Three Strikes and You’re … in Business

“There are more soccer clubs in the world than there are people who have ever played major league baseball,” says Sean Forman ’94. As president of Sports Reference, a collection of online sports data encyclopedias that includes baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer, he ought to know.

Yet Forman’s path to an innovative business in sports analytics was not exactly a straight line. Growing up in Manning, Iowa, where his dad was the football coach, Forman helped compile the summary stats after games and wrote sports stories for his local paper.

At Grinnell he was a serious fantasy baseball player and a math major. Forman figured he could either be a teacher or an engineer, so he pursued a 3-2 engineering program. A semester shy of completing his second bachelor’s degree, he realized it wasn’t the right field for him. With the flexibility and nimbleness typical of Grinnellians, Forman changed course and earned a doctorate in applied math at the University of Iowa.

But baseball was still an important part of his world. “My last year at Iowa I was supposed to be doing my dissertation,” Forman says. “I created a baseball reference instead.”

Forman worked on the baseball website on the side, even after he landed a tenure-track job at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. In the mid-2000s, he realized he wanted to do the website full time. But he didn’t have tenure yet, and taking a leave of absence to work on a baseball website could endanger that. So he waited.

In 2006, after securing tenure, Forman took a leave of absence and dove full time into the world of sports data and analytics. “By that point I was making enough money that it did not seem like a completely insane decision,” he says.

Forman and his 10 employees continued to add features and content. About a year before the 2019 Women’s World Cup, he wanted to create the first comprehensive, online data collection of women’s soccer statistics.

Forman teamed up with Xavier Escandell, associate professor of anthropology and director of the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) at Grinnell. Forman and Escandell, along with DASIL student mentors LaAnna Farnelli ’20, Anshul Tambay ’20, and Daniel Cook ’19, as well as Katherine Walden, digital liberal arts specialist, and Jarren Santos ’17, data scientist, crafted a plan to create a database of Women’s World Cup data since its beginning in 1991.

The students worked with the data “in a real, tangible way,” Forman says, that let them learn useful tools. “I’ve always found actually trying to do something is the best way to learn it.”

Start with a Parent-Approved, Sensible Major

When Vivek Venugopal ’01 came to Grinnell, he never anticipated that he would fall in love with everything about the College, the town, and the people. He certainly didn’t anticipate that his sensible computer science degree would lead him down a path that culminated (for now) in a career in improv comedy.

It was the intellectual curiosity that he developed at Grinnell that led Venugopal to the spotlight and performing improv as a part of his job at Speechless, a San Francisco-based company that uses the comedic tool to help train people to become more comfortable with public speaking.

“I just constantly want to learn more,” he says. “That’s what the liberal arts education at Grinnell gave me — this thirst to learn new things. My favorite computer science prof and adviser, Sam Rebelsky, always said I’d learn much more than simply how to code at Grinnell.”

His path to Speechless was not exactly a direct one. In his time at Grinnell he poured himself into everything under the sun — the Student Government Association, Grinnell Singers, Con Brio, KDIC, student affairs, dining hall, intramural sports — everything, it seems, except improv.

Then after graduating, he moved to Chicago and became roommates with fellow Grinnell alum Kumail Nanjiani ’01. “It was right after 9/11 and we were worried we wouldn’t find jobs,” Venugopal says. “We were two brown immigrants, and it was a scary environment to be in.”

But though he was lucky to find a job through Grinnell alumni as a software developer in Chicago, Venugopal says he decided to take his career in a different direction and went into nonprofit fundraising because he wanted a job that had true social impact. That career moved him to San Francisco where he eventually jumped back into tech, into a startup acquired by LinkedIn in 2014.

Now he works as Speechless’ director of revenue, masterminding the company’s sales and marketing strategy. “It’s a tremendously impactful job,” Venugopal says. “We do a lot of work with women, minorities, and underrepresented, marginalized people. We give them the tools to amplify their authentic voices in spaces where they aren’t always listened to.”

Venugopal was initially attracted to the company after attending some of its open-mic sessions, which featured comedians delivering improvised talks based on slides they had never seen. That led to a love of all things improv and that passion led to him working with the company and creating his own musical improv show, American Immigrants.

“I’ve always felt that my superpower is my ability to give a coherent talk about any topic, to any group of people,” he says.

“Now I get paid to use that superpower to help people. I am incredibly lucky.”

Preserving the College's History

Chris Jones, Archivist of the CollegeChris Jones, special collections librarian and archivist of the College, stumbled into archival work while working in the rare books collection as a student at the University of Illinois, but he has since found a home in the basement of Burling Library, where he oversees a collection of more than 10,000 volumes. Within the collection lies the meaningful history of the College, as seen through institutional documents, photographs, letters, and other artifacts. But those items are just the tip of the iceberg for Jones, as he works to preserve the stories from Grinnell’s past and ensure their longevity for future generations.

Ben Binversie ’17 ventured down into the Burling Library basement to talk with Jones about his work.

BB: How do you collect the current happenings and publications at the College?

CJ: We use what’s referred to as a sampling plan. So, we don’t try to necessarily collect every single document that has ever been printed on a College printer, but we do try to collect enough about each event or lecture held on campus to give a future researcher an idea of why it might have been important. We try to capture as many of the student-led activities as possible and hope that it’s good enough.

Do you have any favorite moments in Grinnell’s history that you’ve learned about through the archives?

The [1971] takeover of Burling Library by the Concerned Black Students (CBS) was a big deal. Very few people understand that at the time that that happened, the College administrative offices were located in Burling basement. They chained themselves inside the building that housed the administrative offices so that the administrators had to listen to them.

How do you interact with alumni through the archives?

During Reunion, Allison Haack, library assistant, and I have set up a table for alumni to look through photos and help identify the people, places, and events depicted. It’s been great for us, and the alumni enjoy seeing the old photos and contributing to our work. Digital Grinnell and The Scarlet & Black online archive are great resources for alumni to view pictures or information from their time on campus.

What are some of your favorite highlights of the collection?

Our two oldest printed books were both printed in 1477. One of them weighs in at a solid 9.5 pounds, and the front and back covers are both made out of wood. That one will be around for a long time. I also really like the Salvador Dali-illustrated Alice in Wonderland. That’s pretty trippy.

Are there any new projects on the horizon?

The College recently negotiated with Salisbury House in Des Moines to purchase approximately 3,000 volumes and 2,500 documents from that collection, including a couple of books printed between 1400 and 1500, medieval manuscripts, and first editions of Sinclair Lewis, among other treasures [See Page 6]. In anticipation of acquiring the collection, we installed compact shelving in the vaults so we could have space to house all of it. Previously, our collection included around 10,000 volumes in the archives, and the new shelving created space for the additional volumes from the Salisbury House library collection.

If you have questions with which the archives might be able to assist, Jones encourages you to contact him. He is happy to take phone calls, 641-269-3364, or emails joneschr[at]grinnell[dot]edu, but the archivist in him really appreciates a good old-fashioned handwritten letter, so that’s an option, too.

To hear the full interview with Jones, see Season 2 of the podcast All Things Grinnell at or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Exactly the Job She Wanted

One day not long after Sarah Mirk ’08 graduated from Grinnell, she was in a printing studio in Portland, Oregon, making zines — short, handmade comics. So was the guy at a photocopier next to hers. Reading over his shoulder, she saw that his zines were about being a guard at Guantanamo Bay prison.

Whoa! she thought. What has he been doing?

Mirk’s journalistic antenna went up. She learned that he’d been deployed to Cuba with his Michigan National Guard unit. “He’d worked as a military police officer in the prison and just felt like he’d been a cog in a terrible machine that he didn’t agree with,” she says. “That was the first time I met somebody who made Guantanamo a real place.”

She also learned that he’d been invited by a group of former detainees to participate with them in a monthlong speaking tour of England. This sounded pretty crazy to Mirk, so she asked if she could come along and document it.

“And so I did,” she says. She traveled around the country in a minivan with the former detainees and the former guard and kept a blog about it called Guantanamo Voices. “It’s such a scary and confusing topic for a lot of people,” she says. “I really felt the responsibility to work on that as a journalist.”

She worked on the project off and on over the years. In 2017 she pitched a book, an anthology also called Guantanamo Voices, which will be published by Abrams Books in 2020. “Comics is a great medium for telling these stories,” Mirk says. “I really hope that the book makes visible the people who have been impacted by this prison.”

Her goal was to “get people to tell stories that have feeling to them,” she says. “What I’m trying to convey here is the heart in their story.”

She recruited 10 different artists to illustrate. Due to the high security nature of Guantanamo, photography isn’t a good option. “Artists can draw this place and fill the gaps that they need to creatively,” she says.

Mirk put her skills as a history major to work in her research. She completed oral histories with 10 different people — lawyers, detainees, military service members — about their experiences at Guantanamo and wrote the graphic novel script for each. “Writing the first draft of this graphic narrative about Guantanamo Bay felt a lot like writing a massive term paper for [Professor] Victoria Brown’s class!” she says.

Mirk started making comics in high school, but it was working at The Scarlet & Black that attracted her to journalism. “I was really lucky that Grinnell had a student-run paper that paid students to write articles,” she says. “I got tons of practical experience writing and editing for the paper, then was able to use those clips to apply for jobs and internships.”

If Mirk had known as a teen that she could craft a career as a comics journalist, she would have said, “Yes, that’s exactly the job that I want.” Earlier this year, she was hired as a full-time editor at The Nib, an online daily comics publication, where she gets to use all her skills and experience in history, journalism, and comics.

“I’m always working to make history more accessible and political discussions more relevant,” she says. “I think my time at Grinnell has a lot to do with that.”

Be Well and Good

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all of the health and lifestyle trends these days, and Alexia Brue ’95 understands this better than anyone. From underwater cycling classes to professional cuddling sessions to Marie Kondo-ing your sock drawer, people are looking for constant, structured improvement in their lives. The Joneses are long gone — we are keeping up with the Kardashians, people! The irony is, as we race through our lives, attempting to meet societal and Instagram influencer-imposed beauty and lifestyle standards, we gloss over what we really want: to be well.

Fortunately, Brue, co-founder of the media company Well+Good, is here to help us cut through the wellness noise. When Brue and co-founder Melisse Gelula started Well+Good in 2009, they recognized a void in media curated around wellness. In fact, the topic of wellness wasn’t a topic at all — not mainstream, at least.

“Publications around health and wellness at this time were either hippy-ish or vertical publications, like Runner’s World and Yoga Journal.” Brue explains. “And of course, no shortage of women’s body-shaming magazines.” Brue and Gelula sought to change the narrative and culture around wellness.

Well+Good flowed onto the scene with the aim of being a “trusted adviser for navigating the ever expanding — and sometimes confusing — world of wellness.” Brue and Gelula started by publishing New York City-specific wellness content. Healthy food spots, new yoga instructors, and reiki classes found their tiny homes as content on the Well+Good website. Today, the content has expanded in relevancy well beyond the tri-state area to produce accessible media for a national millennial audience.

Brue always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur and credits Grinnell with enabling the exploration of those interests. “It was a place where it was relatively easy to get things off the ground,” she recalls. Brue and several classmates put their business skills to work by opening an on-campus café called Bob’s Underground.

“The College, and particularly the head of dining services at the time, was extraordinarily supportive in getting Bob’s off the ground,” Brue explains. The South Campus hot spot would go on to serve up caloric snacks and beverages and open-mic nights for 20 years. By the time Bob’s closed its doors in 2017, it was a full-fledged institution. Brue had a knack for building a business, and Grinnell provided the resources and flexibility to do so early on.
In addition to entrepreneurship, Brue’s love of the humanities has been a common thread — an interest that took hold at Grinnell where she was a classics major. In fact, before the conception of Well+Good, Brue became fascinated by public bathhouses. “I loved the communal aspects and for a time wanted to open my own bathhouse in the city.”

Working in publishing, Brue pitched a book. Bloomsbury Publishing liked the idea, provided a cash advance, and the rest is actual history — she spent the next nine months traveling and writing about the rich, global history of bathhouses. She went on to publish a book entitled, Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath.

At graduation, it wasn’t abundantly clear what path a classics major with a passion for entrepreneurship would take. But, like many Grinnellians, Brue pursued diverse interests and successfully charted her own way. Well+Good is a home run, producing 15–20 new articles every day as well as video and social media content, wellness retreats on a quarterly basis, a monthly talk series, and most recently, a cookbook. Most significantly, Brue’s media dynamo has achieved what it initially set out to do — transform the culture of wellness into a positive force in people’s lives.

2019 Alumni Awards

The Grinnell College Alumni Council has selected 14 exceptional graduates to receive the 2019 Alumni Awards.

The Alumni Award recognizes individuals who embody Grinnell College’s mission of lifetime learning and service and contribute to the common good. Nominated by their classmates and peers, recipients have distinguished themselves by their service to their careers, their community, and/or the College.

Bruce Pauley ’59

Recognized as a top scholar of Austrian history, Bruce Pauley has taught history since 1961 and served as a professor at the University of Central Florida for 35 years. His books on Austrian socialism and anti-Semitism contributed substantially to Austria coming to terms with its own past. In 2010, Austria’s ambassador to the United States presented Pauley with the Austrian government’s highest award for scholarship and art.

L.R. “Bud” Roegge ’59

After majoring in chemistry at Grinnell, Bud Roegge decided to put his test tubes away and go to law school. Both subjects would go on to shape his career. As an attorney and longtime president of Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Roegge litigated numerous environmental cases, such as representing Michigan Chemical Co. in statewide contamination that affected the dairy industry. 

Janice Williams Resseger ’69

Janice Williams Resseger has been a tireless advocate for public education as a teacher, parent, community organizer, and staff member for a national religious social service political action group. In short, Resseger stands up for what she believes in. Working at the United Church of Christ, she developed programming around justice in public school policy for UCC churches around the country. She now authors a well-regarded public education policy blog.

Henry Wingate ’69

Henry Wingate has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to the values of social justice and social service throughout his life and career. Wingate was the first black federal judge for the Southern District of Mississippi, appointed in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan. He also served as a Grinnell College trustee for 18 years and was deeply involved in recruitment and support of Grinnell’s black students and faculty. His numerous community service initiatives include providing educational opportunities for juveniles interested in careers in law and law enforcement.

Dr. Moses Lee ’79

As a physician, Moses Lee displays the utmost kindness and consideration for the patients and his fellow medical colleagues. Lee was an attending physician in the emergency departments of Cook County Hospital and John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital in Chicago for 28 years. He continues to volunteer in emergency medicine. In June 2018, he received the lifetime achievement award from the Illinois Department of Public Health for founding the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team.

Dr. Jeffrey Greenberg ’80

Jeffrey Greenberg has served his community, his profession, and Grinnell College for the past four decades. A surgeon and staff physician at Indiana Hand to Shoulder Center, Greenberg is known as a compassionate caregiver, brilliant researcher, and first-rate teacher. Since graduation, he has served as a class agent. Additionally, he has served on the Alumni Council, including two years as president. In recent years, he has participated in several medical missions, providing hand surgery care to underserved populations around the world.

Susan Henken-Thielen ’80

A highly effective marketing executive, Susan Henken-Thielen has a passion for growing entrepreneurial organizations that help people. As director of product management for Collegis Education, she is leading the effort to develop new higher education strategic data analytics. Previously as a director for Pearson VUE, Henken-Thielen established the global UExcel education program, where domestic and international students earn college credits by taking and passing online exams. For her alma mater, she served on the Alumni Council for seven years and helped recruit Minneapolis area students to Grinnell as a GRASP (Grinnell Regional Admission Support Program) volunteer.

Paula Nixon ’84

Paula Nixon’s enthusiasm can be contagious. It’s especially evident during Reunion Weekend, which Nixon has attended for the past 10 years as a pioneering force behind GRA/EY (Grinnell Reunion Any/Every Year). Rather than wait for their respective reunion years, Nixon encourages alumni to attend whatever year possible, adding another fun dynamic to the weekend. Her enthusiasm also shines through in the Grinnell social media sphere, where her notes of encouragement are widely appreciated. 

Noel Green ’94

As an educator, Noel Green has brought with him the same spirit of inclusion, community building, and acute awareness of individual needs that he brought to Grinnell College as a student 25 years ago. Green is the principal of Burlington High School in Vermont, where his kind, caring, and approachable nature has made him ideal to work with students who come from all over the world. An advocate of restorative justice, the school district now puts emphasis on the relationships and people who have been harmed rather than doling out traditional punishments.

Dorje Gurung ’94

After being imprisoned under false accusations while teaching science in Qatar, Dorje Gurung met several Nepalese people who were working there as migrant workers. Those interactions helped persuade him to return to his native Nepal to educate the next generation of Nepalese students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. He established Social Business for Education, which sets up income-generating projects that benefit the community by providing jobs and training. For his vast commitment to education and humanity, Gurung received an honorary doctor of science degree at Grinnell’s 2014 Commencement. Gurung was denied a visa to attend Reunion; his friend, Michael Hanna ’94, accepted on his behalf.

Rabbi Jason M. Kimelman-Block ’94

As director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Brock has traveled the country seeking to promote nonviolent activism on behalf of those at risk. He also serves as director of national government affairs and rabbi-in-residence at A Jewish Partnership for Justice. He directed the first leadership cohort focused on training Jewish leaders of color and is a frequent speaker on social justice in the interfaith activist movement. Particularly notable is his ability to support and relate to people who have had very different life experiences from his own.

Kent Messer ’94

Kent Messer has an exceptional record of scholarship, teaching, and service as a natural resource and environmental economist. Messer teaches at the University of Delaware as the S. Hallock DuPont Professor. He is also the director of the Center for Experimental and Applied Economics and co-director of the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-Environmental Research. He has written two textbooks on how to apply economics to better protect environmental areas. His expertise was valuable recently as a member of the Grinnell College Fossil Fuels and Climate Task Force Advisory Board.

Lu “Maggie” Bian ’09

Maggie Bian made a lasting impact on the future of many Chinese students even before she received her Grinnell degree. As a senior at Grinnell, she founded the China Liberal Arts Tour, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between liberal arts colleges and prospective students in China. Now in its 10th year, the tour invites liberal arts colleges to travel throughout China and interact with Chinese students. Bian oversees the tour’s development while working in Hong Kong as executive director for Hillhouse Capital Management, a global financial services company.

Latona Giwa ’09

Combining her passion for social justice, a dedication to community organizing, an intense focus on helping mothers and newborns, and an entrepreneurial spirit, Latona Giwa co-founded the Birthmark Doulas Collective in 2011. The New Orleans organization provides informational, emotional, and physical support to pregnant women and their families before, during, and after birth. Grinnell recognized Giwa’s work by presenting her with the Joseph P. Wall ’41 Service Award in 2013. 

Changing Child Care

To hear Arrel Gray ’00 talk about the need for identifying and supporting quality child care, it’s no wonder that his business has been so successful. He recalls how difficult it was when he and his wife, who also works full time, first searched for care for their now 4-year-old son.

“That search was just excruciating, like it is for most parents in any urban area,” says Gray, co-founder of Wonderschool, a San Francisco-based company that works with educators and child care providers to help them start their own child cares or preschools out of their homes. 

“One, it’s just hard to find out what’s even out there; it’s kind of fragmented and confusing. And then when you go visit it, you don’t know what to look for. And it seems like all the top-tier places are ridiculously expensive and have too long a waiting list, anyway.” 

Wonderschool, which works with 100 programs mostly in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City areas, gives people tools to launch their own home-based child care programs. In exchange for a 10% cut of each enrolled child’s tuition, the startup, which was founded in 2016, helps new caregivers design their teaching philosophies, get licensed, build a website, and market their services. It has attracted more than $2 million in seed funding. And Inc. magazine says Wonderschool is creating a platform that will remake child care in big cities.

In a nutshell, Gray — a math major at Grinnell — says his business helps teachers and child care providers focus on children.

“Running a child care is actually two jobs — one is being a preschool teacher and the other is being a small-business owner and entrepreneur,” Gray says. “And [on] the Venn diagram of people who are good at both of those things, there is very little overlap. Teachers often tend to be so focused on human interactions and nurturing kids, and they’re really not interested in, or good at, marketing, finances, recruiting, and hiring teachers, and so we want to help with all of that. 

“And not only is it two separate skill sets, but it’s two exhausting jobs. Eight hours a day, you’re taking care of chasing after 3-year-olds, which is exhausting. Then you finish your day, and now you have a bunch of paperwork to do and emails to respond to and QuickBooks to manage and taxes to pay, and all these other things you have to do outside of the classroom. So, doing all of that takes a superhuman effort — and we want to make it just a human effort.”

Gray and his Wonderschool co-founder, Chris Bennett, previously launched Soldsie, an e-commerce company that enables businesses to sell products through their social media profiles. Gray says Grinnell was pivotal in taking him to where he is now.

“Grinnell just teaches you the basic critical thinking,” he says, “and because it’s so small and the classes are so small, you really learn about collaboration. That’s been incredibly valuable.” 

The Making of "All Things Grinnell"

Ben Binversie ’17, content specialist fellow with the Grinnell College Office of Communications, is producer of the new All Things Grinnell podcast. We asked him about it: 

Why a Grinnell podcast and why now?

When I started here last summer I brought my experience working at Milwaukee’s NPR station. Coming in, I thought that Grinnell would be an opportune place for a podcast because there is so much happening here in such a concentrated area. We’re already capturing a lot of stories in other formats, but there was no one doing what we’re doing with the podcast.

In your view, what advantages do podcasts offer over other media formats? 

It makes interviewees’ work more approachable and engaging, I think. For example, people might not read a book titled Shakespeare in the Afterlife without a prior interest in Shakespeare. A conversation with the author brings the topic to an audience that might still be interested in questions about life and death and how we make sense of any of it. 

How do you choose your topics and interviewees?

It’s kind of overwhelming at times because there is so much going on here. I try to latch on to things that are already happening on campus because I can cover people or events through a whole different lens for the podcast. Narrative stories like the one on the College garden (episode 6) are fun to make, but the process of interviewing and editing a dozen people and crafting a narrative is really involved. I try to focus on stories that are more easily achievable, but I would like to start digging into things like myths and legends at Grinnell and interesting figures from the past.

Is there a guiding approach or format to your interviews?

It’s very much a touch-and-feel thing. Generally, I try to make the content and the questions interesting to any alumni, from the class of 1937 to current students. I want the entire audience to understand and be engaged with an interview without necessarily having to know the ins and outs of current campus life, even though the interview should help them get a glimpse of that. The main thrust is that if you are connected to Grinnell, you will be interested in what I’m talking about. 

What are you learning about the people that comprise the Grinnell community? 

The first thing that comes to mind is just how different they all are. The wide range of ideas and experiences that people have to share is really tremendous. Being a part of that is what I enjoy the most.  

What about long-term sustainability of the podcast?

We are having those conversations, and listeners who are concerned should know it will go at least until my term runs out here at the College next year. I’m starting to work with students who are interested, and a lot of classes are incorporating podcasts and audio into their work, so by the time I leave Grinnell there is a chance that interested people will continue it. If people really value the podcast, then I think it will find a way. 

How do I find the podcast?

On a mobile device, search “All Things Grinnell” on an app like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, or Stitcher. Or you can go to and find links to all the episodes. For the hearing impaired, there’s a link to the transcript at the bottom of each episode. 

Artistically Adventurous

When Brian Cavanagh-Strong ’09 landed himself in the New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate program for musical theatre writing, it was, he says, “like a dream.” And why not? To be among a handful of elite candidates in the mecca of musical arts is heady stuff for a kid who started out plinking on a Sesame Street piano at the age of 4.  

Today, Cavanagh-Strong is busy honing his craft in New York City, pursuing what would seem to those with similar hopes to be the dream life of the ascending professional artist.  On a practical level, he is also learning to finesse his creative aspirations into avenues for making a living.

Cavanagh-Strong’s circuitous route to New York City — from hometown Ann Arbor, Michigan, through Grinnell — might seem a pedestrian detail except that the classically-trained student of jazz piano  “was decidedly not looking for music programs” when seeking out a liberal arts experience. A “magical” campus tour and the energy of the Grinnell campus sold him on coming to Iowa.

“I didn’t take a music class my first semester; I didn’t even plan on studying music at Grinnell, necessarily,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t do very well in a philosophy class my first semester, and I think that was an impetus to study music theory in the spring of my freshman year. After that I was hooked.” 

The decision to major in music produced artistically fruitful relationships for Cavanagh-Strong. He cites Grinnell music faculty members Eric McIntyre and John Rommereim as “primary mentors” in his studies. His participation in the Grinnell Singers and a cappella group Con Brio were also key in his development, and it was on a Grinnell Singers tour that he first became aware of the Tisch School.

“I think I applied to NYU/Tisch out of curiosity,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I didn’t know that I wanted to write musicals for a living. I just thought it would be an exciting adventure.” 

Cavanagh-Strong is now in the midst of that adventure — writing musicals, music for plays, opera, a film score, and “music-directing the work of other writers in theatre and other media.” He returned to Grinnell twice recently for two “amazing opportunities”— the first as music director for the film Saints Rest, and another built around the premiere performance, by the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra, of the orchestral version of Cavanagh-Strong’s short opera, A Gardener

Cavanagh-Strong says the breadth of his current projects speaks not only to his diversity of interests and capabilities but also to “how I have to survive.”

“The journey of the musical theatre writer from conception to production is perilous,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “The responsibility to develop patronage support is on the writer for a very long time, and that patronage is not immediately available for even the most deserving creators.” 

After nine years in the New York scene, Cavanagh-Strong says he’s only just starting to see the benefits of building a network of relationships that can provide a solid professional grounding.

“In creative work there are no guarantees,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “Saying ‘yes’ to all kinds of opportunities allows me to meet new people, to experience music and storytelling in different ways, and to clarify my aspirations for the future. 

“Pursuing a master’s degree in musical theatre writing is exactly what I needed to do, though it represents a great cost to enter into a field with few clear lines upward. Finding a way to support yourself in a city with a high cost of living and still pursue your greatest passions means taking a wide look at all kinds of storytelling and continuing to explore them.”

Fight Club

Next time you’re challenged to a sword fight, call Ricki G. Ravitts ’70, a fight director who has taught stage actors around the world how to parry, thrust, and stab for almost 25 years.

Certified through the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), Ravitts is qualified to teach in eight different weapons styles, including broadsword, knife, rapier/dagger, and quarterstaff. In her class Found Weapons, she shows that anything you can wave at someone can be used as a weapon.

“Stage combat is very exciting; it’s a physical discipline that runs the gamut of triumph and tragedy — or even comedy,” says Ravitts, a member of the stage combat faculty at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a performing arts conservatory in New York City. “It’s telling a story with a fight, while keeping the actors safe.”

As a youngster growing up in Illinois, Ravitts played pirates and Zorro with neighborhood kids and, later, acted in high school productions. At Grinnell she majored in English “to gain insights into different ways of thinking and problem-solving,” she says, and performed in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Brecht, among others. 

“I chose Grinnell because I wanted to study in a small liberal arts college, and I enjoyed being around so many smart, passionate students who were involved in theatre, writing, music, and political movements.

“Plus, Iowa is such a friendly state,” she adds with a laugh. “My grandfather was a country doctor in Montezuma, Iowa. I walked into a Grinnell drugstore once and when someone introduced me, the druggist asked, ‘Are you related to Doc Ravitts?’”

She credits her adviser James Kissane ’52, professor emeritus of English, guest artist Robert E. Ingham, and Pirkko Roecker, who taught folk dancing from 1966–74, with deepening her understanding of excellence and performance: “Pirkko had a gift for getting the best out of each student,” she says. “And Dr. Kissane was a role model in many ways; so when he encouraged me to pursue my passion for the theatre, it meant a lot. Or maybe he just didn’t want to read any more of my term papers,” she adds with a laugh.

In her junior year, with guidance from Ingham, Ravitts won an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, her first chance to work with a professional company.  (Today, Grinnell continues to help fund students so they can accept unpaid or underpaid internships.)

Ravitts earned an MFA in acting at New York University. But it wasn’t until later, when a friend of hers broke his nose in a summer stock production of Picnic, that Ravitts found her way to stage combat. 

“The play has a fight scene, and during rehearsals, the director said, ‘Have a little tussle.’ But no one knew what they were doing,” she says. “On opening night, my friend broke his nose on stage and spent the rest of the performance trying not to bleed on the leading lady. Immediately after the show, he was off to the emergency room.”

Later that year, back in New York City, she took her first stage combat class, prompted by the realization that safety was needed onstage — and because fighting with swords just sounded like fun. “And it was!” she says. Ravitts continued taking stage combat courses from the SAFD and in 1995 became the third woman in the United States certified as an SAFD teacher of stage combat. Even now, she continues taking classes to learn new techniques.

All this combat knowledge has given her a keen eye — and when she watches a movie, she can’t help but to critique the action: “I’ll sit there and say, ‘Aw, you really don’t know how to use a sword, do you?’”