My Grinnell College Years

Grinnell College          Residence Halls

I was financially able to attend Grinnell College, 1957-1961, because of its awarding me a full-tuition George F. Baker Scholarship.[1]

The first semester of my freshman year at the College was an intimidating experience. I had excellent, demanding professors: Harold Fletcher for “Introduction to Political Science;”  “Freshman English” with Norman Springer; and “Modern European History” with Samuel Baron. To let the freshmen know how we were doing, we all were given mid-term exams and grades. As a 4.0 valedictorian of my small Iowa high school,[2] I was shocked to have a C+ average at the mid-term. I also was surprised when Professor Baron refused to grant me honors for an extra paper in the history course; afterwards I realized he was correct.

Norbert Weiner

I also was stunned that first semester at the College’s Convocation, “American Culture at Mid-Century,” to hear a speech by MIT cyberneticist, Norbert Weiner. He talked about the parallels he saw in the history of mathematics, on the one hand, and of music and art, on the other hand. This was something I had never imagined. Another speaker was Joseph Welch, the Boston lawyer for the Army in the 1954 McCarthy Hearings. Welch, I discovered, was a Grinnell alumnus (1914) from another small town in Iowa, but I was too timid to approach him with questions.[3]

Outside the classroom that first semester I was in awe of classmates from large, metropolitan high schools (New Trier High School in suburban Chicago was one) and from prep schools who had a much more sophisticated preparation for college and who had been overseas. Gradually I came to realize that those advantages did not automatically make for a better college student and that I could successfully compete with them academically.

By the end of the first semester of the freshman year, I studied harder and significantly improved my grades and made the Dean’s List. I maintained this performance through the rest of my time at Grinnell and was elected to Grinnell’s senior men’s honorary society (the Friars) as well as Phi Beta Kappa.

I majored in history with minors in economics and political science, and I especially recall the excellent teaching and passion for their subjects by Historians Al Jones and Richard Westfall in addition to those mentioned elsewhere. I also took advantage of the College’s Program in Practical Politics to have an internship in the summer of 1960 with the Democratic Party of Iowa.[4] At the time, there was a requirement for two years of a foreign language; I took two years of German. There were also requirements for at least two science courses. In all of these courses, I had excellent professors and always was glad to be at a small college where you developed real, positive relationships with your professors.

John Maynard Keynes
John Kenneth Galbraith

The academic highlight of my Grinnell years was the senior-year Seminar in Political Economy.  A group of 10 students joined Professors John Dawson, Robert Voertman and Philip Thomas from the Economics Department, Harold Fletcher from Political Science and Joseph Wall from History. Together we read John Maynard Keynes’ magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and a book by a Polish economist, Oskar Lange, The Economic Theory of Socialism. Another work on our agenda was Economics and Action by Pierre Mendes-France, the former French prime minister and a lecturer at Grinnell that semester.

In December 1960 I was chosen as one of 32 American Rhodes Scholars to go to the University of Oxford the following Fall which I will discuss in a separate posting. Just before this unexpected and thrilling honor, however, I had an embarrassing faux pas at the College’s special Boar’s Head Dinner. Modeled after such a dinner at Oxford’s Queen’s College, it featured a fake boar’s head brought into the dining hall on a silver platter by men dressed in red English garb and by special music from the men’s glee club (The Scarleteers). Before the dinner I had attended a cocktail party. At the dinner I felt the effects of the alcohol and just managed to rush to the kitchen where I vomited into an empty water pitcher. (When I returned to the College after the vacation, I was justly fined by the men’s governing council and chastised by the College President, Howard Bowen.)

My major extracurricular activity for my first three years of college was intercollegiate baseball. I was awarded a freshman numeral and letters for the other two years even though I was at best a mediocre player. When I returned for my 10th reunion, the baseball coach said that on the 1971 team I would be Mickey Mantle. This was a commentary on the poor quality of that year’s team, not my ability.

My sophomore year I was a member of the intercollegiate football squad, but I was not fast enough, tall enough or strong enough to have a real position. They tried me at offensive guard, but that meant I was supposed to block much bigger and stronger defensive tackles, something I could not do. I sat on the bench and played on the kickoff team. My accomplishment was lasting the season.

Otherwise I was a quiet, reserved student who was not well known on campus for the first two years. I still saw myself as an outsider.

I spent the next semester (the first of my junior year) on the Washington Semester Program at American University.[5] Enjoying life in a big city and spending time with students from other colleges from across the country boosted my confidence in my abilities to handle new and challenging situations.

Thus, when I returned to Grinnell for the second semester of my junior year, I decided to run for president of student government on a platform of our becoming involved in state and national policies and decisions affecting higher education. Foremost was going on record as opposed to the loyalty disclaimer affidavit for federal scholarships and loans and then advocating nationally for its repeal. I also suggested the student government should be concerned with the College’s admission policy and curriculum as well as changes in dormitory arrangements and adopting a student honor court and system. I won the election, 323 to 300. I then embarked upon one of the most rewarding experiences of my college days.

In the Fall of 1960, I welcomed the opportunity as president of student government to address the incoming freshmen class to let them know that they were an important part of this community going forward. I titled the speech “The Year of the Student.” After reviewing recent student protests around the world and the work of Grinnell’s student government, I challenged them. “Know thyself. Know, value, and honor freedom . . . . Accept others for what they are, accept non-conformists. Meet and get to know students from other lands. Forget exclusive thoughts of personal security and extend your horizons to include the international community of students and the whole world. Ask questions and seek answers. Do all that you can to make your and our education at Grinnell better and thus adopt your part of the burden in our national purpose, the pursuit of excellence.”

In my year as president, the student council adopted a resolution opposing the loyalty oath, and this action and the College’s refusal of funds under the National Defense Education Act of 1958 were recognized with an award from the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. We then advocated for repeal of the oath through letters to government officials, newspapers and other student governments and obtained a similar resolution from a meeting of the Midwest Conference student body presidents. Other important achievements were the following:

  • We formed a National Affairs Committee to coordinate various campus social-political action groups, to bring national issues before the student body and to take stands on such issues. This included study of our students’ interest in the Point-Four Youth Corps (later known as the Peace Corps).
  • We formed a Race Relations Committee to investigate problems encountered by American students taking part in “sit-down” strikes in the South; two members of that committee attended a national student conference on the “Sit-Down Movement.” We sponsored a rally to raise money for the Movement.
  •  We organized a new Faculty-Student Encampment to discuss issues at the College and make recommendations that resulted in the College’s purchase of a bus for student activities and the expansion of the recreation program and consideration of having a one-month reading period in the academic year.
  • We held a constitutional convention that, subject to approval by the College President and Trustees, substantially changed the structure of student government. During the convention, one of the speakers referred to me as “the passive voice” behind many of the suggested changes.

At the end of my year in office an editorial in the campus newspaper commended my “enthusiasm and true leadership qualities” and “the Krohnke spirit.” A columnist for the newspaper said, “A new spirit has entered Grinnell: a spirit of honest evaluation, constructive criticism, open-minded discussion, awareness of our good and bad points as Grinnellians and as people, and interest in the world beyond.” She attributed this new spirit, in part, to “an articulate and clear-thinking Student council president.”

The election of the next student council president started with a convention to select two candidates to run for the office. We had a time limit on nominating speeches. When one speaker had reached the limit, I said as the convention chair, “Just one more sentence.” The speaker was quick on the uptake; he kept talking with the repeated insertion of an emphatic “and” between what were clearly separate sentences. I had to chuckle in the background. Near the end of the convention, as the College annual for 1961 reported, one of the delegates stood and said that I had “done much for Grinnell by filling his office and filling it well.” The report continued, “A convention in standing ovation to our past president; here’s hoping we choose as wisely this time.”

On an October Saturday evening of 1958, after returning to the campus from an out-of-town football game, I went to the college union. I saw a group of freshmen women standing by the jukebox. I went over and asked one of them, a very attractive young woman, to dance. She accepted. Thus started my courtship of Mary Alyce. We dated for the rest of my time at the College. After her graduation in 1962, she came to England and found a research lab job in an Oxford hospital and an apartment with the fiancée of a Canadian Rhodes Scholar. In June 1963 after I finished my examinations, we were married at Oxford’s Manchester College Chapel.

[1] Post: Selecting a College (Aug. 10, 2011).

[2] Post: Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town (Aug. 23, 2011).

[3] Post: Adventures of a History Detective (April 5, 2011).

[4] Post: Encounters with Candidates JFK and LBJ (April 26, 2011).

[5] Post: The Washington Semester (July 11, 2011).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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