Sepia toned image of campus with only a few building and two women sitting on the lawn

Grinnell College History

The Future in the Past

Grinnell College’s history is not simply a nostalgic look back at the past — it is also a very real part of our present, breathing life into our mission and values today. An examination of our history offers us the opportunity to consider how it helped shape the present, affirming our core beliefs and how they live on at Grinnell today.

In his 1980 inaugural address, Grinnell College’s only alumnus-president, George Drake ’56, spoke of his vision of the “future in the past” — that the College’s pioneering history gave promise of a purposeful future.

His words inspired this look at how the Grinnell College of today continues to carry forward the ideals and inspiration that motivated the Grinnellians of the past.

  • Asa Turner

    Circa 1840

    Conceived and Sustained for the Common Good

    Congregational Minister Asa Turner settles in Iowa and writes a letter to his mission board in the East asking for missionaries to come to Iowa.


    “The College aims to graduate individuals … who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”

    Grinnell College mission

    The Future in the Past:

    Committed to the Common Good: Celebrating 175 Years of Grinnell College

  • George Magoun in the center of a group of faculty


    On the Cutting Edge of Scientific Inquiry

    Grinnell College President George Magoun (pictured center) is considered a “liberal” because he allows the teaching of evolution.


    “Our programs … prepare students to ask and answer scientific questions that nobody has even thought of yet.”

    Grinnell College Science Division Mission

    The Future in the Past:

    Grinnell Science Project Means Family

  • Hannibal Kershaw


    Hannibal Kershaw — Grinnell’s First Black Graduate

    Kershaw would later become a teacher, minister, and a South Carolina legislator. According to the Iowa College News Letter, Kershaw is “an earnest, conscientious student, a fluent society speaker, and a man whom all respected for his high moral and religious character.”

  • Several onlookers view two stories of a wrecked brick building that lies next to an enourmous pile of rubble


    Cyclone Brings Destruction, Unites Community

    On the evening of June 17, 1882, two tornadoes converge upon Grinnell, leaving wreckage where homes and businesses had been just a few minutes earlier. Thirty-nine people die, including two Grinnell College students. Both of Grinnell College’s major buildings are destroyed. Thanks in part to the leadership of J.B. Grinnell, community founder and prominent abolitionist, Grinnellians from both town and college come together to rebuild stronger than before.


    “It’s been really awesome to watch what I always knew was here in Grinnell — the great community spirit and caring for each other.”

    Sarah Smith, Grinnell College director of outreach programs and events, on the inspiring community response to the August 2020 derecho, which caused $2 million in damage to campus buildings and trees

    The Future in the Past:

    “It Kept Getting More Intense”

  • Historic black and white photo of Mears Cottage with women sitting on the porch, steps and lawn


    Toward Equal Education for All

    Mears Cottage, one of the first women’s dormitories at any college west of the Mississippi, is built and named for Mary Grinnell Mears, an 1881 graduate. Grinnell is one of the first colleges in the nation to admit women to the bachelor of arts degree.

  • First issue of the Scarlet and Black, Iowa College, dateline Grinnell, Iowa, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 1894


    First Issue of ‘The Scarlet & Black‘ Is Published

    The Scarlet & Black, Grinnell’s student newspaper, begins printing semi-weekly with campus news, meeting notices, alumni notes, editorials, and a bit of local news.


    “Since its first publication … The Scarlet & Black has served as a vital source of up-to-date news on campus, an important record of our institution, and a rich historical resource.”

    The Scarlet & Black digital archive

    The Future in the Past:

    The Scarlet & Black official website

  • blank and white photo of students outside, the men in suits and the women in long dresses and boaters


    Gates Codifies Student Self-Governance

    President George Gates declares, “It is 10,000 times better that young people should learn to govern themselves, than that they should be governed in any best way whatsoever.”

  • John Main


    Working for the Common Good

    President John Hanson Thomas Main champions forward-looking ideals and encourages Grinnellians to focus on work that effectively contributes to the good of all. “If the end of life is service, as we believe, it is the duty of the College to do more than hold up an idea of service,” he said at his 1906 inauguration.


    “This legacy of social justice and activism dates back more than 170 years, and with you involved, we can keep it going strong. … Step forward and be a part of the solution.”

    Grinnell College Office of Admission

    The Future in the Past:

    Let’s Embrace the Future Together

  • An older Joseph Welch stands at a desk


    Joseph Welch Graduates

    Joseph Welch would go on to challenge McCarthyism in 1954 when he asks, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” during a nationally televised congressional hearing. It is the beginning of the end for McCarthyism.

  • Edward A. Steiner


    Edward Steiner Publishes ‘The Grinnell Spirit’

    Grinnell Professor of Applied Christianity Edward A. Steiner had served on the faculty for 38 years and remains one of the College’s most published faculty members. In this essay, he writes that students “come to Grinnell not because it is a college, but because it is Grinnell College; not only because they want to learn how to make a living, but because they want to fit themselves for life.”

  • Morgan Taylor in his track uniform with the Honor G on the chest


    Morgan Taylor Wins Olympic Gold

    Morgan Taylor ’26 wins the gold medal in the hurdles at the Olympics in Paris. He also wins gold and bronze medals in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics.


    “Imagine my surprise when I found out … that I’d be holding the flag.”

    Grinnell swimmer Joshua Tibatemwa ’19, who competed for Uganda at the 2016 Olympics

    The Future in the Past:

    Cyclist Christine Thorburn M.D. ’92 Competes in 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games

  • Gary Cooper, arms akimbo, speaking to an older woman, with others behind a temporary fence in the background


    Gary Cooper Fails Audition

    As a student at Grinnell, Frank Cooper ’26 fails his audition and is denied membership in the Grinnell Drama Club. Later, in Hollywood, Cooper changes his name to Gary and wins three Academy Awards during a remarkable 35-year career as an actor.

  • Harry Hopkins


    Grinnellians Help Craft the New Deal

    Harry Hopkins 1912, chief adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serves as commissioner of the Works Progress Administration, secretary of commerce, and later as special assistant to the president during World War II. Other Grinnellians who play a major role in FDR’s New Deal include Paul Appleby 1913, Hallie Flanagan Davis 1911, Florence Stewart Kerr 1912, and Chester Davis 1911.

  • Edith Renfrow as a young woman


    A True Grinnellian

    Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 becomes Grinnell College’s first Black woman graduate when she earns her degree in 1937.


    “I would hope that we would always want to do things in the spirit of Edith Renfrow Smith — to lead with kindness, to lead with self-respect, to lead with a sense that you can be a part of a small town and still make a big impact.”

    Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Louise R. Noun Chair in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

    The Future in the Past:

    New Residence Hall Naming Honors Edith Renfrow Smith

  • John Nollen


    President John Nollen Publishes ‘Grinnell College’

    John Nollen had served as Grinnell’s fifth president after stints as a professor of modern languages and later dean. Friend and fellow Grinnell president John H.T. Main says, “He is sane, easily approached, sympathetic, and quick to appreciate in difficult situations the exact thing to do.” Nollen’s history of Grinnell College is published one year after his death.

  • Howard Bowen at a table flanked by two men


    Grinnell Reaffirms Commitment to Students and the Common Good

    In his inaugural address, President Howard Bowen tells Grinnellians that they bear a special responsibility to find new ways to work for the common good. “One of the special tasks of the small liberal arts colleges like Grinnell [is] to help keep this freedom alive.”


    In 2021, Grinnell eliminated loans from its financial aid, reinforcing its long-held commitment to creating a diverse community. “The commitment to meet need ensures that access to Grinnell is met by the opportunity to walk into new student orientation and across the Commencement stage without the burden of looming educational indebtedness.”

    Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid

    The Future in the Past:

    Grinnellians Contribute to the Common Good during the Coronavirus Pandemic

  • Herbie Hancock sitting on a piano in the Forum


    Herbie Hancock Makes Music and Memories

    Herbie Hancock ’60, an Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician and composer, also has an interest in electrical engineering while a student at Grinnell.

  • Robert Noyce in academic regalia


    Robert N. Noyce Joins the Board of Trustees

    A physicist and entrepreneur, Robert Noyce ’49 co-founded Intel Corp. and co-invented the integrated circuit, launching a high-tech revolution.

  • MLK at podium in Darby Gymnasium


    Martin Luther King Jr. Addresses Campus

    Martin Luther King Jr. presents “Remaining Awake During a Revolution,” speaking to more than 4,000 people in a packed Darby Gymnasium.


    “We need to be visionary organizers. We can’t just protest and expect those in power to do things for us. We have to be doing things for ourselves and envisioning the kind of future we want to create.”

    Grace Lee Boggs, 98-year-old civil rights activist, speaking on campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2013

    The Future in the Past:

    Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 Black Women’s Library Makes Debut

  • Warren Buffett at the 2015 Select USA Investment Summit


    Warren Buffett Joins the Board of Trustees

    Legendary investor Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha, serves on the Grinnell Board of Trustees in the 1970s. His investment expertise helps build the College’s investments and endowment. 

  • John Garang


    John Garang de Mabior Graduates

    Visionary leader John Garang de Mabior ’69 serves as vice president of Sudan and commander-in-chief of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Later, in 2005, he will die in a helicopter crash.

  • Joe Rosenfield


    Joe Rosenfield Jumpstarts the Grinnell Endowment

    Trustee Joe Rosenfield ’25 encourages the Grinnell Board of Trustees to purchase WDTN-TV in Dayton, Ohio. Although previously unheard-of investment for a college, the board’s trust in Rosenfield and Trustee Warren Buffett is such that they approve the purchase, with a price tag of $12.9 million. Less than a decade later, Grinnell will sell WDTN for $49 million.


    “Grinnell was the first place where strangers were genuinely invested in my success. Nobody hides opportunities from anyone, and the College puts its endowment to good use.”

    Evaan Ahmed ’23

    The Future in the Past:

    Financial Aid Without Loans

  • George Drake


    Friend, Mentor, President

    George Drake ’56, professor of history and Rhodes Scholar, is named president of the College. Until his death in 2022, he remains president emeritus and professor emeritus as well as a popular figure on campus.


    “George Drake was a good listener. He genuinely engaged with each person, asking questions that allowed him to get to know them and allowed them to feel heard.”

    Melanie Drake ’92, writing about her late father in The Grinnell Magazine, 2023

    The Future in the Past:

    Portrait of a Teacher

  • Steve Jobs holding early iPhone


    Steve Jobs Joins the Board of Trustees

    Apple founder Steve Jobs joins the Grinnell Board of Trustees at age 25 at the urging of his friend Robert N. Noyce ’49. He will serve on the board for eight years, focusing on finances and improving the College’s computer systems.

  • May-lee Chai


    May-Lee Chai Graduates

    May-Lee Chai ’89, an acclaimed novelist and teacher, is the author of My Lucky Face and The Girl from Purple Mountain. She will win the American Book Award for her collection of short stories, Useful Phrases for Immigrants.

  • Pamela Ferguson sitting on short wall with North Campus in background


    Championing a Multicultural Society

    At her inauguration on October 12, 1991, President Pamela Ferguson says, “Just as we would have a ‘global literacy,’ so we should have a ‘multi-ethnic literacy’ operating within the confines of our campuses. These two are components of what a multicultural education should mean.”


    “Grinnell has always been on the right side of history. After all, we are a school founded by abolitionists. … This is a legacy and heritage we must hold onto so we can continue to fight to remain on the right side of history today, and tomorrow.”

    Lester Alemán ’07, former Alumni Council president

    The Future in the Past:

    The Grinnells: Six Ways the College and Community Get Better Together

  • Al Jones


    Alan Jones Publishes ‘Pioneering’

    Alan Jones ’50, a Grinnell alumnus and acclaimed faculty member and historian, publishes this book in honor of Grinnell’s sesquicentennial celebration. Pioneering: 1846–1996 documents the College’s history in photographs and engaging historical vignettes.

  • Joe Wall


    Joseph Wall Publishes ‘Grinnell College in the 19th Century: From Salvation to Service’

    Joseph F. Wall ’41, a Grinnell graduate, faculty member, and nationally recognized historian, publishes this engaging history of his alma mater in honor of the College’s sesquicentennial.

  • Tom Cech


    Thomas R. Cech Joins the Board of Trustees

    Nobel Prize–winner Tom Cech ’70 discovered catalytic RNA and changed the paradigm of molecular biology. He serves as a Grinnell trustee from 1998–2014, and he and his wife Carol Martinson Cech ’70 will create a research scholarship to support underrepresented science majors at Grinnell through summer research projects.

  • Russell Osgood on a glassed in balcony overlooking a central courtyard


    Focus on Community

    President Russell K. Osgood, who assumed the presidency in 1998, says he viewed his job as helping students, parents, faculty, and staff. “That’s the terrific part of my job,” he tells the Grinnell Herald-Register.


    “The Grinnell sense of community extends beyond the cornfields. It is about the people, their mindset, and attitudes, about the shared lived experience.”

    — Misha Gelnarová ’18


    The Future in the Past:

    Community is Our Strength

  • Chase Strangio


    Chase Strangio Graduates from Grinnell

    ACLU attorney Chase Strangio ’04 is deputy director for transgender justice with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project and a nationally recognized expert on transgender rights.

  • Raynard Kington at Herrick Chapel podium


    Serving the Common Good

    In his inaugural address, President Raynard S. Kington — Grinnell’s first Black president and its first gay president — says that in the future, Grinnell College would likely be called upon to do more for the common good. “We may have an even greater obligation to find innovative ways to expand access to disadvantaged students, as public options become less accessible.”

  • Anne Harris and a circle of students sit on the lawn talking together


    Grinnell College Eliminates Loans from Financial Aid Packages

    “Grinnell is deeply committed to preserving access to the transformative experience of a liberal arts education,” says Grinnell College President Anne F. Harris.

  • Joseph and Beatrice Wall


    Beatrice and Joseph Wall Publish ‘Grinnell College in the 20th Century’

    The College posthumously published a history of Grinnell written by Beatrice Mills Wall ’40 and husband Joseph F. Wall ’41, with editor Terry Bisson ’64. The book explores the themes that were important to Grinnell College from 1900­–75.

  • President Anne Hzarris speaking at her inauguration


    Anne F. Harris Is Inaugurated as President of Grinnell College

    At her inaugural celebration, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, President Anne F. Harris tells the audience, gathered on Central Campus, “We are like a democracy, simultaneously inhabitants and stewards of this College: as we live and work here, we shape the shared experiences and thus the future of this College and the society it shapes.”

  • a view of North Campus at sunset with blue sky and orange and yellow clouds


    Grant Funding Resurges

    “Part of what’s been exciting about the growth in grants over the past 10 years has been the nature of the grants themselves,” says Susan Ferrari, director of corporate, foundation, and government relations. “We’re not just getting more grants — we’re getting grants in areas that are new for the College.” A few of these have included the Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Grants, the NSF Early Faculty Development Award, and the Mellon New Directions Fellowship.

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