George Drake

Portrait of a Teacher:

George Drake ’56
Michele Regenold ’89

George Drake ’56 has filled many roles at Grinnell: student, athlete, intern, sabbatical replacement, soccer coach (sort of), trustee, College president, and, perhaps most importantly, teacher. As a student, he dreamed of someday teaching at his alma mater. 

“I thought that would be the pinnacle of life,” he says during a conversation in his office in Harry Hopkins House. At age 83, Drake still teaches at Grinnell and his office shows it. Shelves overflow with books. His desk is not neat. 

His winding path to teaching at Grinnell

In 1960–61, after his first year at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary, Drake tasted the college teaching life. He organized an internship with Grinnell’s chaplain, Winston King, and taught two history courses for Homer Norton, the College’s British historian, who was on sabbatical. John Pfitsch, athletic director, drafted Drake for an additional duty. 

Pfitsch told him, “The president wants a soccer team. You were an athlete at Grinnell, and you’ve seen soccer played. Would you be the coach?”

Drake smiles at the memory. “So I agreed to do that, but fortunately we had an older Nigerian student named Joe Okumu [’62], who was a great soccer player. I organized the practices and Joe did the coaching. 

“So that year persuaded me that what I really should be doing, and wanted to do, was be a college teacher.”

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, who taught second grade that year at Cooper School (now a parking lot east of Quadrangle Hall), could see him being a professor. She points out that George was never ordained, though he’s given a number of sermons. “Not that I particularly wanted to marry a minister,” she says with a smile. 

George Drake returned to the University of Chicago and earned his doctorate in church history, though he wondered what good it would do him in his quest to teach in a liberal arts college. 

While the couple was in Colorado one summer, George learned more about Colorado College. “I wrote to the president and introduced myself and wondered if I could stop by and meet him,” George says. “I did and met some historians, and actually I got a job that way at Colorado College.” 

He started as director of the freshman honors program plus some teaching. The teaching responsibilities evolved and a few years later George found himself in the position of dean — without tenure. 

“This was the late ’60s,” George says. “The president thought a young guy might understand what these kids are doing. The student revolution and so on. So I did that for six years. Then went back to the classroom thinking I would never be an administrator again.”

By then George was serving on Grinnell’s Board of Trustees as an academic voice. Several years later the board offered him the job as Grinnell’s president.

Sue says, “He was well acquainted with the people that were in the administration at that time. He kept up with the professors that he knew already. I think that experience just made him feel really comfortable stepping right into [the presidency].”

George was on the board during A. Richard Turner’s presidency (1975–1979) and saw the problems he had with students and faculty. “When I got the job,” George says, “I thought, What have I done to myself? The word was Grinnell was a graveyard for presidents.

“I had some sense that I could maybe bring some healing to this place,” he says, “that it needed healing at that point and that my strengths might fit what was needed.”

Although being president was not exactly his dream job, he served 12 years, from 1979 to 1991. As he departed the presidency, the Grinnell College Board of Trustees honored him by creating the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies. “I didn’t mind being president,” he says with a smile. “Actually I liked it a lot better than I thought I would.” 

Tenure was the only thing he negotiated for when he was offered the presidency, which he left with about 10 years of full-time teaching ahead of him. “I wanted to make it worthwhile,” he says.

After George stepped down from the presidency, he and Sue joined the Peace Corps and served two years in Lesotho, a nation encircled by South Africa. George taught English at a girls’ high school and Sue demonstrated teaching techniques to area teachers. 

By the time Drake returned to Grinnell’s campus, most students didn’t know who he was. “I could make a fresh start,” he says.

Preparing to teach at Grinnell

While still in Africa, George was already thinking about what he would teach when he returned to campus for the fall 1994 semester. His scholarly background in early modern European history and British history — thanks to a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship followed by two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — overlapped that of two other professors. 

“But we didn’t have African history then,” he says, “so I realized I could develop a course in southern African history.

“I had almost no interest in Africa when we went to the Peace Corps, knew very little about it, so I did a lot of reading while we were there.”

But reading wasn’t the only source of ideas. “A lot of what I did in that course on southern Africa had to do with my understanding of rural African culture. I think those two years gave me that understanding, and teaching those girls gave me that understanding.” 

George also knew he’d be teaching a First-Year Tutorial and wanted to include Nelson Mandela. “Seeing him, after all those years in prison, reach out to his former captors and look forward with the truth and reconciliation process,” he says, “that just seemed so extraordinary.” 

He had a theme — crisis, liberation, justice, and leadership — but how could he put a course together that wasn’t only Mandela? Inspiration came from an introductory history course he was preparing, Europe to America.

“It was English antecedents to developments in American history, regionalism, religion, and constitutional history,” George says. “I had to do a lot of reading in American history and got really interested, particularly in the early national period. Because of that and because a tutorial on this subject ought to include Americans in it, I developed the idea of using Washington and Lincoln. 

“Going from Washington to Lincoln makes a lot of sense. A lot of coherence there,” George says. He included Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. too. 

“Gandhi and King are closely related. And Mandela as well. Mandela self-consciously rejects the Gandhian approach. [He] concludes that there are some regimes that are so awful that they have no conscience. You can’t use their conscience against them. So that made a nice package.” 

George taught Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership for the first time in the fall of 1995 and many times since. He smiles again. “It has worked, so I’m lazy enough to stay with it. Because it’s a lot of work to develop a new tutorial.”

George Drake in the classroom

On teaching writing

In 1997 John Aerni-Flessner ’01 took George’s tutorial, “randomly and luckily.” He says that George “really sets a tone in the classroom that all opinions are welcome and makes sure that all voices are heard. I remember some absolutely epic discussions in there where he didn’t have to say anything after his introductory framing remarks. He picked an interesting topic and interesting readings and made everyone feel comfortable.”

Aerni-Flessner, who earned his doctorate in African history and is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, describes George as a great mentor and role model. “I actually utilize some of the strategies from George’s tutorial still. He had us write one-page reflections on each of the books. It was one of the hardest writing assignments I ever had — to hold yourself to one page and say something meaningful.”

George doesn’t claim any originality with that assignment. He learned it from Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics, during a summer seminar for faculty to learn more about teaching writing. 

“I’d always used shorter papers,” George says, “but I’d never used the one page and she convinced me of the advantages. It poses a huge challenge to the student — how can you say something meaningful in one page? Plus, it’s close to what you’ll be doing in life when you’re writing. 

“It’s manageable from the faculty point of view to move from craft to final paper with a meeting with every student. Those meetings last 10 or 15 minutes. They’re not very long. You can accomplish quite a bit. 

“Plus you can take sentences apart. You can take paragraphs apart, because it’s a short assignment. So you really can focus on structure and grammar and things like that, as well, obviously, as organization and argument. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found for the teaching of writing,” he says.

Students tend to agree. Ariel Keller ’17, a sociology major, chose the same tutorial topic as Aerni-Flessner. “Professor Drake really focused on allowing us to grow as students in his class,” she says. “He had us bring our first draft in to him and then we were given preliminary feedback. We were able to revise and the second draft is what was graded. So I think I wasn’t as consumed by the idea of letter grades but more of becoming someone who’s involved with academics.” 

Aerni-Flessner says he doesn’t recall grades except one — his last tutorial paper. “I’d been getting lots of B pluses on tutorial papers,” he says. “I thought I’d finally hit it with the last tutorial paper. I spent copious amounts of time at the library in front of my computer with all the books. I got it back and George had given me a B++.” He laughs and continues, “Because he was George, I didn’t hate him for this. I just said, ‘What does it take to get an A-?’

“Then a couple of years later,” Aerni-Flessner continues, “when I was a second-semester senior about to graduate and taking his Southern Africa history class, I remember writing a paper and getting a comment like, ‘This is the kind of paper I’ve been hoping to see from you for years.’ That’s the kind of teacher George was.”

The knight as stealth bomber

It’s not just students who appreciate his teaching abilities. Ellen Mease, associate professor of theatre and dance, team-taught Humanities 140: Medieval/Renaissance Culture 1100-1650 with George at least three different times. 

 “The advantage of team-teaching, I think,” she says, “is I get to hear how a professional historian goes about providing the sociopolitical and the cultural context for the close study of the selected text that we’re working with.

“He would describe, for instance, the development of the most sophisticated armed weapon of the period, the knight, in terms of the expense that it takes to develop and deploy a stealth bomber. He’d talk about all the equipment that you needed as a knight — the squire, the armorer, the guy who’s going to repair, the guy who’s going to shoe, the horse, the technological development of the stirrup. You can’t stay on your horse in heavy armor unless you have a stirrup that allows you to balance. That’s the kind of detail that students don’t forget.

 “So here’s the other advantage of team-teaching, especially with George,” Mease adds, “being able to, both of us, evaluate student papers and to look at the utter simplicity of George’s ‘This could be clearer’ written neatly in the margin. He’s not telling the student how to rewrite the sentence. 

“When we advertise the extraordinary value of a Grinnell education,” Mease says, “this is a serious component of it; it’s the quality of the feedback that they get on their papers. George will say, ‘This is not college-level writing. Take advantage of the Writing Lab. Read carefully; write carefully; revise early; use the Writing Lab.’ He was always, I think, proud — not just as a teacher, but as a longtime faculty member and president of the College — that we were able to take underachieving students, C students, and turn them into a solid B if not the occasional A- student.”

Another component of George’s approach to teaching writing is the use of tutorials. These stem from his two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship before he went to seminary. 

“The way it works best in the U.S. is for three or four students to come in,” he says. “They’ve all done the same topic. They read each other’s papers and discuss them for an hour.”

Mease appreciated this approach in Humanities 140. “George and I would sit in as flies on the wall. You learn more about your own writing, the clarity of expression, from phrase to phrase, the cultivation of appropriate vocabulary, the clear thesis, the more than perfunctory concluding paragraph,” she says. “It was the willingness of George just to sit back and let them critique each other and not wait until he wrote comments on the paper. They would do better by letting them critique each other.”

A teacher who loves to learn

George Drake“If you’re trying to empower students,” George says, “and trying to recognize where they are individually and collectively, I totally subscribe to where Grinnell has evolved. When I taught here in the early ’60s, I predominantly lectured. It was sort of what most were doing.”

But now? “You would be in trouble around here, unless you were just a superb lecturer, if that’s what you did in the course. Any course that doesn’t empower students in the classroom to be actively engaged in what’s going on is, at Grinnell, not as good a course as it should be.”

So George continues to learn about teaching. During the last faculty writing seminar he attended, he explained to his fellow participants why he was there. “When I was president, we instituted the SFS [senior faculty status] program as we wanted to phase people into retirement and then get them to retire, because we didn’t want a lot of 80-year-olds doddering around here trying to teach. Well, I’m 80 years old and I’m doddering around and I’m trying to teach, so I better do seminars and try and improve myself.” He smiles at the retelling.

Sue, his wife of 57 years, had a lot of influence on him as a teacher too. She taught grades two and three for several years, including some of the hardest teaching of all — substitute teaching. She served as a model for him. 

“She’s a superb teacher,” George says, “balances discipline and loving.”

“He’s a man of doing. And curious,” Sue says, “and that’s why he’s so good.” 

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