at the number of colored sanitation workers and calls the school multicultural.”

Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology, took issue with being called unqualified and wrote a letter to the editor in response: “I take your insults personally, for while I uphold freedom of speech, it becomes problematic when it is used to slander, especially when such slander is not based on any factual information; for example, there are no ‘colored sanitation workers’ employed by this institution, unless of course you were reducing those of us who teach here to sanitation workers.”

Racial tensions continued to escalate. First there was an incident at a basketball game where students used racial slurs and then, separately, two disc jockeys from KDIC were suspended after they used the n-word on the air. In response to these events, CBS staged a demonstration. Black students wore all black, taped their mouths shut, and stood in the back of their morning class with signs explaining they were protesting racial tension on campus. “Many [white] students were both shocked and offended by the demonstration, which was not widely understood,” according to The S&B.

But for black and other students of color, the protest was seen as an effort to talk about racial issues on campus that they dealt with on a daily basis. “That article kind of had like a Trump effect. It set off a lot of stuff that was simmering beneath the surface,” says Roberts. “Then we had the KDIC DJ using the n-word over the air. All these little incidents began to add up. It was almost like they ignited a fire and pulled the covers back to expose some things that had been going on on campus. Some white students felt it was acceptable to say things that were very hurtful and racially motivated, and we wanted to challenge that.”

After the protest was staged, CBS led campuswide discussions, as well as discussions with the administration. As a result, the College established an Africana studies concentration and hired Katya Gibel Mevorach, professor of anthropology, to head the now-defunct program, which lasted six years.

Black studies history

Grinnell first began its foray into black studies in 1969 when it introduced “a special upper-class general education program” called African and Afro-American studies, similar to concentrations today, but with a much lower credit requirement (16). The program ended in 1971, according to Jason Maher, registrar of the College.

Members of CBS lobbied for the creation of a black studies major in the “black manifesto,” and College administrators responded by establishing an interdisciplinary major in black studies in 1972. It was a 36-credit major and included courses in anthropology, economics, English, history, music, political science, and sociology. The major was discontinued in 1979 due to lack of interest. At the time, The S&B reported that just 10 students graduated with majors in black studies from 1972 to 1979.

After the protest in 1995, Grinnell introduced an interdisciplinary concentration in Africana studies in 1997, replacing the largely ignored Afro-American studies program that was launched in 1980. For the first time, the program had dedicated introductory and seminar-level coursework, Maher says.

But despite bringing on board Gibel Mevorach, who created a nationwide conference and brought numerous and varied speakers to campus, the concentration was never very popular with students and was discontinued in 2005. From 1999 to 2005, there were a total of 20 students who graduated with an Africana studies concentration. In comparison, the very popular gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) concentration had 124 concentrators from 2000 to 2012. The program was so popular that it was turned into a major in 2010 that has since seen 87 majors graduate.

Africana studies wasn’t so fortunate. After seeing zero interest in upper-level Africana courses and limited interest in introductory classes, the faculty, including Gibel Mevorach and Scott, suggested dissolving Africana studies as an interim move toward something more comprehensive.

“The administration had nothing to do with this decision. This was not a problem of not enough faculty to teach a course — there were no students,” Gibel Mevorach says. “GWSS absorbed most students of color interested in diversity who were interested, as well, in gender studies; and more than a few potential recruits were sociology majors.”

Following last year’s Yik Yak incidents, black students in CBS once again began advocating for the establishment of an Africana studies concentration, despite the tumultuous history of black studies at Grinnell. “This is an issue of institutional amnesia,” Gibel Mevorach says.

In light of this history, some students are unsure if a new major is the best way to proceed. Some alumni say advocating for more black faculty might be a better way forward.

“There have been huge things we’ve accomplished since ’67. CBS’s activism has profoundly influenced campus,” says Dixon Romeo ’16, one of CBS’s leader’s last year, “Ultimately, though, I would much rather have a positive, healthy, and safe space for black students to support them academically and mentally until they graduate. Right now we’re trying to find balance between these two things.”

CBS today

Shortly after the racist Yik Yak posts appeared last year, members of CBS met with President Kington and presented a list of demands, including the creation of a mentorship program with minority alumni and a hate crime/bias-motivated incident team, increased diversity training during New Student Orientation, and improvements to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Romeo says, “No one that we were meeting with in the administration had any issues with supporting us. They were ready and willing to help.”

Since then, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been restructured. Lakesia Johnson, associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, was tapped as chief diversity officer to address diversity within the curriculum and help recruit and retain a diverse faculty. Leslie Turner Bleichner ’07 was hired as director of intercultural affairs and works directly with students on the cocurricular side. Yik Yak was also ultimately banned from campus.

Since Johnson and Bleichner were hired, the two have invigorated the Diversity Council, a board of students, faculty, and administrators. The Office of Intercultural Affairs is also developing a “diversity plan” to address some of these issues on campus. An early draft of the plan was released recently for feedback. It includes expanding the preorientation program for underrepresented students into a full first-year program; developing a local-host program to promote connections and ameliorate feelings of isolation for students; and increasing the number of staff who provide support for student success and diversity issues.

“I’m excited about the new structure because people are finally thinking strategically about the student-of-color experience at Grinnell,” Bleichner says. “We are finally getting the right combination of folks with the right skill sets who can help students really address what it means to be a student of color in the middle of Iowa.”

Following the Yik Yak incidents, CBS also helped to foster campuswide discussions to address what they feel is a hostile and unwelcoming climate, including an event last fall designed to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.

“The biggest issue we have is with white students who didn’t think the racist attacks were a big deal or who were defending what took place on Yik Yak,” Romeo says. “Our dialogue was not directed at the administration, but to white students on campus.”

Just like at Missouri, Romeo claimed the Yik Yak attacks were not isolated, but part of a larger pattern of racially charged incidents on campus.

“The Yik Yak incident was just the biggest one,” Romeo says. “Whenever people talk about this, they talk about it like it was just one incident. There were multiple incidents. Students were saying hateful things about CBS.”

For black students dealing with racist incidents like Yik Yak, joining CBS can be like grabbing a lifeline. In addition to providing them with the support to help them address the special challenges that go along with attending a predominantly white college, it also gives black students a unique and powerful voice on campus.

“After the Yik Yak scandal, we were in a room discussing our concerns with the president of the College and various deans within a week or two,” says Odom. “Whether or not people are satisfied with the outcomes, it is huge to know that we can begin these conversations. My hope is that CBS has helped to promote a campus culture that encourages transparency and honest communication between the students and the administration.”

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.”