After leaving the hospital at the age of 29, Steve Ginzbarg ’76 wanted to be treated like everyone else.
When he was hired as collections manager at the University of Alabama herbarium — a job he still holds today — he did not claim a disability.
“Only my best friends, my supervisor, and my doctors knew that I was living with bipolar disorder,” he says. “Now I feel differently about it. I’d like to share my story of bipolar disorder. I want people to know that there’s hope.”
Likewise, Ginzbarg’s philanthropic pursuits with Grinnell College and other organizations had been kept under wraps. He recently decided to shed the anonymity to share his perspective with students struggling with mental illnesses. Things can and will get better, he says.
“I would like everyone at Grinnell — especially those with bipolar disorder or those who have friends or family living with it — to know that, with the help of friends, family and a caring psychiatrist, I have been able to weather the rough times and go on to lead a happy and productive life.”
A biology major at Grinnell, Ginzbarg took a wide range of courses, such as Spanish, theatre, and music, as well as plant physiology and taxonomy with professors Lenore and LaVerne Durkee. Grinnell’s herbarium in the basement of the Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center is named the Durkee Herbarium, thanks to a past gift from Ginzbarg, Robin Chazdon ’78, and Robert Colwell. The herbarium contains a collection of plant species that have been pressed, dried, and glued on heavy paper so they can be handled and studied.
During Ginzbarg’s second year at Grinnell, he had his first manic episode. Marjory K. Daly, assistant dean of students at the time, called his parents. His father flew in from Texas.
“They had to trap me,” Ginzbarg says. “I was admitted to the Iowa City psychiatric hospital.” Ginzbarg says he is grateful to Conney M. Kimbo, then dean of student affairs, for allowing him to return to school. He also credits his roommate, Jerold Stahly ’75, and other friends who lived with him in what was called Random House in the mid-1970s, because it was filled with people with no obvious connection to one another.
“I would never have gotten a job at Alabama if I weren’t allowed back to Grinnell,” Ginzbarg says.
While his 20s were a difficult time with several hospitalizations and an episode following a studyabroad trip to Costa Rica, Ginzbarg pressed on, earning a graduate degree in botany at the University of Texas at Austin and eventually landing the job with the herbarium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
In 1974, Ginzbarg took a one credit session of Introductory Biology taught by professor Kenneth Christiansen. He still remembers visiting Christiansen in his office. “He showed me his Collembolas and told me about soil traps.”
When Grinnell was building outdoor learning spaces as part of the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC) construction, Ginzbarg became interested in making a gift to the cause.
Ginzbarg has made gifts and pledges totaling $700,000 for the Kenneth Christiansen Learning Grove. Prior to the pandemic, classes that normally met inside HSSC and Noyce relocated to the outdoor spaces on nice weather days, and that will continue in the future.
The generosity is another testament to how Ginzbarg has weathered rough times and come through them serving the common good.
“I think that working with your therapist, your friends, in addition to education, is positive,” Ginzbarg says. “What changed in my life, now, is that I have good people to talk with about this. I want other people diagnosed with bipolar disorder to know there is light.